A break from Fried Garbage; The death of a faithful servant

Malacca’s nice, if you like malls And museums. Most of the city — all the new buildings — are malls, and the leftover old buildings are museums. There are something like a hundred museums in Malacca, covering subject matter from the general to the excruciatingly obscure. There are so many museums that there’s a municipal government department in its own big building just to keep track of them all — a building destined, I’m sure, to become a Museum of Malaccan Museums. Nobody’s keeping track of the malls, and I couldn’t begin to guess how many of those there are. Malaysians are in love with shopping malls, and in Malacca they’re reclaiming huge stretches of land from the sea just to put more malls on.

I admit that we did go to one of the malls (but only because of the cinema and the supermarket). And we did go to the museum that documented Malaysian struggle for independence, but the curation was such a mess we couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I did notice how carefully the atrocities of the Japanese occupation were glossed over — in the interests of diplomacy, I suppose. Neither of us were in a scholarly frame of mind, I’m ashamed to say, so that half-hearted attempt was the last one.

There’s a low, lumpy hiss in Malacca’s historical centre called St. Paul’s Hill (Bukit St. Paul in the local lingo). It doesn’t dominate the skyline, being about five meters high. Clustered on its modest height are (try to contain your surprise) a few museums and the remains of a church dating back to the days of Dutch rule, later used as a gunpowder store by the British and now as playground equipment for ten million screeching over-sugared school kids. The boys in their ugly tie-and-shorts uniforms, the same as every other schoolboy the world over, and the girls in their pastel pink and blue headscarves that made them look like a box of candy-marshmallows. There’s a decent view from the top of the hill, but I imagine it would have been better from the strange tower a few blocks away — a weird structure with a centre pole 10 or 15 stories high and a spinning observation deck that went up and down the pole. When the wind was strong it made a moaning sound as it passed through the slowly turning struts — a chilling, disturbing sound like an animal in pain that drifted over the city.

Malacca’s Chinatown is an odd mixture of restored historic architectural showpieces and backstreets and alleys where people live an dwork in crumbling versions of the same shophouses. The style of the buildings reminded me intensely of Georgetown, with their decorated facades and arched gallery-porches running along the street. Every shop was filled to overflowing with the seemingly famous Nyonya pineapple tarts. I wasn’t attracted, and Sheryl surprised me by not wanting any either — I thought she’d be all over them.

We stayed for longer than we meant to in Malacca, not because of any particular charm the city possesses (though it was clean and undemanding) but mostly because the cheap guesthouse where we were staying had a kitchen we could use. I can’t begin to make clear just how much of a godsend this was. Travelling the way we do and eating as cheaply as we do, there’s usually only one choice on the menu — Fried Garbage. It’s impossible to eat both cheaply and healthy when travelling, especially in Asia. Two years of inescapably terrible food has taken a massive toll on our health, so when we were offered the chance at making some decent, healthy, non-fried food we jumped at it. The kitchen and the big Carrefour supermarket in the mall next door, with its good, fresh produce, kept us in Malacca an extra couple of days.

That was long enough for disaster to strike. We’d been out walking one afternoon in the undeveloped industrial lands and scrub fields southwest of the city centre. We saw an amusement park closed for repairs, and old three-masted sailing ship out in the Straits, and people flying a dozen kites at once in the stiff breeze off the water It was when I was photographing the motionless Ferris wheel that my camera started to act strangely. Everything seemed to be working properly and the correct exposure metadata was embedded in the photos, but every frame I shot was completely black. Later the results were even stranger, alternating between black photos and photos that had random horizontal black stripes across them. The lens, too, was again having its recurring problem of locking up the camera when zoomed under about 35mm. The lens is a simple repair and I’ve had it done twice before — in Kathmandu and in Hanoi. It’s something to do with poor placement of a ribbon cable — it gets bent too much, too often and finally breaks. I’ve come to expect to have to fix it every six months or so. But the camera body itself was a different story. That’s something I’ve been dreading since before the beginning of the trip. I’ve used it hard, I know. I’ve shot upwards of 50,000 frames with that body and it’s been with me through the harshest environments — sandstorms and swamps, over subzero mountaintops and through dripping muddy caves. It’s been banged and dropped and shaken up more times than I can count. Short of throwing it in a campfire or hitting it with a sledgehammer, there’s not much else I could have done to punish the thing. I’ve always said that cameras are tools and they’re meant to be used. So it’s no real surprise and I can’t genuinely complain too loudly that it had given up the ghost at last. But I’d somehow come to think that it might last forever It’s not so much the death of a faithful but well-used servant that makes me feel sick, though — it’s a financial disaster having to replace it.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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