YAGM Malaysia Crew 2011-2012. Remember when, in this very blog, I started calling our group a crew because my facebook was (is) in Pirate English and calls groups crews? Peter the Country Coordinator has totally adopted the 'crew' addition and uses it for the new 'crew' which is currently in Malaysia. Phew.
We gathered for our final retreat, the closing retreat. I finally got to see the other/eastern coast of Sabah. Our theme was "celebrate" and I think we did a pretty good job. I was generally happy, in the presence of people in transition (like me) and surrounded by buggy nature. It didn't feel like a vacation, it felt like the other retreats in that sense. The group was the most important part for me, hearing stories, sharing stories, and providing shoulders or tissues where needed. And they were definitely needed. We had some necessary conversations and room for contemplation. We also saw more monkeys than I can count! That was pretty awesome. That's because our retreat was spent on the Kinabatangan River doing some jungle/safari-type activities. Fortunately, we only had about two incidents with leeches :) We had a last group dinner back in Kota Kinabalu at our favorite "curry house" because it was on nearly all of our lists of places to eat before leaving Malaysia. I insisted we get a photo with the owner (?) whom we lovingly call Boss. It was an anxiously sad meal. Liz's departure time was only hours away, and we all knew it meant our own flights were that much closer. She got the ball rolling. Peter said something interesting that night, "I like airports because they're all so neutral." But just the thought of an airport, for me personally, and right in this moment, makes me sad. The dinky airport 7 minutes walking-distance from my house was like... my hangout place. The sound of the planes was a comfort. I don't live close to that airport or any other airport anymore.
A long-put-off plan to go with a teacher-friend to her village for the weekend became a priority when it was literally my last weekend in the country, so I spent my last weekend with her and her family in a town located sort of in the mountains. It was chillier for my body to adjust to but wonderful to see more of Sabah and show my friend how important she is to me. Important enough that even if it was put-off, I wouldn't let it not happen. One thing happened while we were gone that weekend though, the first days of Ramadan!
The crew arrived in Malaysia in 2011 during the last few days of bulan puasa [month of fasting] and didn't know enough people or traditions yet to notice until the celebration days started. But now, I had more friends and could speak the language and actually ask questions, and in so doing, participate to the best of my ability for the first few days of bulan puasa. I spent the days leading up to my flight at a friend's house nearby. This alleviated some awkward sadness of sticking around Seri Mengasih after multiple goodbye parties and "final" words to friends and 'family.' The family I was with for those last few days is entirely Muslim and I'm sure would have supported me had I decided to follow with Christian (or non-muslim) traditions while there but... when in Rome. It was marvelous. My makcik [auntie] there makes batches and batches of various kinds of kuih-muih [cakes/biscuits/cookies ish?] to sell at the Bazaar Ramadan in town... every single day of bulan puasa. ON TOP OF her other job. Oh I so admire that woman. I couldn't sit around and watch TV at her house while her kids and her neighbor's kids were helping her to make kuih-muih and it couldn't (seemingly) be finished in a timely manner and she's still standing at the stove come 1:00am. So I jumped in as best and as much as I could. It was embarrassing because I felt like I knew nothing, I had no skills in the area. When it came time to take the kuih-muih to the bazaar for selling, they asked me to go. They asked me to sell. I wanted to help makcik rather than mooch off her hospitality so I did exactly as I was requested and tried to sell as much kuih-muih as I could with my friends (family really). Customers were, as you might have guessed, impressed by my malay-speaking skills but that doesn't mean we sold more than the next table. Keep in mind that this was bulan puasa. We were standing at a table with delectable treats and at the height of hunger and exhaustion but expending every last energy on selling makcik's kuih before sundown. Those buying food from the bazaar weren't only muslim, the majority were but definitely not all. The same goes for those who were selling food. For bulan puasa the fast is broken after sundown when the call to prayer begins. I found out, somewhat the hard way, that you must break the fast at the same time as everyone else and be ready for it. Muslim customers were buying foodstuffs to break the fast with so it was with me as well. Two of us quickly walked down the street looking for something to break the fast with. Cravings abounded at this time of the day, it had been nearing 24 hours since I had last eaten or drank anything. All I could think of was my profound thirst. "Coconut juice!" Haha, she found me some coconut juice to drink out of a bag (something I wanted to do before leaving Malaysia) and I had already purchased a kuih, thankfully, because while we were walking, just enjoying each other's company, the call to prayer started. "Allisun! Boleh buka sudah!" So she prayed and we ate. I looked around me and saw that everyone was doing the same. I felt community. True community in fasting, hunger, thirst, prayer, and then eating and, in so doing, thanking God for all that we have. "Alhamdulillah!"
For my last and final day in the country Seri Mengasih asked me to demonstrate exactly how I made those popcorn batches on Food Fair day. It was interesting because I was planning on going back to my muslim family's house so I continued fasting. Imagine making popcorn for 30 people but not taste-testing first. Hehehe. The popcorn I made that day was sold at the canteen and will, hopefully, continue to be made in the future and sold at the canteen. They bought WAY more corn kernels than I used so they definitely can serve/sell popcorn for at least another six months. But, as I was saying, I continued fasting on that last day but my flight was scheduled for before the breaking of the fast. I was worried about that, "macam mana berpuasa kalau di kapal terbang?" realizing there wouldn't be a call to prayer or a way to know when it's 'time' to break the fast. But they let us know and it was remarkable. I loved it! The flight attendants served us our meals but I looked around me and many of the people weren't touching their food. They would look around them or continue on talking with their friend. Furthermore, the captain came on the PA system and announced what time the prayers were to start for that day (and in that region of the world) and wished all those fasting a happy fasting. Hmph! Who'd a thunk?
Flight attendants walked through clearing plates and noticed, "are you fasting? I'll get you a bag because we'll be landing when the fast breaks and you can't have you food or your front tray out." Haha! It was great. Soon the captain came on again and announced that Azan had started and "selamat berbuka puasa." What an experience? Once again I felt an awesome sense of community and it was again with strangers. Even if we weren't identifying as the same religion, the acceptance and harmony within that aircraft alone was beautiful and indicative of my year in Sabah.
I came to my computer today to write about how I'm adjusting to life in the USA. I guess my psyche still isn't ready for that. Besides, I haven't written here for over a month. How can I just skip to the a month away and a WORLD (literally) apart? I couldn't handle that hefty of a gap. I promise you more stories on how I'm doing in the here and now and what it means to experience culture shock, for realsies.