Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Health

Black Expat Stories – Eating Durian in Malaysia (what was all the fuss about)

Just do it! Yes, I know it’s the Nike strapline but it dawned on me that its success had come from the fact that it was true! There are things which we take far too look to make a decision on and yes, I know about all of those sayings including the one that says that nothing happens before its time.  I had not tasted Durian in Malaysia,  even though 24 months had already gone by since I first moved to live and work in South East Asia.  With the pungent smell that overpowered everything around it, that for me had a big turn off.  Its offense was so indignant,  that it was banned in hotels and many condominiums. That had been enough for me to refuse every invitation to ‘Durian eating sessions’. I had given into my fear of this strange fruit which others seemed to be happily enjoying with no lasting consequences or illness. You know that I had checked!!!

Walking through Penang after a day of consulting in schools, it was easy to feel motivated around Azinah though. Her loving and sweet personality had us chatting and laughing at the ease and delights of this part of Malaysia. When she asked

Would you like to join me for Durian ?’ in that happy jovial Azinah way, my natural reply of ‘why not’ made total sense. I let my mood dictate my openness to this adventure for her energy was always so pure and kind.

Have you had it before ?’, she asked as we entered the store

I haven’t’, I admitted, a little embarrassed.

This store we entered sold nothing but Durian. The aesthetics were not important here.  The café style tables and chairs were plastic and very basic.  The Durian fruit and Durian products were scattered on the shelves but it was safe to say that all overheads had been kept to a minimum. It was not so much a store as an open space with some Durians on a rack, a sink where you could wash your hands and table and chairs.

The young man at the door looked as if he’d been on shift all day. He was not kind to my many questions about why the Durian came in different shades of yellow or why it was so expensive (equivalent to 20 British pounds) or what the health benefits were. Whilst Azinah giggled at the blatant curiosity of this expat, he simply stopped answering for he was not about to be my Wikipedia for the day. Didn’t he understand that I still thrived on human interaction and to be honest, I thought his answers would be more authentic than Wikipedias. We opted for what was the king durian and as there was no queen durian.  Having made out purchase, we sat down ready!

I looked over at the table of eight men and women who ranged from dark to light shades. They were also sharing the experience of durian eating.  I could hear Asian and European accents.  The fear on my face must have been evident.

Is it your first time? , one of the men asked

It is!!! Answered I, the virgin Durian eater

You’ll be alright. It really isn’t that bad!!!!. He reassured me as he returned to his group.

 

I smiled and wondered why there were no beautiful pictures or some degree of distraction for us over emotional and sensitive types! As I sat in front of Azinah, I asked her to record this coming of age experience in Malaysia for it was time!

 

The bright sunshine, Azinah’s smile and the laughter from the other table, all helped to diffuse the pungent smell. The first taste was mild. Incredibly mild compared to the smell.  I was waiting for the taste to knock me down or to at least throw me from my seat and a little way from the table. It didn’t do any of that. The texture reminded me of freshly made butter. Incredibly rich and creamy. The fruit slid from the seed into my mouth with so much ease. The richness of the texture made eating large amounts impossible. It had to be taken a small mouthful at a time and  I closed my eyes and swallowed the rich, slightly pungent tasting fruit. It was however not offensive. I had tasted grapefruits in the UK which had me twisting, and resisting the next segment. In this case, the smell soon disappeared and the specialness of the fruit lingered. I ate another piece and found that I liked this strange fruit. I liked that it was warm and comforting and strangely familiar.

My husband hates it so I have to eat it outside,   Azinah explained.  She smiled all the time, what seemed to be a genuine and love filled smile. I wondered if there were things her husband ate or did which she didn’t like.  Did she have space to also express or to object? So many of the women I had met here, were warriors. just like other women. I had stopped letting the smile and hijab fool me in any way.

One of the men from the other table joined us. He had a German accent. He had come to see if I had survived the ordeal for he had been watching me.

How was it? my new friend enquired

It was fine, I smiled still eating small pieces.  Have you finished yours?

No, I didn’t take any today. I’ve had it before…my friends wanted to come.

Ahh. So you just accompanied them?, I asked

Yes. I don’t like it that much anyhow. He admitted

I understand, I said, eating the last of my own supply. It had begun to grow on me

He sat with us for a few minutes and then wished us a good evening as he returned to his group.  They were still laughing and discussing the experience.

Azinah and I had planned to take some back but our plates were empty and we remembered that it was banned in the hotel. Having had such a great afternoon, I wondered what had all the fuss really been about anyway. I shall certainly eat Durian again!

