Mud and Makan

Last month I was hanging out at Kafe Lidiana, one of my favorite nasi melayu stalls in Penang, after a lavish lunch of kari ikan, sayur manis and all the trimmings. With a start, I suddenly remembered it was Thanksgiving Day in the United States, one of the few holidays that my family actually celebrates. I looked around the table to take note of whom I was sharing my Thanksgiving meal with. Besides me, there were three in our party: my friends Law Soo Hock, Ono, and his sayang-of-the-month, Nami.

Soo Hock was kidding around with Nami. She was visiting Penang on holiday from Okinawa, Japan. “Nami, Nami, like TSU-nami, ah? So, you crash into town and leave behind big heartache, ah?” Soo Hock glances at Ono to see if he’s caught the joke. Ono asks drowsily, “What’s a tsunami?”

It’s about one month later, and everyone – in Penang, all of Malaysia, and maybe the whole world – knows what a tsunami is.

The high-rise where I’m staying on Penang Island is one block away from the ocean. The building experienced a tremor at around 7:30 am Sunday morning, December 26, 2004. The tremor was an after-effect of the earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Many people evacuated their homes. A super sleeper, I snoozed through the morning.

Around noon that day, the tsunami produced by the earthquake smacked into Gurney Drive, the road between my building and the sea. The water crashed over the sea wall and flowed into some shops on the opposite side of the road.

It turned out that the buildings along Gurney Drive had gotten off lightly. The damage was worse further north and on the west side of the island. Soon, the news took a terrible turn; we learned that people on the island had been eaten alive by the wave.

Penang’s death toll currently stands at 52 (as of December 31; with the total in Malaysia being 66). That might not sound like very many people in light of the number of deaths caused by the tsunami worldwide. But, it’s a shocking figure to Penangites and other Malaysians, signifying more than just a number.

Today, four days after the tsunami struck, Soo Hock and I are feeling ready to survey the damage north of town. In particular, we want to see if some of our regular food haunts are still standing. We need to reassure ourselves that the hard-working, obliging food sellers – who day in, day out scoop our rice and tarik our tea – had come to no harm in this disaster.

Brisk Business at Kafe Lidiana

With trepidation, we drive the four kilometers to Kafe Lidiana’s. The food stall is located in a concrete strip of shops next to Masjid Jamek in Tanjung Bungah. We’ve heard that the kampung behind and adjacent to the stall was badly hit. Next to the car park, I spot a whiteboard posted at the entrance to the kampung. The sign reads that funds will be distributed that night to residents to compensate them for damage, injury and/or loss of life. That’s the good news.

The kampung is not a pretty sight. The residents have been evacuated to relief centers. Nearly every house had been swamped with putrid, grey sludge. People’s mangled, muddied possessions have already been hauled away. A group of volunteers are mucking out the houses, using mops and buckets of water, to make the salvageable homes habitable again.

I ask one of the volunteers if she’s with a Buddhist society. No, she says, she’s just an individual who’s turned up to help. She’s working with a tough-looking Mat Salleh, who has a parang attached to her waist belt. In comparison, I feel worthless. Just then, another volunteer, an Indian guy, shouts, “Okay, we’ve done all we can do here. Let’s move on.”

Kafe Lidiana is intact and doing a brisk business. Soo Hock asks Lidiana if she’s safe, and she hurriedly replies, “Selamat!” But, she continues on to say that some of her household items were damaged by flood water. We take some rice and curry and sit down at one of the rickety, plastic tables. I do a double take. Sitting at the table right next to mine is Penang’s Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon. He’s with an entourage, discussing the impact of the tsunami on the island. In a few moments, they’re off, continuing with their own investigation.

Rescuing Tourists at Kafe DoReMe

Even though Penang is an island, there are precious few food stalls with a sea view. We head to one of them, Kafe DoReMe, down from the Crown Jewel Hotel on Medan Beach in Tanjung Bungah. This stall is an unusual find on an urban beach. The seating area is underneath a tree house constructed of wooden posts and planks lashed to two ketapang trees. Hand-painted swings hang invitingly from two other ketapangs.

We encounter the Malay owner, Johar Ismail, a.k.a. Joe, sitting in what’s left of his complex. The tsunami had engulfed his cafe, leaving behind the tree house, the well, the store and the low cement wall surrounding the kitchen. The thick logs, which had served as chairs and tables, were tossed around the beach like toothpicks.

He gave us an eyewitness account of the tsunami. Two large waves had hit this section of the beach. Everyone was transfixed at the sight of the first wave. Off in the distance, one could see fishermen in their blue and red sampans, trying to stay afloat until their vessels finally capsized, overcome by the swell. The wave looked rougher as it came closer, but still the onlookers were glued to their vantage points on the beach. When the wave finally hit, seawater flooded the beach, coming up to waist-level.

Two elderly British tourists were caught up in the water. They were getting battered by the logs and thrown back against the retaining wall behind Joe’s stall. Joe, seeing them struggle, leapt out of his perch in one of the trees and swam them, one at a time, to dry land. Now, the couple is still on the beach, visiting with Joe and praising him for having saved their lives.

After the first wave subsided, forty minutes passed before the next wave, a much larger one, hit. Joe had seen the second wave approaching. He climbed up to the tree house and grabbed a whistle. He started whistling and waving, signaling people to get off the beach.

Five seconds before the second wave hit, Joe stopped whistling and scrambled to a higher branch of the ketapang tree to wait out the wave. The water from the second wave was at chest-level when it surged through the stall. His fridge, kitchen supplies and stock were washed out to sea.

The remnants of his logs had already been collected and piled up behind the stall, next to the sea wall. I asked him how he was going to get the stall back in order. He rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Take a rest first, lah.”

