A la plage.

The beach beckoned.

Soft sand, sunshine and warm water were my reward for what I had endured the previous day, my first day in Rabat.

I’d been threatened.

The threat was vague, but direct, and it was to manifest itself today. I was nervous as I left the hostel, because the man who’d made the threat knew where I was staying and had promised to get me, but I swallowed my fear and walked to Rabat Beach to bathe in its refreshing waters.

Strolling to the beach through the heavy morning air of this fascinating city was not as enjoyable as it should have been, as trepidation settled in my stomach. I reminded myself to ignore my unjustified paranoia, but I couldn’t stop worrying.

The threat which jangled my nerves eventuated after a shopping trip to buy toothpaste and a few other simple items, including the shorts and towel I was taking to the beach.

My suitcase had been delayed on the flight from Nairobi via Dubai, and I had only heavy hiking clothes to wear during Morocco’s summer heat. The problem started when I got lost among the myriad street signs bearing the name ‘Muhammed’, which hampered my search for Avenue Mohammed, where I’d been told I’d find a supermarket.

I made the mistake of arriving in Morocco with no Arabic or French. I then made the fatal mistake of backtracking and criss-crossing a major intersection in my frustrating and sweaty search for the elusive supermarket. Local man Muhammed had found me, and had offered to help me find the shop. Little did I know that he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Muhammed did guide me to a supermarket. I thought he’d leave me at that point and be on his way. His directness, self-assuredness and aggressive manner had put me off from the beginning, and I was frustrated and surprised when he followed me into the shop.

Once inside, he managed to upset the female staff, make a mess, draw attention to us and make me regret my decision to follow him. At one point, he raced off to menswear to find the shorts I was now wearing to the beach, and proceeded to throw pairs at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

I did manage to buy what I needed, except for one essential item, but once we left the shop and started walking back towards my hostel, the problems began. Mohammed lit up a cigarette upon stepping outside, and he soon realised I didn’t need him anymore. This is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. I bought one for him and one for myself.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff. It didn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but I was reluctant to keep opening my wallet, lest he see how much money I was carrying, for he knew the true value of the notes more than I did.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh, hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying cigarettes. I’m not swallowing more second-hand smoke and watching him drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

Then he walked off.

Thus, my eyes remained peeled for any sign of Muhammed as I strolled to the beach. I made it safely to the beach, where calm, inviting waters lapped the shore and local families played in the sand and splashed in the shallows.

I chose a spot, lay down my towel and sat for a moment. I drank in salty air for the first time in months and let the stress of the previous day slide away. I swam, sunbathed, swam, sunbathed and ate. Then I swam, sunbathed and drank. Time mattered little. I purged my mind of the ugly threats of the day before and looked forward to the rest of my journey through Morocco and into Europe.

As the sun sank in the sky and the call to prayer rang out over the beach, I decided it was time to farewell the beach and head back to the hostel, before deciding on dinner. In a country like Morocco, there are many inviting culinary options, so I set off with a decided spring in my step.

It was only when I reached the hostel that I realised. I realised what I’d forgotten to buy at the shop yesterday while Mohammed harassed the staff. I’d forgotten to buy sun cream, and I was burnt from head to toe. My face was burnt despite the broad-brimmed hat. My back, chest, arms and legs were red raw. The tops of my feet too. This is going to hurt for days. Then it will peel.

So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

All this for a tube of toothpaste.

What are you willing to endure for a tube of toothpaste?

As much as I endured one hot and humid morning in Rabat?

“Find Avenue Mohammed, there you’ll find a supermarket,” advised the helpful receptionist at the hostel.

“If you don’t find this supermarket, you will find many other shops and you can buy what you need.”

What I needed wasn’t much. Some toothpaste, a toothbrush and other toiletries, a towel and some summer clothes. My suitcase hadn’t arrived on the flight from Nairobi (via Dubai), and I was walking the sultry streets of Rabat in long pants and hiking boots. The directions were straightforward, so I assumed the little shopping trip would be straightforward. I was wrong.

