18 Mar 2009


I feel like I've had a glut of fantasy fiction lately and still I'm reading them. I don't know if you'd consider Nora Roberts vampire series fantasy but I've just finished re reading all 3 books - Morrigan's Cross, Dance of the Gods and Valley of Silence. Of course they're also romances. At the same time I was reading Shasha's Ella Enchanted - a rewrite of Cinderella. I've read most of the rewrites now - Midnight Pearls, Beauty and Ella Enchanted as well as Winter Rose (a rewrite of the Snow Queen?) and I find that I really enjoy the rewrites more. There's more meat, more oomph to the fairy tales. Its just that bit more believable too I suppose. I'm still reading Terri Windling's The Wood wife which is really good. The book is about a writer researching a poet who had just died in mysterious circumstances and I really love the excerpts of poems she put in. Its also about wood nymphs and spirits that live in the forest. I find the main character - Maggie - so down to earth and so real and yet she can also find it in her to believe and appreciate the stories of magic and supernatural.
Shasha said something once about the fantasy genre being new, that we didnt have fantasy as a genre before. But there I disagree with her. We did have fantasy - only it was lumped with the rest of fiction and was never a catagory on its own. I remember reading Lobsang Rampa when I was in High School. At that time I was crazy about his books and would finish one as quickly as possible in order to get the next. Then I couldn't afford to buy books for myself so had to make do with the school library. Luckily our school library was well stocked. Like my girls I too went through phases - at one stage I was crazy about crime and whodunnits, then after a while got fed up with them and I went through the literary stage where I read all the Austens, Brontes, Dickens, Conrads etc at one go. You get a surfeit of them after some time so its light reading for a while - fantasy like Tolkin's Lord of the Rings. I even went through a phase of reading veterinary and animal stories - books by Gerald Durell and James Herriot for one. Reading has always been a passion with me. It's an escape and a journey. I remember Mrs Rajendran my school principal writing in my autograph book -"The journey is always more interesting than arriving at one's destination." And reading is like a journey - and I'm so glad that it's something I've managed to pass on to my children. They are all readers. Come to my house, both here in Melati and the one in Malacca and you'll find that we have books everywhere - there simply is not enough space to keep all our books. One day we keep telling our selves, we'll build a library. For the moment though there are books in all our bedrooms, books in the living room and even - yes - in the restroom!

11 Mar 2009

Medan and Lake Toba (3)

The Batak village in Samasir

The entrance to the Batak Cultural Village

The picture above is a Batak Settlement on Samosir Island. Samosir Island may be as big as Singapore but it's very sparsely populated. Although there are roads and electricity, there is only one primary or elementary school and a few sundry shops, some fishing villages and a post office. Everything used on this island has to come from the mainland. The older children have to go to school on the mainland, that is at the town of Parapat and a few other towns along the coast of Toba. Traditional Batak houses look somewhat like Minang houses - with the curved roofs that is so typically Minangkabau. But the doors are smaller and the windows are all on the second floor. These houses are no longer lived in though - they form part of the cultural village on Samosir Island. Most of the modern Bataks are also no longer here. Many have left for a better life elsewhere. Bataks are actually quite good singers and are well known in Indonesia and Malaysia for their singing. When we came to the island we were entertained by a trio of Batak boys who sang some traditional Batak songs. These poor boys though don't go to school - at least when I asked them why they were not in school they said they didn't go. Is it because of poverty or because of the inaccessibility of school? I guess even though education at the primary level is free, they'd have to pay the boat fare and books and so on. Most of the Bataks who lived here are actually fishermen and the women sell crafts and tourist souvenirs for a living. The only way out for the children would be education and if they don't get any schooling how can they ever get out of this vicious cycle? The answer is they just don't and it's so sad.

6 Mar 2009

Medan and Lake Toba (2)

Samosir Island, in the middle of Lake Toba. All the land that you can see is actually parts of the large island. You cannot see the opposite coast of Lake Toba.

Our first glimpse of Lake Toba as we came down the mountain side. In the distance is Samosir Island.

Lake Toba is simply awesome in its beauty. Its vast silvery waters is as smooth as silk, with hardly a ripple. As we sailed across to Samosir Island, I looked across at the tall mountain sides. At a glance they looked almost like fiords. In fact some parts of the lake looked very European, especially when here and there we could see a glimpse of a church steeple among the green.