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

The Black Expat Stories – African Women (Like me) do climb mountains

 

A bucket list wasn’t for me. I was either going to do it or I wasn’t! “Yes, I’ll add that to my bucket list, and that, and oh yes, that too!”, they say! A list that will go into a draw, maybe next to their will and some poor soul will find it when they have transitioned.
In Ghana, I simply asked if I could join in the climb. It was being organized by one of my colleagues’ professors and it afforded me the opportunity to meet Ghanaian intellectuals and to climb a mountain. Both were of interest. Mount Afadjato is one of the highest mountains in Ghana’s Volta region and the guide Joey took us to the summit and back down in one day.

 
In the UK when I had first accepted that I would be moving to work abroad, mountains and hills had become symbolic for overcoming challenges. Up until that point, I had been a seasonal exerciser where the long spring and summer months would find me walking for hours, bike riding and jogging. The winters would come along and it was easy to revert to eating a certain brand of apple pie and custard in front of the TV huddled under the quilt with my children. My spirit knew that the energy I needed to relocate, was going to take a sustained effort of exercise and healthy eating. And so it began. I wrapped up warm and found hills to climb, parks to exercise in and streets to jog along. The move was hard but made possible by a stronger healthier mind, body, and spirit.

 
The party of four of us who completed the climb up Mount Afadjato were all fit and the professor was practicing for her climb of Mount Kilimanjaro later that year in her efforts to fundraise for a project that documented the stories of the elderly in Ghana. The climb itself was exciting as we navigated the forest terrain. The funniest part must have been meeting the locals at the top who were sitting and talking. They looked at us as we celebrated and congratulated one another on our achievements. It was more a sneer than just a look for, they probably walked this mountain every day to their farm, or to somebody else’s! They saw no need for celebration! As Ghanaians say, ‘I didn’t mind them!’. No one was taking away this victory from us and I changed there and then to take photographs of me holding yoga poses to honor the mountain and myself.

 

 

My second big climb up Mount Kinabalu was different. There was no one there to meet us for no life sat on or close to that hard rocky surface. The last four hours of the climb had taken place in the dark with nothing but head torches to guide us. The ropes had been strategically placed alongside the stairs and rock edges and it felt as if every ounce of energy, had been diverted to my arms to pull me up. At this point, my legs felt oh so heavy and were barely holding me up. I didn’t recognize my body and why would I? I had never climbed for two days. The altitude affected my breathing and I found myself stopping, at points wondering if I would even make it to the summit.
There were no friends here and the work colleagues had gone their own way as my need to stop, to gauge the risk versus the triumph of continuing, had bought out the survivor mode in them. It was definitely every wo/man (or couple) for themselves.

Whatever happened, we would meet back at the halfway house.

The first part of the hike had been fine. Each stop had made restarting difficult for a rhythm and a momentum had already built up. The rest stops, lunch stops and toilet stops allowed the muscles to cool down and the steeper the hill became, the tighter the calves and thighs were. We kept stretching but they were holding in that lactic acid.


I had worn my blue headscarf on the morning of the climb to the summit.  This had come with me from Ghana and was a simple blue tie-dye print in satin and very similar to those found in Malaysia. In the last hour of the climb, the wind and cold became so intense, reminding me of the coldest harshest winter days in the UK. I placed my wool gloves over my mouth and cheeks to generate some heat. Tying my bandana over my mouth was fruitless for, no sooner had I tied it, that I would have to release it. That feeling of suffocation!  It was a mad situation so placing my hands on my face, provided some temporary relief and then I could go on.

 

 

 

The intensity of the climb increased as we drew closer to the summit. I had packed cloth for every leg of this climb. A fellow climber had asked me where I was from! He had seen my ‘ethnic cloth! It had been a short conversation beginning with ‘Where are you from?’.  As the cold increased, I wrapped the cotton headcloth over the satin one, grateful that I had packed it for at 2 am, having slept very little in a dormitory of 6 beds with my colleague on the bunk above, clearly unable to control his flatulence problem, meant that I wasn’t too sure what I was doing. There was a reason my spirit had wanted me to be on the top bunk! The smells wafted down and there was nowhere to turn so it was a very long night.

 

As I climbed towards the summit,  the winds increased.  I wrapped the cotton cloth over the satin scarf. The sunrise revealed the extent of the vast open space which I had just climbed. I met two of the couples descending as I approached the summit and although we were only five minutes apart, they were descending as I was going up. We stopped and shared how nausea had us feeling that we might just not make it. I climbed to the top where I stopped, watching others take their photographs with the sign and taking in the magnitude of what I had just achieved.