I’d never been to a Muslim country before, so I didn’t realise that almost every street sign carries the name Mohammed. I found an Avenue Mohammed and I pondered which sign to follow at the crowded intersection in downtown Rabat. It was too hot to walk back to the hostel for clarification.

Oh well, I guess I just choose one.

Here we go.

I crossed the bustling intersection with sweat already trickling down my back and collecting in my hiking boots. Avenue Mohammed stretched before me, with shops of all descriptions hugging its curb. From behind my sunglasses, I scanned the street and the shops for my destination. The sunlight wasn’t blinding, but the glasses shielded my darting eyes from locals and disguised my recent arrival to the city. It was a safety tip I’d learned while travelling in Kenya and other parts of Africa: never look lost.

Ten minutes later I saw no evidence of a supermarket, or any shop selling toothpaste. This is the wrong avenue. I needed to return to the busy intersection and try again. I crossed the avenue, to avoid backtracking. I then walked back on the other side of the road, walking into a few shops on my way to pretend I wasn’t lost. I didn’t need a bunch of flowers, cigarettes or a new mobile phone case. I needed to look like I wasn’t lost.

Back at the intersection, I chose another avenue. Let’s see how this goes. I wiped the sweat from my brow then replaced my broad-brimmed hiking hat. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. Darting, scanning and searching for a supermarket and a cure for my bad breath. The shoe shop seemed a good place to pretend to be shopping, as did the spice shop. The third shop I entered under the guise of shopping was not so useful. Aisle after aisle sold only multi-coloured fabrics in the shapes of burqas, hijabs and niqabs.

Oops, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in here. Get out, get out…before anyone notices.

Soon my problems began. Avenue no 2 did not hold a supermarket, and I had to return to the intersection yet again.

I was spotted.

A sweaty, tired, anxious, jetlagged Caucasian in hiking clothes stands out on the sultry streets of Rabat, and I soon had company.

“Hello,” he greeted me enthusiastically, “how are you?”

“I’m fine thanks,” I said dismissively, trying to be polite but firm and non-committal.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia”

And the questions continued. Normally innocent questions, but in this context they were not. I knew that he knew I was lost. His eagerness, directness and self-assuredness put me ill at ease. He rightly assumed I didn’t speak Arabic and soon discovered I didn’t speak French. He also sensed that I needed something. I was extremely reluctant to accept his help, but I was also extremely hot, thirsty, tired and frustrated. If I tell him I’m just after some toothpaste and a few other simple items, maybe I’ll get what I need and I can be rid of him.

“This way,” he commanded, and we set off determinedly down avenue no 3. My new friend, also called Mohammed, lit up a cigarette and tried to glean as much as possible from me in his broken but functional English. I moved to his left to avoid breathing in his second-hand smoke and berated myself for becoming helpless. Four months travelling solo in southern Africa had taught me a lot, but maybe not enough.

We soon found a department store and he clarified what I needed. He demanded assistance from the women in the store, and his condescending, aggressive tone only diminished my opinion of him. Then it turned farcical. He found the towel rack and started testing different towels. He rubbed some of them up against his face and compared their softness, while reminding me of the importance of a soft towel. Locals stared at him then at me. I couldn’t claim I didn’t know him, as he was the only person in the store speaking English. The pantomime ended when I selected a cheap towel to use until my suitcase arrived. He didn’t approve, I didn’t care.

He scurried away and left the staff to arrange the towels he’d left strewn all over the shelves. How do you say sorry in French or Arabic? I thought. It was too late anyway because he’d charged off to menswear.

A pair of shorts would suffice for the beach. How I longed for the beach right now, as my body odour overpowered my bad breath. But soon the pantomime sprang back to life. Act II involved my friend throwing shorts at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

What have I got myself into?

Embarrassed and annoyed, I hastily grabbed a pair of shorts, not even sure they would fit, and walked off trying to find some toothpaste. Mohammed had convinced himself that his presence was essential to my shopping trip, indeed my survival, but had forgotten that every supermarket in the world is basically the same. I’d actually hoped he would just direct me to the shop and be on his merry way, but Mohammed was a seasoned performer, and I his latest audience.