Medan and Lake Toba (1)

Istana Maimunah - last of the Malay sultanate in Indonesia

Repin and I have just come back from a 4 day 3 night trip to Medan, Lake Toba and Brastagi in North Sumatera. The first part of the journey was pretty grueling - narrow winding roads and in most parts so narrow you wouldn't believe the tour bus could make it. But it did and we all arrived in one piece! We had joined a tour group - something Repin and I rarely do. BUt this was almost like a free trip - given to us in lieu of our balance from a previous trip. Medan itself is like many Indonesian towns - sprawling, densely populated, very busy and full of traffic everywhere - buses, jeepneys or mini buses, trishaws, all kinds of vehicles actually. It was a hot day and Medan being near the sea is even hotter. But as we left it immediately for the hills it got cooler.
Lake Toba is actually a crater lake - the third largest in the world, according to the tour guide. Situated high in the mountains it is accessible only by road - a very narrow one filled with potholes!
It is only about 60 km away from Medan but it took us almost 3 hours of bone shaking to get there. The scenery along the way is of course worth all the pain. It's astounding - a panoramic view of the mountains, dotted with little farms all along the way. Here and there we could see silver streams rushing down the mountain sides. I never knew Indonesia has an abundance of wildflowers! If only someone would record them in a book. AS we climbed higher I could see yellow flowers that looked a little like the sunflower but this is a bush - not a single plant. Huge bushes of this smaller version of the sunflower abound along the mountain sides as are some whites daisies, impatients and the bright violet hues of the morning glory.
WE arrived at the lake around noon and the view is really worth every bit of the shaking we all received in the bus. I know it sounds a bit cliched but the first glimpse that we all got of the huge crater lake had everybody going "Ooooh". AS the bus rolled downwards towards the town of Parapat, which is perched on a very narrow ledge on the western side of the lake - I could see the town is actually hardly more than a village with narrow streets and even narrower houses. Lovely little houses full of flowers. Almost every house had a little garden in front of it. The lake itself was shrouded by mist but still we could see the longish shape of Samosir island in the distance.
Lake Toba was formed more than 75,000 years ago when a huge volcano erupted, blowing off its top and thus forming a crater. Today you can still see the edges of the crater forming a ring of mountains along the lake. The length of the lake measures roughly 100km and the width at its narrowest point measures 33 km. The island of Samosir, said the tour guide, is bigger than Singapore! Just think.
We stayed at a hotel facing the lake - the Niagara Hotel. It's not large - just 2 storeys high but long. All the bedrooms face the lake so when one wakes up early in the morning it is to this hugh silver view of water that is almost unending. It's so big you would almost think it's an inland sea. BUt there are no tides here and the only fish that that can be found are "purra pura" - a kind of silvery fish measuring about 6 inches in length, and a delicacy because it can be found only here. Some profit thinking Indonesian however has brought other species for example, the tilapia, lampam, and even some catfish. The lake is a fresh water lake. That afternoon was spent just resting in our hotel and Repin and I did a little exploring around it. The hotel grounds are really beautiful. They have kept a rose garden here and the roses are like those found in more temperate zones - bushes and bushes of them. There are pink and yellow ones as well as a deep dark red that is simpler gorgeous. Flowers are everywhere. Even the smallest of houses have a really spectacular garden in front.
The people living here are from the Batak tribe. They have their own language and practice Christianity so here and there one can see the sharp steeple of a church or chaple. They are clean and hardworking. I wonder though what they do apart from the tourist trade because there is not much land to farm. The mountain sides are pretty steep but we can still see farming activities and I suppose many of them fish. I guess food is no problem here unless you are lazy. Whatever you plant in that rich volcanic soul will bloom - peas, beans, cabbages and lettuce can be see even in front of each house. That night we had dinner at a restaurant in Parapat. It 's the only restaurant that serves Minang food and is supposed to be really good. Whether it was because we were all very hungry or the food was really good - every bit was eaten! There were no leftovers at all! That night we all went to bed early because the next day we would travel to Samosir Island, a half hour journey by boat.

2 Mar 2009

Visiting Singapore

I've always admired Singapore's ability to retain its old buildings and use it to attract tourists. I was there again recently - visiting Sophia my grand daughter. Walking along Bugis Street I realise that most of the shops are actually really old - some pre colonial even. WE have them in Malacca but while the pre colonial buildings in Malacca are poorly maintained and look quite ramshackle, the ones here are polished and bright - looking as new as when they were first built I bet. Huge trees line the street giving shade and a coolness from the bright sun. Here and there we can still see some new buildings but these blend so well with the old, they didn't look awkward. WE walked along the street, passed the old Raffles Hotel and I just love the old hotel. In fact we can't even say its old - it looked so classic with its Victorian columns, wooden shutters and quiet splendour. I think I must have walked easily 2-3 km without realising it. FRom City Hall to Raffles Square to the Marina Mandarin and then to Bras Basah Road where we had a great time looking at second hand bookshops!