Island school

About a week ago I visited the school on Pulau Gaya – an island just off KK. For no particular reason. Just curiosity, and to see if I can be useful in any way in the future.

I met one of the teachers over coffee and she invited me; I was very happy to accept.

On the day, I met her at 6.30 am under the arch at Jesselton Point and we walked together to the school bus (boat). Other teachers were already there, and we all put on life jackets as we set off. IMG_0263The fifteen minute journey was pretty calm (thank goodness) and gave a very good view of a misty purple Kinabalu mountain as I looked back towards KK.

It’s not a small school. We drew near the stretched cluster of buildings with pink roves, and walked carefully up the steps from the boat towards the staff room and a large assembly hall, with open sides.

‘I hope you don’t mind talking to the students there,’ my hostess asked me.

‘How many?’

‘Oh about 100, 200.’


I met the principal in her cool office, and presented her with a paltry collection of exercise books and crayons which she accepted very graciously. It seemed to me the least I could do.

The teachers work hard there – they have their work cut out. There are 800 students, mostly Bajau, and all Muslim. Some speak English well, many don’t. Some come not knowing how to read or write.

IMG_0278There was a sprinkling of the usual laddishness, of perky interaction from some of the boys, but most were in tidy uniform, greeting us politely as we passed, in English. Classrooms were built off a boardwalk, and there was always the sound and sense of water beneath us. The wooden floors are spotlessly clean. The sports ground is built on reclaimed land. There is a café, and there are examples of the students’ work hung up on the walls. A cooled library needs more books.

The school is government funded and does well with what it has and is given, although I expect there is a bit of belt tightening. The students are encouraged to learn, and many try to do so. Some, of course, have family issues which mean that there are issues with non-attendance, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes teachers go to the students’ homes to investigate, sensitively, and the results are not always positive. Although some old pupils have done very well, and are happy to come and talk at the school.

Talking of which, I soon found myself standing with a microphone in front of what must have been somewhere near 200 boys and girls. I chatted to them, trying to make myself comprehensible, about myself. They listened politely, although it was clear some of them didn’t understand me. I asked for questions. ‘How old are you?’ was the first. I told him, knowing that it must seem as if I am tottering towards the grave. We chatted a bit, and then I told them that we were going to sing a round; I explained what was involved, and everyone gave ‘Row row row your boat’ a go. It wasn’t a huge success but nobody minded.

‘Right,’ I told them. ‘I have sung to you, we have sung together, now is there anyone who will sing to me?’

The usual embarrassed sliding away of eyes, the looking down, the whispering behind hands, and then an arm went up. I beckoned the owner, a tall and handsome young man, to the front, and soon he was singing a popular song (which of course I didn’t recognise) beautifully, with gusto, and some of the listeners joined in. Next came another boy, who announced he would be doing beatbox. He took the microphone out of my hand and the noise he made was terrific. Everyone was very impressed and we all cheered them both. It was very interesting that once they were in front of their peers they were not shy, but enjoyed sharing and entertaining. One of the teachers told me it is because they have music all around them. Good on them, say I.

Next came a group of girls who showed what they could do with choral speaking. It took a while to get organised but what they produced was charming and clear. Again, an example of confidence and the results of encouragement.IMG_0297

I am sure it is not easy to teach at Pulau Gaya – some challenges are large – but there is a warm and positive atmosphere there, and my hostess told me that, despite the difficulties, she gets a great deal from the students.

I hope there will be something I can contribute at some point, but quite frankly, they are all doing pretty well without me.



Podcast resumed

By kind and flattering request, from various friends who say they have liked my blog – I am resuming it. It paused for several months because I have a regular column in the Borneo Daily Express, called From the Outside Looking In.  It is largely along the same lines as this blog, but for local readers.  I have decided for now to add some of the columns to this, and would welcome comments and feedback.