We continue north about three kilometers to Batu Ferringhi. We stop by the Bayu Senja Complex to see Ana, the proprietor of Ali’s Nasi Kandar. The seating area is situated on a slab of cement that ends abruptly at a steep, sandy slope, which drops down one meter to the beach. We expected the worst, but Ana’s all smiles, “So many people come by to see me, to see the damage, but there’s nothing to see. So lucky! Saved by the coconut tree!” She points to the tree, lying nearly horizontal, still lodged in the bank of sand directly in front of her shop. She says the destruction was much worse at Miami Beach.

Unharmed Deities at The Miami Beach Cafe

We’ve already heard the horror story of Miami Beach. It’s a popular strip of sand in Batu Ferringhi, named after a famous beach in Florida in the United States. That fateful Sunday, while locals and tourists were sunbathing, swimming and picnicking, the tsunami snatched at least 15 people off this beach.

We walk to the southern end of the strip, past some boulders, where a group of people has gathered around the remains of some structure. The Miami Beach Cafe is barely recognizable. I remember now that I had been here once before. I had been amazed that there was a Hindu-operated establishment sited between these huge rocks. Now, the business-cum-residence is a wreck. The shrine is still there; images of Ganesha, Mother Mary and Shirdi Sai Baba gaze out from a broken piece of wall.

The owner, A. Suppiah, has already had his share of post-tsunami press coverage in both the Chinese – and English – language dailies. It was his 22-day-old baby that was rescued by its mother off the famous floating mattress. He claims that this is the third disaster that’s struck him. Each one left his deities undamaged. The first was by fire, when his house burned; the second was by wind, when a twister ripped the roof off the cafe, spinning it into the sky; and, the third was by water – this tsunami. This third disaster was the worst, though. There’s little to show for his ten years in business except for the deities – and some newspaper clippings.

Bringing in Bodies with a Tour-boat Operation

I talk with L. Alexander, a family member, whose leg and foot are bandaged. Alex runs a tour-boat operation out of Miami Beach. He takes tourists on boat trips around the island for swimming and snorkeling, though there hasn’t been much snorkeling in the past few years given Penang’s pollution. He has a store near the cafe, which is pretty much destroyed. He managed to save his powerboat by tying it far out from shore, with only one line, so it was free to bob around in the swell.

The deadly wave that hit Miami Beach was eight meters high. Like a pinball, Alex was caught in the surf and ricocheted around the rocks and trees, until he was shoved against a large drain hole in the side of an embankment. He knew that if he were pushed through the hole, he would suffocate. He held on to a granite overhang with his fingertips and chin, as his legs were being sucked through the drain hole. Finally, as the wave withdrew, he was able to inch over to the side of the opening and pull himself up the embankment to high ground.

For most humans, that would be enough trauma for one day. But, after the wave retreated, Alex became a one-­person rescue team. He started up his boat and began looking for bodies in the ocean. By then, the men from the Bomba were standing on Miami Beach in their life jackets. They had their arms crossed at their chests and were staring out at the sea that had consumed so many lives.

They were too frightened to get in the water themselves. There were no other rescue boats on the scene, no helicopters. The Bomba would now and then signal to Alex, directing him to some large flotsam. After hours of maneuvering his boat in rough water, Alex was exhausted. He had only managed to recover two girls, both dead. His compensation so far? His name and picture in the New Straits Times.

Fighting Lions at the Taoist Thai Pak Koong Temple

It’s late in the day as we turn left off the main road in Tanjung Tokong to drive past the Urban Development Authority (UDA) flats. No flooding problem there. Most of Tanjung Tokong’s kampung dwellers reluctantly shifted to these flats around 30 years ago at the government’s insistence. Now, those families must be feeling a bit better about that move. We’re headed for the Sea Pearl Lagoon Cafe. The restaurant is located next to the Taoist Thai Pak Koong temple for the God of Prosperity. The dining area is on a cement patio adjacent to a retaining wall, with rocks leading down to the sea.

The specialty of the house is baked crabs. On Sunday, the lunch crowd was chowing down crabs, snails and clams – business as usual – when the tsunami hit. No one was killed, but many customers were injured as they flailed around in the water. The tables and chairs were ruined, but most of the building is still there. The owners have already contracted with builders to repair the restaurant. We watch the workers cut beams and hoist them into place.

At the temple next door, Soo Hock talks to one of the caretakers. The wave had flowed right up to the temple and up and over a zinc awning shading the temple’s entrance. The temple itself wasn’t harmed, but one of the ceramic lions guarding the temple was shifted off its cement base by the water and turned 60 degrees clockwise. Now, the fighting lion is facing the other fighting lion at the entrance of the temple. Bad Feng Shui. The caretaker says that the temple committee will have to call an excavation company to come as soon as possible to heave the skewed lion back into place.

In between the guardian lions stood a tall red table, on which had been placed an offering of three small teacups filled with tea. Even though the wave crashed over the top of the awning, the three cups of tea were untouched by sea water. Everyone agrees that it’s a miracle.

Today we seem to be on a collision course with VIPs. The lorong leading to the temple has been freshly decorated with old Barisan Nasional election posters. They alternate between images of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Koh Tsu Koon. At this moment, their composed expressions seem out of place. Clusters of adults and children are starting to gather in front of their homes, looking down the street expectantly. I see advance men, with walkie-talkies surveying the area and setting up a blockade. Cops are positioned at the cross streets. The Prime Minister is about to arrive.

We clear out – just ahead of his motorcade. We’re tempted to stay to ogle Pak Lah, but we’ve already seen enough for one day.


Lucy Friedland is a writer and editor from the U.S., grateful to be experiencing Malaysia even during turbulent times.

First Published: 03.01.2005 on Kakiseni

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