Fortunately, Mohammed restrained himself from ‘demonstrating’ the toothpaste and toothbrush before letting me fill my shopping basket, and we made our way to the check-out. Mohammad morphed from comical to agitated in the check-out queue and this signalled a very uncomfortable walk back to the hostel.

He lit up a cigarette as soon as we stepped outside and I copped another mouthful of second-hand smoke. He realised I didn’t need him anymore and this is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. Fair enough, I bought one for him and one for myself. I could already feel the onset of a dehydration headache, and the water was too late but welcome.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff.

Isn’t he a Muslim? I thought. I don’t care if he drinks, that’s entirely his choice, but should I be drinking with a Muslim?

It doesn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered. I’d hastily gulped down the first bottle myself.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded when he knew I wasn’t going to have a drink with him.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks, I thought, there is no way I wanted to have dinner with this angry man.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but at the same time realised that if I bought him one thing he might keep asking for more. Plus, if I kept opening my wallet to make purchases, he would see how much cash I had. It may have been quite a lot, and it may have tempted him to demand more. I’d withdrawn cash from the ATM at the airport, and as I’d only arrived in the country a few hours earlier, I didn’t really know the value of the notes in my pocket. How much money was I carrying in real terms? I didn’t know. Mohammed would.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation. It can never end well.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you.”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Thank goodness for the sunglasses.

Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying you cigarettes you creepy, scary man. I’m not swallowing more of your second-hand smoke and watching you drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light. He kept swearing at me, and the entire street tuned in for Mohammad’s Act III.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. Why do people always learn profanity in a second language?

He does know where I’m staying. Why did I get myself in this situation? How did I end up a public spectacle on my first day in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone or even speak the language?

The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

Wow, his vocabulary is more extensive than I thought. The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

“I’ll show you,” what does that mean?

Then he walked off

I looked straight ahead, ignored the glares from passers by, and walked steadily towards the hostel. I took deep breaths of Rabats sultry air and tried to calm myself. Don’t look back. Stay calm. Concentrate. Concentrate on navigating your way back to the hostel.

What if he’s following me?

Don’t get paranoid.

But what if he is?

I ducked into the Medina. The hostel was on the corner of the Medina, not far from here. Maybe I can lose myself in the crowds and the maze of streets, and drop my new friend if he is indeed following me. I shot into side streets and narrow lanes and I was convinced I’d lost him.

I lost him, but I was lost.

I now made another new friend. I don’t know if his name was Mohammad. I never caught his name. He was young. Maybe 12. And he knew I was lost.

He motioned me to follow.

Not again, not another ugly interaction with a local, but again I had no choice. I was even more tired, more sweaty, more smelly and more frustrated, so I followed.

We ducked through lanes and alleys crowded with people and stalls and carts and souvenirs and tourists and noise and animals, and the young boy stepped them all like an agile footballer. We ducked and weaved our way through the ancient Medina and suddenly we arrived.

The hostel.

But how? I hadn’t exchanged a word with the boy, or told him where I was staying. It was probably the most popular hostel in Rabat, but it wasn’t the only one.

He knew.

“Oui, Merci,” I said to the boy, relieved to have made it. I guess there are some honest, helpful people in Rabat after all. Thank you young man for restoring my faith in humanity. He smiled, then held out his hand. Of course, he expected a little reward for his troubles. I placed a note in his hand and he demanded more. I placed another one in his hand and he seemed satisfied. He ran off ducking and weaving.

Weary, thirsty, hungry, scared, smelly and fed-up, I walked to the bathroom. I reached for the toothpaste and spread it on the toothbrush.

Aaaaah, clean teeth never felt so good.

Image: William Warby

How to teach English in Brunei.

What did you do in the holidays?

It was a simple writing task designed to ease the students back into school life after the holidays.

“I go shopping,” she wrote.

“I buy beg, shoe and cloth.”

Vocabulary and grammar are an issue. We’ll have to work on that.

Next one.

“I go to the shops,” he wrote. “I buy beg, shoe and cloth. I’m very happy.”

And so it continued. Nearly every student in this year 9 class spent their holidays shopping, and nearly all of them bought beg, shoe and cloth.