Nostalgia aint wot it used to be

There is a house on Jalan Tuaran

They call the Rising Sun…

No there isn’t. And they don’t. They call it “what house? Oh that one!” And it is not easy to find out who owns it. It sits in front of a tree-covered hillside, an anachronistic edifice, comfortable in its leafy surroundings, holding its memories close. Its walls are wooden, its rusty corrugated iron roof has different points, designed I am told to make the most of any air. Cross ventilation from windows that face each other helps too. It comes from a time without air con, and if it was anything like my childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, electricity wobbled and water dried up. Ours was made bright red by rust deposits, which is another story – everyone who came to visit thought they were bleeding to death…

This house is nameless, and seems to be one of the last remaining pre-war buildings in KK and I can see it from my balcony. I yearn to be able to 1) have a look around and 2)have a go at restoring it. Both unlikely, I know – it’s on very very expensive land and will alas be demolished and some dull modern block built in its place. Boo hoo. The outline of its long overgrown garden is visible, and it is set back from the road so noise is minimised. With a bit of TLC, wouldn’t it would be perfect as a home again or even an arts centre with a gallery and a restaurant and performance space?

History delights. Visitors to KK are charmed by the old photographs of how it used to be, and by the Post Office/Sabah Tourism building. Books have been produced: sketches of the old houses and shop lots, postcards and those with photographs and drawings of the architectural details of what remains. These too are not so easy to come by, except at the Art Gallery and sometimes at Borneo Books in Wisma Merdeka. Datuk Chan has just published Ross Ibbotson’s meticulously researched The building of the North Borneo Railway and the founding of Jesselton and that, for a price, is also available at Borneo Books.

The Agnes Keith House and the English Tea Rooms in Sandakan don’t have as many visitors as Sepilok, say, but when I have visited, I have rarely been alone.

Enjoying these buildings is not a celebration of colonial rule. It allows one to think about the past, and how things once were on an island the world had not discovered. In the same way, I am excited by Kadazan monoliths, Sarawak carvings, old kampong baskets, hats with tribal motifs…

I believe there is a market for the past (even though many say that nostalgia aint what it used to be – sorry). And that people looking for homes may be less keen on the condominiums of many floors that cover the ground that perhaps once had forest or a settlement. Who knows? I am by no means an authority, but I seek out examples of the buildings people used to live in, and wish that I could copy them today. They are more human, more individual, even though built to a largely similar plan. They have gardens, and verandahs and are lower, and thus nearer the earth, and nature. Adding air con and an efficient electricity system and hot water would of course be good – any fool can be uncomfortable.



A visit to Singapore

I went to Singapore this week for a few days. Asia’s economic miracle. IMG_2568We stayed at the Tanglin Club which is ancient (1845 – imagine!) and is very comfortable, with rather good food and terrifying carpets.  I had a couple of days to myself and pottered merrily about, using Grab, and going to China Town and Little India and Marks and Spencer oh joy!  My knickers are replenished.  In Chinatown I found a craft shop and stocked up on wool to feed my new addiction, crochet. I also discovered a class there, and joined a cheery group of ladies who were working on pieces which were far more complicated that the one I was trying but it was fun. IMG_2553 2They were welcoming, nattered away in Chinese, and then spoke to me in perfect English. Once again, I am ashamed of my limited expertise in foreign languages, but I comfort myself with the reminder that I am trying to learn Bahasa Malay. So much so that the lady in the parking booth shook my hand and beamed – and then of course threw a long and incomprehensible speech at me. But at least she thought I might be able to understand her.

We ate well – at a Greek restaurant and in the Club, and took our eye off the ball to go to what was obviously a tourist trap. Silly of us. We also went to Gardens by the Bay. Enormous. Full of greenery, and appreciative multitudes, but am I mean spirited to say that I was undercharmed?  IMG_2582You can’t grumble at an orchid, or cut up rough about a silvery fan of a palm, but does it all have to be amidst Hobbity carvings of dragons and such like?  I know China has its own dragons, far removed from Smaug, but this place had loads of teethbaring woodwork uncurling from behind bushes.  It was too clean, too tidy, too neatly edged and it just didn’t do it for me.  Rather like the whole place.  The gift shop was large and full  and there was not one single thing I wanted to buy – very rare for me.

Everyone we met was delightfully helpful and chatty. Taxi drivers went out of their way, quite literally, to tell us the best place to do this and that. But there are ugly skyscrapers and shops and more shops and more shopping malls and it was a mass of consumerism and could have been anywhere – if it hadn’t been so clean and tidy etc etc. And humourless. I tried to be jovial with the lady who made wonderful breakfast omelettes but she wasn’t having any. Gentlemen of all ages and states of fitness ploughed up and down the Tanglin pool in frisky little budgie smugglers – without cracking a smile. It was very serious stuff. Ladies too, but they weren’t all wearing the same thing.

