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Feb 18,  Gua Musang, Malaysia

A few days listless in Kuala Lumpur, during the begining of the Chinese New Year – Year of the Tiger, predicted by astrologers to be a lousy run around the sun – we took a bus to Kuala Lipis, a small town near the setting of U-Weih’s new film based on the Conrad book, Almayer’s Folly, where we visited with Sam, his Australian set-designer.  We saw some rudimentary roads gouged into the red earth, the basic foundations of a house, the river bank where in 8 weeks will – supposedly – stand an old-style house, another “palace,” a warehouse and a small local village, all circa 1880 or so.  It’s an ambitious production, aiming for an international presence, a first for Malaysia.  Given the torpid tropical heat and the habits of life that come with it, I found myself skeptical it will be, as planned, all there in 2 months when shooting begins.

One of U-Weih’s film settings

Told of the lead actor’s – some Aussie TV fellow – behavior of already beginning to twist the schedule I wonder how the prima donnas of the cast will take to the elemental amenities of Kuala Lipis, a small backwater town.  I suggested they dump the TV guy now.   Perhaps unjustifiably I smell problems and am glad I don’t have to deal with them.  Marcella may return, at their invitation, in May or June, to spend some days shooting a “back-stage” something.

[Little note: somewhere back 6 months or so ago I read in some film trade rag that Chantal Ackerman was making a film based on the same book.]

After a rickety local train ride in a car minus a window, nearly all broken seats, sounding as if a bearing or two were shot, noisily shunting over rough tracks we arrived at Gua Musang,  just outside a national rain forest park, where we checked into a very funky hotel to the tune of $9 a night or so. It was right next to a KFC, the distinct fumes of which invaded our room.  The KFC was the only evident sign of much not local – and I can’t comprehend why anyone here would eat there given the local places down the street with much better food for less – ah, the wonders of “branding.”

Outside, the town is eerily like an American western town: mainstreet, a few parallel streets, a vague similarity in the architectural forms if not the decor.  Further on there’s a place of shanties that gives way to a Chinese section of finer houses, street-front restaurants, a small park.  The Chinese homes open to the street, families haunched on their porches or sitting visible inside.  It’s just been the Chinese New Year, so banners and good luck placards grace their doors, red lamps hang across the streets and fireworks still explode .  From their looks, and the children who practice their “hello,” I gather foreigners are few and far between in their part of town.

Yesterday, a man and his wife and child approached me, warmly saying “Hello.  Welcome.  Where are you from.”  He had his hand thrust out to shake and just as his hand slid into mine and a went to grasp, I said “America” and his hand stopped, withdrew, and he promptly hustled his family away.  It was hardly the first time I’d noted a frosty demeanor once I said I was from the US.  On the train coming here I talked to the ticket taker, who likewise was less than friendly once I said the dirty word, but I confronted him with it, and let him know that many Americans do not like what their government does, and we managed to have a little talk in very broken English.  It is clear that among the Islamic population here – about 70% – America is not kindly seen.  Perfectly understandable to me.  While here I’ve read a book on Islam by Karen Armstrong (back a few years ago I read another at Maher al Sabagh’s request, preparing to write some things for his film The Arabian Dream). Still, it is disconcerting and for the rest of the stay I think I’ll be Italian along with Marcella.

We intended to go to the national park, a protected rain forest jungle, but we got waylaid during a late lunch in the Chinese district where a woman snared us into a restaurant, we had an excellent meal, and then she shunted us to her extended family’s table where my beer glass never emptied.  I stumble away a bit drunk and bedded down at 6:30 to awake at 8 am.  Hmmmm…

The train conductor who initially recoiled at my word I was American.  We had a nice if limited talk.  His job was to get on the train at Kuala Lipis, where he lived, punch the passenger tickets with an assistant, sit for the 90 minute ride, get off at Gua Musang, and catch another train back.   End of work day.

Limestone mountains jutting out around Gua Musang

Malay kids (Marcella’s foto)Alice Ho, from Kota Kinabalu, who got me drunk

Gua Musang seemed divided into 2 basic parts, though we learned on leaving there was another section.  One was downtown and nearby, with some rather dilapidated residential areas of shanties we walked through with the people there friendly but surprised anyone would walk through.  Very funky, dirty, ramshackle.  Downtown and these areas were clearly Malay (Muslim).  Then there was the Chinese area, laid out in a rectangular range of streets centered around a small park.  It was neater, clearly more wealthy, and alive with small restaurants, shops, the tail end of the New Year celebrations still going on.  In the Muslim area we had some nice street meals – one I had and liked a lot was a spicy soup of intestines.  Very good, very cheap.

Sign on the hotel ceiling pointing to MeccaWell-hung banana tree

On leaving we got a van that runs daily from Gua Musang to the Cameron Highlands town of Tanah Rata.  It picked us up at our ratty little hotel and proceeded to what seemed a classier suburban area of better houses, a little shopping strip of new stores, bigger mosque than the one near the center of town, and a “nice” hotel where we picked up 8 other passengers, all westerners (US & France) who’d all been to the rain forest park.  Some of them affected a hippiesque New Age mode and Marcella and I laughed at their need for this nice tidy hotel, and doubted they’d checked out the other part of town.  If prices were normal I’d guess the hotel ran $40-50 or so, a bargain to most western people, but then it isolates you from the place you are visiting.   While I’d have liked to go to the rain forest, I wouldn’t have liked to do so with these folks.   On getting left off in Tanah Rata most the others got out at a totally westernized New Agey place completely occupied by other folks from  all over Europe, Australia, etc., 100% white.   A “Lonely Planet” place.  Our friend from Seoul, a Malaysian Chinese, Chan, picked us up and drove us through the Highlands near Ringlet to her family’s house where we are now.  Of which more soon.

Tea plantation near Ringlet, Cameron Highlands

For more pictures of our trip see Clara’s blog

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