 

I had passed younger, fitter, taller people than myself who had stopped 10 minutes away, telling themselves they could not go any further. They looked healthier than me. I too had spun myself that lie and then I had flipped the script. I had come here to reach the top and I did! The sun had risen.

 

Back at the half-way house, we ate breakfast as it was only 10 am. It was 10 am and I had just climbed a mountain!  It was an amazing if unbelievable feeling.  We drank tea, ate breakfast and repacked for the final leg of the journey.  The climb had taken so much out of me. I wasn’t sure that I had enough leg to navigate the descent.

 

As we left, I decided to leave the others behind and walked the four hours walk alone out of the forest. My knees were hurting and I realized I would need focus, concentration, and energy to leave the forest. All the qualities and skills that I had needed to successfully arrive at the summit.  I had been told that Mount Kinabalu was a spiritual space. In between feeling the pain and soreness of my ankles, thighs, and shoulders, my knees began to hurt further. I saw monkeys, ladies in threes, crocodiles and old men watching me. As I looked back or came close, they were no longer there.

My flight was three hours delayed.

No one tells you about the spiritual, psychological and physiological impact of such a climb..but that’s for another story. The image of me standing on the mountain is my story. My headwrap is what people noticed and as I studied the image, which confirmed that women who look like me, do climb mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

For information on expeditions, you can contact

Ghana :Dziedzorm JayJay Segbefia
dziedzorm@braveheartsexpeditions.org

Malaysia: Clement@trulysabah.com
0060146510218

The Black Expat Stories- Taxi Journey lamentations

As he typed his what’s app message. I looked over his shoulder. I wanted to ask him not to do this whilst he had a passenger. Whilst he should be focused on the road ahead. I decided not to. The last driver had told me I only had a 3.8 score. I was busy looking for my keys which I had lost once already that week.

I looked up and agreed vaguely with him.

Do you understand what this means?

I don’t…sorry…what? I continued to search for my keys. I had no idea what the protocol was if keys were left in these Uber taxis and I didn’t want to find out today.

You have a 3.8. score. As a friend, I have to tell you that your Uber account won’t work in the states or the UK with a score of less than 4.00

Score? What do you mean? Friend???

The drivers score you when you ride in their cars

I stopped. He now had my full attention.

That night I had been so scared. I had been in the country for less than a month and had been using the buses. It was easy, cheap and no matter what the bus driver thought of me, we all paid the same fare. Taxis’ were a whole different story and with no idea of the city layout, public transportation became my preferred method of travel. It was a fact that the bus drivers did not always stick to the route yet the fare would not change. With a taxi driver, them going off route could make a big difference.  Questioning a taxi driver over a 10 ringgit fare which had gone past 35 ringgits. resulted in my being thrown out! I learned then that Malaysian taxi drivers do not like to be challenged. Granted, this was before I discovered Uber and Grab.

Taking the buses, and then walking had meant another challenge as I was stopped by the police on the days when I wore my Nigerian or Ghanaian head wraps.  A long-held cultural, fashion and personal style that I had no intention of giving up became an excuse for the police to interrogate me. It was a pain I had experienced many times in a country with its numerous overt prejudices. Once they heard my UK accent, they always stopped asking for my passport or what job I was doing there. It seemed that none of that mattered once they established that I was English. I learned quickly that life was a matter of ongoing negotiations in this new space.

The driver messaged to say ‘I am here’ but I couldn’t see him or the green car described on the app. There were so many cars pulling up but definitely no green one. Here where? Around the corner came his response. I was tense and didn’t want to walk around the corner into a dark road. I so wished I had canceled and just gone home after work! I messaged asking him to come to the KFC where the road was well lit. He replied ‘Just two minutes around the corner’. I could feel my anxiety levels risings and by the time I found and sat down in the car. I was a nervous shaking wreck. My evening activities were limited and I realized how vulnerable I felt out by myself once the sun had set. The show I was going to see needed to be good! It was a recommendation from my friend in the UK which I was so wishing I had passed on.

Why didn’t you come to the KFC? I asked on entering the small car.

One way. One way! was his response.

So you could have come up the one way, I retorted in a less than pleasant tone.

Ok! Ok!

It was a ‘you’re in the car now, so shut the fuck up ok!

What do you mean? I asked responding to my interpretation of what I had heard.