Some of the lower older buildings could have been attractive, but they were dwarfed by glass and concrete. Raffles alas is closed for renovation. I think I will wait till it comes back to life, and see if a Singapore Sling cheers me up.


I sense a sea change

I have realised that what makes me uncomfortable is knowing that, however many things I do every day, it is essentially just filling my time. I have been learning a lot but not feeling that I am creating, or contributing anything to anything…

And if one person says again that settling in takes time, I will bite them on the nose and stay there.

But I sense a change.  Apart from knowing my way around -“ooh, how do you know that?” – and actually making pottery bowls and jugs that can be used, and doing my Pilates and yoga (all very good for me I know, but still…) I am beginning to plan and set up and DO.

First. The Performing Arts Society is an NGO, and we need one to be able to fundraise for WordPower Sabah. Susan and I had a meeting with the President, who thinks it a great idea and is more than happy to be our official supporter.  Yippee!  The first concrete yes!  And I am sending our revamped proposal out to people with SPArKS very clearly on the front page, and hope it will make a difference.

Second. I was asked a while ago to do a session at a  workshop for drama teachers by an energetic woman called Audrey. I offered speaking poetry and they seemed v pleased, so I prepared it and forgot about it.  Yesterday I delivered it, to a group of enthusiastic, intelligent and open women (the only man on the list was, apparently, ‘on his way’) from all over Sabah.  If only all groups were as fun and receptive as this one. They read verses from Jabberwocky, and strode about saying the Chorus’ lines from Henry V, and they are all teaching The Charge of the Light Brigade, so we did that too.  It was fun for me and it looked fun for them.  Hooray!

Third. I have started running a course for another NGO here in Sabah, on clean, clear and effective writing. We had our first session, and again it was a pleasure to work with keen and open people, not afraid to ask questions and take both negative and positive comments. lots more to come (people and sessions).

And fourth. The air con men are coming this morning around 9.30 to fix the kit in our bedroom. This may be the greatest achievement of all, as it is one of Malaysia’s many holidays next week. To make the most of the three days after the weekend, we are going to Singapore.

A(nother) sunny morning in August

It’s been wet.  And dry. And hot. Then very hot. But there still isn’t much weather to speak of.  The sun is out most days for a bit, the air is warm, clothes dry and flowers on the balcony need watering. But one thing that is different is that I am learning to be still, for a little while at least.

I haven’t changed my character completely. I still miss going out to the theatre, the cinema, to dinner – but if I don’t I am minding less and less. I can sit and read, I can sit and paint. I can just sit – but that’s the hardest, and I won’t be doing much of that. I am learning though, and it feels rather good when I manage it.

On the doing front, however, I continue to fill my days. Before 6.30 pm or so, when the sunset streaks the sky with purple and gold again (we’ve had quite a cloudy time of it for the last month or so), I do Pilates, I do pottery (bliss), I try to improve my Bahasa Malay (slow and steady, slow and steady), and I have found an art school where I take myself and my paints, puff up three steep flights of stairs and try to do something with a blank canvas.

I have coffee and lunch with new friends (they’re all new except for visitors from the UK, of which there are going to be many, hooray), and do the shopping which involves markets and several shops in several different places.

Today, I had my weekly Malay class, which reminds me how little I really know, and I am about to make caponata for supper, with local vegetables and various adapted ingredients.

I have done a bit of of my novel, which is growing steadily. I haven’t reread anything as my first aim is to get most of it out of my head and on to the computer. Then starts the real draft, in every sense.

My friend Susan and I have had an idea, which we call #WordPower Sabah, about every possible way of using English to communicate, and we want to show that all disciplines can learn from each other, and learn how to use the language well. Not just a book festival, more a way of life…

We have drawn up a proposal and are flogging the idea to anyone who will listen and who might give us some money. Nothing concrete, but it’s early days: we need to be affiliated with an NGO in order to collect funds and we are edging nearer to this.Response, apart from actually cash to date, has been pleasingly positive, so we are working away on all fronts. I am giving a workshop at a SPARKS event next week (Society for the Performing Arts) which I hope will contribute to a bit of WPS profile raising.

Now I’m off to the hairdresser which is always fun. This country has more public holidays that any other I have ever heard of, so a girl has to look her best to do nothing much, non?


Oh how I love the NHS!