What are beg, shoe and cloth?

Shoe is supposed to be shoes. Beg is supposed to be bag, and cloth is supposed to be clothes.

I now had a decision to make. Either I find a way to start selling beg, shoe and cloth to Bruneians, or I find a way to teach the students how to finally write these words correctly.

I consulted my Scottish colleague, Sheila, with whom I shared the class, and we decided we had to do something to finally teach the students how to use these simple words correctly. We knew why they made the mistakes. Malay speakers do not use plural forms of nouns, instead use the noun twice to show two or more of a thing. Eye is mata in Malay, so eyes are mata-mata. Person is orang, so people are orang-orang. Cloth was partly the result of a difficulty with plural forms, and English words ending in ‘s’.

As for beg, this is a case of phonetic spelling. Malay is a largely phonetic language, and Malay speakers adopt this habit when using English. They pronounce bag like ‘beg’, so spell the word this way.

We arrived at the next class well armed. Then we began.

I stood in front of the class, waited for their undivided attention, then sat on the cracked concrete floor. I dropped my head and held up my hands, ready to receive something. I pretended to be sad, downtrodden and hungry. Students called out some terms in Malay and collectively realised that I was pretending to be a beggar asking for money or food.

“That is what beg means,” I explained. “It is a verb meaning to ask for something in a certain way. A person who begs is called a beggar, and the act is called begging.”

Done.

Now for part 2.

I called forward one of the female students.

“You’re my mother,” I told her “…and I’m your young son,” and this elicited laughter from the class.

“We’re in a supermarket shopping for groceries, and we’ve just arrived at the chocolates.”

“Mummy, mummy,” I pretended to plead. “I want a chocolate.”

Students laughed and the student understood her role.

“No, I’m not buying you chocolate son. Too much sugar.”

“Mummy, pleeeeaaaseee, give me chocolate,” I continued, with increasing desperation.

“Don’t you love me mummy,” and I started to sob either out of commitment to my performance, or from flashbacks of the endless mistakes in the writing tasks.

“That is another example of beg. But, the thing you use to carry other things is called a bag, and spelt b.a.g. – just like this one,” and I pointed to a student’s school bag.

Once the laughter subsided, we practiced the pronunciation of bag and beg, and revised the difference between the two.

Next, we had to tackle the word cloth.

Sheila stepped up.

She called two boys to the front of the class. Two cocky, arrogant boys with an unjustified confidence in their English language ability, even though they couldn’t spell bag. She complimented them on their appearance; their fancy Nike sports shoes, their immaculately gelled hair. They enjoyed the compliments.

Sheila produced a number of cleaning cloths, the type used to wipe up stains from a kitchen bench. She draped them over the boys shoulders, pinned a few to their sports uniforms and even draped some over their heads. The class burst into more rapturous laughter at the boys’ expense, as the style masters were reduced to mere mannequins for cleaning products.

“Is this how you dress when you go out?” Sheila asked.

“Is this what you wear when you go to a party? Do you wear blue cloth, red cloth, orange cloth. Do you mix and match the colours or just make one bold statement? Do people buy you cloth for your birthday presents?

And their classmates submitted to fits of laughter.

“At least it doesn’t matter if you spill something on yourself.”

Sheila then explained.

“This,” holding up a cleaning cloth, “…is a cloth.”

“Shirts, trousers, jeans, dresses, skirts, socks and jackets are clothes.” She then wrote the two words on the board, explained the difference again and had the students practice the pronunciation of each.

The boys were soon put out of their misery and we arrived at word number three.

This was a combined effort.

“Take off one shoe,” we ordered the students.

“Everyone take off one shoe. It doesn’t matter which one, just take off a shoe and leave it by your desk.”

Once the students stopped laughing and accusing each other of foot odour, we gave the next command.

“Now hop around the classroom on one foot.”

What?

“Hurry up, start hopping.”

They weren’t sure at first as to why they should hop around a classroom during an English lesson, but a few students realised it was more fun than endless grammar drills, so they started hopping, and soon the whole class was stumbling and laughing their way around the room. We continued this until we both stopped laughing, and then justified the activity.