He didn’t answer.

The journey took around five minutes and I imagined a horrible ending. What did Uber drivers do with angry or anxious customers? We pulled into the mall carpark.

Let me out I said once I recognized where I was.

What here? His English returned and he was annoyed for he was about to park

Yes, right here! I said, paying him and slamming the door behind me. I headed towards the Library where the performance was scheduled to take place.

You need see doctor! You are mad. Shouldn’t be allowed on the street was the SMS which came through. It took a few minutes before I connected that this was the driver. On that night, he may have been closer to the truth than I dare to admit. But regardless, what right did he have to send me that message! I reckon that we are all mad anyhow. It just depended on who labeled it as madness or as creativity or genius. Jack Nicolson in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest was just a great critique of the hypocrisy that exists around madness and remains a favorite movie of mine.

I contacted Uber who assured me they would warn him not to do this again.

They could not, however, ask him to apologize.

Yes, you need to keep your score above 4.

I felt straight jacketed after that. As I leave the Uber or Grab rides now, they all say, give me high scores. Even when drivers speak on their phones, answer what’s app messages and get me lost (with the GPS directing them) I still leave them the highest score. They are under pressure to maintain a high score as are the passengers to receive them.

The world of constant feedback and monitoring has escalated. I hear young people talking about how many ‘likes’ or views they have received on social media. The pressure to be popular, to be always smiling and having a great life is on full throttle. So many school teachers judge their new students on what previous teachers have written. I know that there isn’t always time to get to know all of their students so they rely on other’s  judgments. Teachers, Taxi drivers, and users of social media are all affected by other peoples comments.  Social media responses have resulted in Adults and Children committing suicide as the pressure creates unnatural expectations based on these totally subjective views.

I ask myself if real stories exist anymore with all of this pressure? It seems they are rare. I decided that I may just need this account somewhere else where I live or travel to.  There are also alternative means of transportation which I am not ruling out.  For now, though,  my score has gone up to 4.5!

The Black Expat stories – In search of plantain

I realized how low I was feeling as I sat at the bus stop watching the young college students. It was the time of the day where there was a lull.  The afternoon school session had ended and the workday rush had not yet begun. At 5 pm, I knew I was cutting it fine as I walked up the road to the stall. It was closed. This was my third attempt in three weeks and each time the stall had been covered over. I wondered if the trader had moved on.

I had not formed a great relationship with him. The men at the coconut stall were friendlier. They were bad boys after all and although now in their 50s and 60s, the free spirit bad girl in me, connected with them. They were always chatty and pleasant and allowed me to have coconut water in those few days when I had changed bags and left my purse at home. The owner would tell his assistants, ‘she is my good customer…comes all the time’. Some evenings, I had stopped there just to revel in the thrill of watching the men play their board games. Their bodies swayed as they weighed up the opposition, cigarette smoke hanging over them, suspended until, bang! Down would go the piece they had played, which was often followed by laughter, shouting and then silence again as the next player repeated the same process. It reminded me of the big men who played dominoes at the Christmas gatherings, weddings, and christenings, I had attended as a child. I never quite got why they banged the pieces or made so much noise but I did get that the socializing and comradery that came with playing, was always more important than winning. Here the noise level was about the same.

This man, however, insisted on short-changing me every time. He had a limp and a funny mouth. I wondered if he may have suffered a stroke at some point. He usually had to stop our proceedings to cough at length, sounding like he had bronchitis or a chest infection. He would always return my change 5 or 10 ringgit short. I had started simply standing there with my hand holding what change he had given me. The gently bang on his head which he administered, resulted in him going back to the till and returning with my balance. Maybe he was knocking sense into self! No, we were not great friends but he was the only one who sold plantain in walking distance from where I lived, and he was who I wanted to see today.

As I sat at the bus stop, too forlorn to walk back and allowing myself to indulge in this overreaction that only a plantain loving person could relate to, a Malay woman approached me. She was smiling and I knew she was going to say something about my hair.

‘Where did you get your hair done?’, she asked

‘Sorry?’, I looked at her before answering. After all, she was fully covered and I had made a lot of assumptions.

‘Where did you get your hair done? I want to do mine!

‘Sorry…? I was repeating myself!  I could hear her words yet her full covering and question did not make any sense to me. I knew that Muslims in Malaysia were more liberal than other interpretations of Islam I had experienced, but still, I was confused. She saw my confusion.

‘Yes, I’ve had it done before and I love it!’ she said “Even when it hurts’. She was clearly excited at the prospect of doing it again.