A while ago – three years – I had a breast cancer scare. It turned out to be a small lump that had to come out and be followed with a bit or radiotherapy and all that – nothing terrible. Before, during and after my treatment, I did not come across a single health professional who was anything but kind and supportive and skilled and informative. True, there were some waits to see them, but all that was irrelevant compared to the treatment I received. For nothing.

I am now here, and so I went for my third year scan as instructed by my doctor in the UK to the fancy Gleneagles Hospital . As I am away for more than six months at a time I am now off the NHS list alas, so this is the alternative.  I told the woman on the phone that it was a follow-up from a lumpectomy.

When I arrived, I went through the swishing automatic doors and made my way up to the Radiology Dept as directed.  I was seen immediately, and the woman who did the X-ray could not have been quicker and nicer.

I had been told I would get the result in half an hour. It took double that – nothing in UK terms I know, but I had been fooled by my surroundings.

I was given an envelope containing a report and a CD.  I asked if everything was OK. They couldn’t tell me. The report was only to be read by a doctor. Could I see one please? No, the doctor doesn’t take consultations.  Oh doesn’t he? I walked up the corridor to the office, and asked to see someone who could translate the report. I had of course had a look at it; it was vague, and ignored everything I had told the nurse and the woman on the telephone. The doctor who appeared, looking rather nervous in the face of this irate white woman, showed me his computer screen and explained that it was fine (for a year, anyway).  I told that breast cancer (however small) is frightening, that coming for a check-up is scary and that it wasn’t fair to send people away  with an envelope and a question mark.  He agreed politely, and seemed to sympathise.

Maybe I was unlucky, maybe I didn’t make myself clear, maybe a lot of things, but they were much more focused on my payment than my reassurance, which this doctor at least knows did not impress me…

Whether it will make any difference is debatable, but my goodness, it made me miss the NHS and value it more than ever.  As we all should.  Fancy machines and ritzy surroundings do not a health service make.

Blasts from the past and present

My friend Jemima has just left after a two week stay.  It was completely delightful. Lots of exploring, catching up on the years we have not seen each other, remembering the years when we did. Never a cross word or a moment’s irritation. I think I must be growing up. It showed me that I am pretty settled here now in the sense that I was able to fill her time with lots of interesting stuff to do and see, and also how much I miss laughing. Not to say I go around like the End of the World but mining shared past experience is very profitable, especially when it is connected to present goings on.  Anyhow – she’s on the plan to London and she tells me she is feeling very rested.

One place we visited was Sepilok, of which I have written before – orangs and proboscis and walking in the forest.  And delicious seafood, although disconcerting to eat it in front of large tanks that contained it only a few moments ago.

Kuching was another trip.  In Sarawak (pronounced without the final K) and very different from KK. Gentler, prettier, and with an old quarter that has not been flattened in the name of modern development. It is a national treasure and so won’t be.  The art and craft was there in abundance – woven carpets, baskets of all kinds, fabrics woven and mass produced.  Didn’t matter. It looked lovely and we returned to KK with several purchases that we are thrilled with.


Here is a box of tattoo materials,








with its contents including this rusty pin to put the ink into the skin.  Mmmm – such fun!IMG_2259







It came with this note carefully written while we waited by the man who sold it to us. It could be old and could have been made yesterday – who knows, who cares?  He painstakingly wrote the information, wanting to share the knowledge, with a ruler to help him keep the lines straight.






Kuching felt very different to KK – busy, but not too busy. There is a picturesque waterfront, with trips across the river to the Istana (palace) which I believe was built for the Brookes, who were the Rajahs of Sarawak for a while.

The Rajah Brooke heritage is present but not too present, and anyhow, it’s interesting. Hollywood thinks so. There is apparently a film in the works.

I shall certainly go again, with room in my suitcase.

Everyday goings on

We have an infestation of scaley buggy things on our lovely balcony plants and we are getting tough with them. Malathion is sorting the little beasts out, but it does pong! I’m not entirely sure it is doing much for our lungs either, but I like my pretty lime trees so what’s a little poisoning between friends?

I am going tomorrow to learn how to make Penan baskets – the Penans are a tribe in Sarawak, and the baskets looks lovely in all their bright and beautiful colours and geometric patterns.  Whether I can manage to produce anything vaguely similar remains to be seen, but I am having a go.

I spent this afternoon at the computer learning how to edit a hand drawn picture in Photoshop. I have had many goes in my lifetime at learning this programme and each time I learn a bit more and then forget it all.  But the picture’s looking good. Better anyhow.