“How many feet do you have?” we asked one student.

“Two”

“How many feet do you have?” we asked another.

“Two”

and so on around the room.

“So, everyone in this room has two feet, but apparently you only need one shoe. Most of you told us you bought one shoe at the shops, so you must only have one foot.”

Most students groaned at our Dad joke and the subsequent order to hop around the room, and then we practiced making the plural form of shoe.

Before the lesson ended, we revised the correct form and use of each word. Sheila and I left the classroom confident that we had finally corrected this glaring, simple and frustratingly common mistake in our students.

A week later, we sat down with confidence to review another writing task we had set our year 9 class. A task which taught us that most of our students love to go shopping

“…for beg, shoe and cloth.”

Are your parents alive?

Are your parents alive? he asked.

That’s an odd question, I thought, especially from someone I’d just met.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Mother and father?”

“Yes.”

He smiled.

I was confused. Was it culture or concern which prompted this question? I’d certainly never asked it or been asked it while growing up in suburban Australia. Most Australians would assume that other people of a certain age would have two living parents. It’s not definite, but likely. When I was asked this question for the first time while travelling through Africa, I was also of an age when strangers or new-found friends could naturally assume that both of my parents were alive. However, during my numerous visits to southern and eastern Africa, Latin America and South East Asia, I was asked the same question many times.

Why?

Why did strangers want to know if my parents were alive?

I tried to analyse the tone of the question. This is hard to do in a second language, and I conversed primarily in Spanish or Portuguese in Latin America. Tone is also difficult to decipher while speaking English to non-native speakers. Nonetheless, I tried, and I never felt like anyone was prying or being invasive. No one was rude, or impertinent. I didn’t detect any hidden meaning to the question, and definitely no inkling of dark humour or a bizarre joke. What stood out most was a straightforward tone designed to glean information – whether my parents were alive, yes or no.

While the question was very common, it also failed to present as a distinct social custom. It didn’t belong to a particular country, state, province or tribe – I heard it everywhere. There was no sense of gravity or depth to the question. It also wasn’t the first question I was asked, but it arrived fairly early in the conversation with people I was meeting for the first time.

At least it was easier to ask than other questions which always found their way into conversations while I was travelling the world solo, such as:

Why aren’t you married?

Why don’t you have children?

Having confirmed to myself that the question served simply to extract information, I then began to wonder what people would do with this information. I always said yes, and the conversation usually moved on. Often we discussed the age of my parents, where they lived, their occupation and other ‘GTKY’ (get-to-know-you) questions. If I’d said no to the first question or the clarifying question, would the conversation have followed a different path?

What about yours?

A long time passed before I felt confident enough to reciprocate. That’s when I started to understand one of the reasons for the question. In Africa, and other parts of the world, most people replied ‘no’. Rarely did adults from these countries have two living parents. And there is a simple reason for this: life is precarious. In developing countries, life is more fragile than it is for (most) Australians and citizens of the developed world. Life expectancy is lower in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America and death usually visits families sooner than it might in other parts of the world.

Threats to life are far more common and present in these countries. Poverty, natural disasters, violence, famine, political corruption, war, tribal conflict, poor hygiene and sanitation, the climate crisis, transport accidents and so many other causes of suffering are a more salient reality for people living in these parts of the world.

As a result, threats such as terrorism don’t strike fear into the hearts of people in some parts of the world in the same way that they do in places like Australia. A politician need only utter, or imply, the word terrorism in a country like Australia and they can justify a raft of excessively strict laws or policies on immigration or policing. In developing countries, terrorism is just another threat among many. Friends in Mexico even joked that a terrorist attack on their soil wouldn’t be met with the same reaction, because locals would think that the sound of explosives was just another Saints day festival at the local church, and another excuse to celebrate. Some Mexicans went so far as to suggest that if Mexicans heard the explosions of a terrorist attack, they would rush into the street with food, alcohol and a stereo, ready to party. That said, Mexicans also sadly acknowledged that they don’t need foreign terrorists to destroy their country, they have drug traffickers. Terrorism is still a threat. It is just one of many.

