The stairs up to Batu caves had felt easier the second time. Hatshepsut had struggled but had never waned. Her fighting spirit and determination were wonderful to watch as we completed the climb. The caves offered a small, close and intimate insight into aspects of Hindu culture. The candle was purchased, lit and placed alongside the candles of those who had visited before us. We watched with large curious eyes as babies were handed to ‘holy men’ wrapped in cloth, who spoke special words into their ears and then rubbed a dusty powder onto their foreheads. Babies could be heard as they yelled from different parts of the cave and the closest one to us exercised his or her lungs to celebrate the return to its mothers’ arms.
We moved around embracing the smell of incense within the coolness of the evening which touched the faces of locals and expats alike. It was that funny time of year, that week between the celebration of Christmas and the new year where all days feel like ‘week endings’ and there is no need to check for tomorrow is yet another ‘holiday’. The ease of our exploration was simply part of an already chilled spiritual experience. One of the holy men who was arranging the flowers had called us over. We had not paid for a reading but he wanted to see us up close anyhow. We complied and walked to where he sat. He looked at us both, from one to the other with that look that passes the eyes and heads straight for the soul. He didn’t say anything but simply put a fingerprint of the special dust on each of our foreheads with a smile that said we may leave. Sitting close by on the floor for a few minutes, we let the experience seep in. It was an opportunity to just be which we both welcomed.
As we descended the cave, we spotted a dark-skinned photographer at ground level. His camera on a tripod and he with the air of an enthusiastic amateur trying to position himself well for the best shots. With her new eyes and my seasoned eyes, it was hard to decipher if he were Asian or African. We wondered if he were African, would he be part of the large Nigerian population who had made Malaysia their home or might he be from the Caribbean? It had been fun playing this game of identity. In my years on this land, I had discovered just how complex this could be and, especially after I was so used to the old tried and tested methods of diversity and labeling in the UK. I knew that my old friend Elanor’s wise words often came to mind for her challenge to me that there were only 7 facial types in the world had begun to make sense now. Physiognomy was very real here as I saw Chinese, Indian and Malay people with the same features as my family and friends. The secret was out and we really were connected.
‘Do you think he’s black ?’, Hatty asked. I looked at her knowing that I now hear that question in different ways. To unpack it or not with her was the question to myself. I decided not to.
‘He may be from Africa’, I surmised due to his beautiful black blue skin. I didn’t want to commit though as I had seen ‘Asian’ men with this skin tone too. His cap hid his eyes but his face and hands were that dark smooth chocolate color.
As we walked closer I decided to approach him. Something said go for it
Hi, what camera are you using? I asked casually and confidently. As a trained photographer, it was a conversation topic I was able to engage with.
His smile was warm and it included Hatty and myself in its acknowledgment. I heard his accent before his answer.
It’s a canon…
‘Wait! You’re a Jamaica’, I squealed. It was the sweet Jamaican accent that those born there have. The one that some of us from the UK, develop who live there long enough or we try hard to imitate. The one that reminds you of fresh ackee, breadfruit, June plums and genip, that is blue and clear like the Caribbean sea herself.
Whaaaaaaa! He smiled. I was wondering as you were coming down the stairs. I wasn’t sure if I should ask though’, he said apologetically.
‘We were wondering too’, I said
We moved from strangers to reacquainting cousins. He was from St Catherine where members of my family had built their homes. Friends too had relocated to St Catherine. I had even lived in St Catherine for a short while.
‘What brings you to Malaysia?’, I enquired
‘ I am teaching in Uzbekistan and just took a vacation’, he answered casually
‘Seriously?’, I asked probably sounding a little too surprised
‘Yeah Man!’, he confirmed
‘You know I was offered a senior position there and I turned it down when I saw the -41 degrees on the day that the offer letter was emailed!’
We both laughed
‘Yes, I hear you. When it’s -10, it feels warm’. His reflective look told me that he had seen many freezing cold days.
‘Buoy! Me couldn’t do it. I choose not to take that gig’, I added
We laughed again. It was the same company who had interviewed and pursued me for many months. I had been working in Ghana at the time so they had been very unlucky. I may have considered it had I been in the cold UK. The international education employment world is so small.
‘Sister, I have a one-year-old and whilst it hard, the money is decent and I can see it through this year. After that, I am moving on’. He sounded ready to go
‘I hear that. Me couldn’t do it but I hear that’ I reconfirmed
‘Whats your discipline’ I enquired
‘I teach Maths’, he stated
‘Cool. You can get something almost everywhere. Maths teachers are always in demand’
Yes. Ah, so me see! I just don’t fancy moving too too much. I was in China before’
‘How was that ?’. I asked. I had heard things about China which made it unattractive
‘Pretty cool aside from the overt racism. It never pretty!’, he laughed
‘I hear it can be extreme’ I responded
‘Yes, my sister. Man wid his hand in my chest telling me I must leave his country! He laughed again.
I felt sad that my brother had those experiences. We talked some more and Hatty stood listening to these two black expats.
I was sat next to the waterfall and you asked,
Have you traced your ancestors?
I haven’t’ I answered quietly. I had planned to.
‘Why not?’. His directness unnerved me. Ghanaians were not so direct. I had no answer. I had planned to do it but it just hadn’t happened…yet.
‘You must do it! You must know where you are from’. He was persistent. I didn’t respond.
The reader said I was a medicine woman. Healing people who didn’t want to be healed. From one of the Chinese dynasties in a former life. Nothing seemed impossible now. Many had died as they wouldn’t take the medicine I had recommended.
By the way, whats your name? he asked. We laughed again as we had bypassed all formalities once we heard and saw the Jamaican connection.
Wow! A real African name! I want to get one too!’. He was excited.’What does it mean?’
It’s my middle name and means Love brings happiness. My first name means ‘Sunday born’.
‘And were you…born on a Sunday?’, he asked cautiously.
‘I was’. I smiled at his excitement and naivety. I remembered those of us who had taken names which did not reflect us. We had just wanted African names and a sense of belonging.
‘Whats your name? I asked
‘It’s Jonathan but people call me Pete. I should have an African name don’t it?’ he sounded apologetic.
‘Of course not. Everybody has to travel their own journey’, I said as his shoulders relaxed. ‘Here is my business card Pete. Keep in touch
‘For sure! I shall tell my wife we met. She’ll be so excited!
We hugged and Hatty and I left. Walking to the station, I thought about us black expats around the world and the daily negotiations we faced in our new spaces. He was the first Jamaican I had met here in Malaysia. Everyone can relate to that bond when you meet a fellow citizen from your home or parents hometown. There is the added specialness of being a Jamaican in a world where everyone knows that place.
The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored. Please don’t take it personally.