I also spent some time editing a couple of short stories for a writing friend here – I love doing it, and it is good for me, making me think about my own style. I have written the first page of Feverfall, and this time I am sticking with it. It will change, of course, but I feel I am on my way.   Now I just have to keep at it, which is the problem every time.  I am planning at least an hour at the computer each day, and if I don’t get much done, so be it. I am training myself to show up and put up again.  It is so easy to get out of the habit. I am writing in the first person which is something new for me, and I am getting to know my heroine. I am also going to be more stringent about the end.  Someone confirmed today what I have always thought – I was so keen to finish The Jacaranda Letters that I galloped at the final chapters and wrapped it all up too neatly and happy ever after.  Someone in England said the same, and that started me thinking that I had gone for the cheap thrill.  This won;t happen again.

Getting excited because my friend Jemima is coming out on Friday. We are going to Kuching, of which more when I return, and then spending some time in KK before flying to Sandakan and the orangs and sun bears. All good clean fun.

With newer eyes

We have visitors at the moment and as always, it shows me what I have come to take for granted.

  • The cheapness of lunch.
  • The swift arrival of Grab cars, waiting for you before you have got to the front door.
  • The difficulty of getting directions:

yesterday I was looking for a shop which was perhaps 200 yards out of the kampung (area) I was in.

I asked about six people, and everyone said ‘nope, not in this area.’

‘But I walked there really easily.’

Head shaking, furrowed brows.

Eventually I found it, across the main road, and yes, easily accessible on foot from where I was.  When I went back to my car, I told one of the people I had asked who said, with a charming smile, that it was not in the area, so they had not been able to direct me.

‘But you know where Jamilah Pearls is?’

‘Oh yes, but it is not in this area…’

Directions are not a strong point. Nor, I am told, is reading for pleasure. I learnt yesterday that Malaysians are towards the top of the world list for their use of You Tube for information.

  • How I love pottery!IMG_1910.jpgI am learning so much about managing the difficult red clay of Sabah from the patient and talented Christopher.  Today he made me prepare and use hard clay which takes shoving about much better than the softer stuff but my goodness my arms are sore.  And my pot today went straight into the bin!  Unlike one I made earlier. Just look at this lovely thing. About six inches across and decorated in the traditional way – by lightly holding a steel blade, bent at right angles, and letting it bounce haphazardly into the clay as the pot turns on the wheel.  By no means perfect but I am inordinately proud of myself!

It’s raining today. And yesterday.  Unusual, and it usually clears up eventually.  Today however it is hanging around, with sporadic showers and a bit of wind.  The plants are happy – until they are blown over.



Sabah in the rain

I have returned to a cooler, often wetter Sabah. IMG_1707

The rainy season.  I expected torrents and forests of mould, along the lines of West Africa, which was a gruelling training ground. This is nothing like it – the air is cooler, the breeze refreshing, and it is possible to sit on the balcony for longer than 15 minutes. Sometimes we have a storm. The lightning is spectacular, the clouds thickly bluish purple, the rain heavy, but after an hour or two it’s gone, and the world is clean.

I have had an idea for an event/festival that may or may not be called Communicate! I have discussed it with Sabahans, and some are very happy to be involved. First things first – the proposal has been roughly drawn up, and I have contacted a possible donor, who has been extremely helpful and positive.And produced a large umbrella for me when I had to wait for my Grab car in the rain on the doorstep of his office.

I have written to another person in KL, and with my friend Susan, who knows her way about her homeland considerably better than I do, we are going to produce a small magazine to use as publicity and to generate some income. It’s all early stages and the  bottom line is, no money no festival. So let’s see what happens. One thing about Sabah – even when people are thinking they’d rather stick pins in their eyes than donate cash or kind, they are polite and gracious about it, so you retire with amour propre intact!

My jet lag was horrid – lots of 4am prowling, and listening to the radio. I had forgotten the trials of travelling eastwards. I return in October for a couple of weeks and again in December. The former is for work and the other for Glyn to work, and for us to have an early Christmas with our sons. I therefore have a year of contrasts. I feel less isolated, although still far away, which is less painful than it was. As a result,  I am going to start writing. My storyline has changed again, and I am knitting it together in preparation for actually getting down to it. Honest. There should be all the time in the world, but even in sleepy Sabah, things fill the diary, and provide so many interesting excuses to avoid writing.  Does this ever change, I wonder?