What is an orphan?

An orphan is a child without parents. In my upbringing, that meant no mother or father. However, I learned that in Brunei an orphan is a child without a father, even if the mother is alive. I deduced that children were awarded this classification because the father is still seen as the bread winner, and for this reason some ‘orphaned’ children in Brunei receive a small amount of financial assistance from the government. Of course, state support or welfare is very rare in developing countries, so life is much harder for children when their parents pass away.

Life is uncertain. COVID-19 has reminded everyone in the developed world that life is precious and can be taken away from any of us at any time, but this is something people in places like Africa, South East Asia and Latin America have always known. The fragility of life and the need to cherish it is a realisation I made on many occasions during my travels, especially when I was asked if my parents were living.

My backpacking days finished many years ago, many years before COVID-19. Fortunately, and with great pleasure, I can still answer yes when people ask:

Are your parents alive?

Ambuyat: Delight or Disgust?

Ambuyat will delight you or disgust you.

It has the power to excite you, or to threaten your constitution. Violent physical reactions can result from the mere memory of the food.

Ambuyat is the only uniquely Bruneian contribution to international cuisine. It is also found, under various names, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the island of Borneo with Brunei.

Popular Bruneian food is essentially Malay. Most Bruneians are Malay, and this is reflected in their language, customs and cuisine. Ambuyat, however, is uniquely Bruneian.

What is it, and why does it repulse or delight people?

Ambuyat is a gooey, runny colourless and tasteless substance which is placed in a bowl in the centre of the communal table, and extracted with a bamboo fork called ‘chandas’. Non-Bruneians like me are known to struggle to attach the ambuyat to the chandas. Ambuyat has the consistency and texture of the substance that starts in the nose, travels through the throat and is expelled via the mouth – much to the disgust of onlookers.

Bruneians love it.

Ambuyat is not the extent of the dish, though. The table is filled with other meat and vegetable stews, such as Tempoyak sauce. The ambuyat is dipped into the sauces, and these provide the taste to the dish. The stews and sauces can be delicious and even quite spicy. The issue for many non-Bruneians is not the taste but the texture of the ambuyat, the feeling of it running down your throat is like being forced to swallow the substance which starts in your nose…

If you can force it down, you can savour the taste of the accompanying sauces.

Can’t I just eat the sauces alone?

You could, but then you’re not eating ambuyat, and not immersing yourself in the cultural experience. It would be cheating.

What is it made of?

Ambuyat comes from the interior trunk of the sago palm. The dish is compared to tapioca starch, and to okra. It is relatively easy to prepare. Take the starch powder and add some water, before stirring. Then prepare the sauces for dipping.

What makes Ambuyat even more appealing is that it can be served with a side of durian, a fruit so smelly it is banned from public transport in countries like Singapore.

A Bruneian friend had ‘encouraged’ me to try it, just as I’d encouraged my friend to try vegemite. Our respective reactions were similar.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force down more than one or two mouthfuls. My friend was initially put out, before declaring with glee:

“All the more for me!”

Image: http://www.bruneitourism.com

Makan Dulu!

Makan Dulu – Food First!

The staff meeting this afternoon is compulsory. It is expected to last for about three hours and it will cover the implementation of the new IT program and resources. All staff must be confident in the use of the new software and to integrate it into every aspect of their work. Staff do not need to bring their own devices to the meeting, but will need to install and run the new software on their devices, so attendance at the meeting is very important. If any staff member has other plans or commitments this afternoon, please cancel those commitments or communicate your absence, and the reason for that absence, to your Head of Department, before arrange for an alternative time to undertake the training. Could all staff ensure they arrive promptly so that the training can begin at precisely 3.30pm.

The staff filed in at 3.20, 3.25. They found a seat, deposited their notebooks, phones and pens, then made their way to the buffet. Rice, noodles, beef, chicken, stew…cupcakes, biscuits.

At 3.30pm, they began eating.

Eventually the meeting began, at some point after 3.30pm.

Makan Dulu!