‘Sorry?’ I could feel myself repeating the same response but I seriously could not help myself. Broken record syndrome had taken full hold of me.

‘Are you a Muslim?’ I eventually asked.

‘I am but I wear braids sometimes. My husband doesn’t like it but hey ho!’ She was bubbly and funny and I was stunned and awkward.

‘I had my hair braided in London.’ I finally responded. ‘ I do know a few people here who braid too’, I added

‘Great. I shall take their numbers from you. I am not sure if those who do my hair are charging me correctly’ she admitted

‘How much do you pay?’ I enquired

‘600 ringgits. I have a Nigerian woman in Kuching who does it for me. She is married to a Malay man.’ She had definitely been overcharged. I wondered about the Nigerian woman and Malay Man. I let it go as I was working hard unpacking the Muslim women in front of me.

‘Do you live around here?’ she enquired

‘Yes…not too far. I just came to buy Plantain but the man isn’t there. I could walk home but I feel lazy’. It was a half-truth. I didn’t feel the need to bore her with my drama and recount of longing for something I could not get. Being an expat who didn’t drive often meant that I knew of only one or two places where I could find certain things. In this case, it was one.

‘Plantain? Plantain?’ She had gone into recall zone. ‘Oh yes, those big bananas! My Nigerian friends eat them’ she confirmed

‘Yes, yes!’, I agreed ‘They eat a lot of plantains’. I remembered that it had been my Nigerian friends in the UK who first introduced me to the black eye beans and plantain stew in red oil. In that world, any pot with fish or meat in it was called ‘stew’. What sweet memories!

‘I am sure they sell it in Gasing. Oh yes, my name is Rosita’ She said stretching her hand out. ‘What’s yours? My car is there so jump in and I’ll drive you there’.

I got into the car smiling at how bizarre the situation was. I had taken lifts with strangers in Ghana and in Jamaica so that was not new. It was one of the ‘calculated risks’ that I was willing to take. We stopped at the small shops a few roads from where we had met. Rosita asked trader after trader and they all seemed to be pointing in the same direction.

‘Yes, I was right. We will have to go to Gasing’ she said with a determination and spirit which totally bowled me over. Heading towards Gasing took us along some pretty rough terrain. It was an area where recent demolition had taken place and where new apartment blocks were already going up. I wondered if I had made the right decision though. I was going further and further away from my home and I didn’t know how I would get back. I felt so vulnerable in local areas without the language skills and where English was rarely spoken. Did I want plantain that badly?????

Rosita spoke openly about being a doctor as we drove along. Coming from a family where she was expected to be a doctor or lawyer, she had not planned to be anything else.   I asked her what she had wanted to do. She said Art and Design but her parents had told her that it wasn’t a solid career…. wouldn’t pay the rent. She and I came from a time where our parents were gods. My mum had died when I was sixteen and yet, two years later when I applied to university, I still didn’t do the BA in Linguistics as I could hear her voice asking me first of all, what is linguistics and what job I would get with this ‘Linguistics degree’. Hearing this in her quietly spoken Jamaican accent, meant that it sounded so much more demoralizing. I opted for Sociology instead!!!

As we pulled up at the stall, I smiled broadly. There were bunches of plantain and coconuts everywhere. It was that thing. That thing which connected me to home (UK, Jamaica, and Ghana). There it was. And plenty of it. Maybe this place too would be one of my homes…one of the places I would become a local of. A bus passed us by. A bus I had seen many times parked at the station next to my office. It was another place I could travel to by bus or taxi. I had options and everything was alright. I purchased ripe and unripe ones. Enough to last me

Rosita insisted on dropping me home and we chatted about the many ways in which plantain could be prepared. She was fascinated that I would consider eating it raw. She had eaten it boiled, mashed and fried with her Nigerian friends but none of them had ever spoken of eating it raw. She asked the usual questions about whether it would make me sick or wasn’t it designed to be ‘cooked’. Sharing my limited knowledge of foods that could be eaten raw felt good.

Outside my apartment, I asked a stranger to take a photograph of us two laughing ladies. He was in a bad mood and said he would only take one. It was not like the experience of Malaysians who often took 10 photographs when you handed them your camera and of the last five, my hand would be stretched out indicating that I’d like my phone back…please. Rosita and I laughed lots and I knew I had found a kindred spirit. As the angry stranger handed me back my phone, we both hoped he too would meet a stranger that would help to take that cloud away.

 

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