Parcels can be collected between 9am and 12pm, and then from 1pm to 4pm. This includes international parcels. Please be advised that parcels will not be issued outside of these hours, and that all parcels can only be given to the recipient after passing through every stage of inspection, including customs, which takes place at the central post office. Appointments may not be made. Recipients may only arrive at the post office during official hours and take a number. Remember to bring multiple forms of valid identification, and dress accordingly. Women must wear modest clothing and men must wear long pants. Men with long hair below the collar will not be served, in line with official government policy. Flip flops are not acceptable, neither are singlets or torn clothing. Standards of acceptable clothing are at the discretion of the postal staff.

Recipients rushed to reach the post office between 12.30 and 1pm. They took a seat, and duly waited for numbered tickets to become available. Then they waited. 12.30, 12.35, 12.40. Nervous eyes twitched before focussing on the prized ticket dispenser. 12.45, 12.50. The redundant ceiling fans squeaked in a forlorn attempt to dissipate the stifling tropical heat. 12.55, 1pm. Recipients rose to grab their prized ticket.

Staff waited, and took another mouthful. 1.05. Staff waited, and took another sip, under the gaze of the recipients. 1.10. Staff digested their lunch and chatted nonchalantly with their colleagues. 1.15, recipients grew impatient. 1.20, staff started dessert while the hordes waited hungrily for their parcels.

Sometime after 1.30, staff wiped their plates clean, dabbed the corners of their mouths and strolled over to the ticket dispenser.

Makan Dulu!

Students mulled around the basketball court, as teenagers do. Dressed in their sport uniforms and their best running shoes, they waited with nerves, excitement, trepidation or reluctance for the start of the school fun run. About 5km was the estimate. No one really knew how far it would be. No one expected to have to ratify world records with the IAAF, so it didn’t really matter. Something else mattered.

The school had a coloured house system, but most students didn’t know much about it, nor what house they were in. It was even harder to tell when every student was wearing exactly the same school sports uniform, of exactly the same colour. Long sleeve sports shirt for boys and girls, tracksuit pants for boys. Tracksuit pants or leggings for girls, plus appropriate head dress in line with religious and cultural mores.

Mulling continued, in the playground and in the staff room.

Eventually the sports teachers stirred. A warm up must be conducted before any vigorous physical activity could take place. Thus, a CD was thrust into the player, and dance music floated across the school via the speakers.

ZUMBA!!

Students filed over to the basketball courts and followed the teachers in their warm up. Boys less so than girls, but smiles found their way onto everyone’s faces eventually. Zumba over, the fun run could now take place. Ready, set…NO.

Something else mattered.

How can we tally house points if students are all wearing the same colours?

Ummmm – how about we pin a piece of coloured fabric onto the shirt of every student in the school? So they did.

The benefits of the warm up were starting to wear off, though ‘warm up’ was a pejorative term in the incessant tropical heat. Warm up completed; fabric affixed, now they could start the race. Not yet.

Teachers returned to the staffroom and heard their assignments – marshalling, first aid, water station, timekeepers…done.

Now there was nothing impeding the start of the highly-anticipated fun run. Ready, set…NO.

The aroma of heavy, fried, fatty, salty food wafted through the windows of the staffroom to the basketball court, to be inhaled by the students who were just about to set off on a gut-busting 5km run in stifling heat and humidity.

The teachers piled their plates with rice, noodles, stew and other tasty treats.

The race began sometime later.

Makan Dulu!

Image: Jane’s Fairytale

Run the red light.

Run that red light. Speed. Ignore the road rules and never sit in traffic. Do it all. Get away with it, day after day after day…

You’d love to wouldn’t you. You could, if you were the Sultan of Brunei.

In his tiny, oil-rich Sultanate at the top of Borneo, the Sultan and his family never stop at a red light or obey any of the road rules that are imposed upon every other occupant of the South-East Asian nation. The Sultan drives gleefully behind two police outriders who clear traffic from his path and assure him safe passage.

The police motorbikes speed into traffic with sirens blaring, and gesture violently to every motorist to pull over- immediately. Drivers screech and swerve to the side of the road in an attempt to stop just 100 metres after the arrival of the police, lest they incur the wrath of the royals.

Motorists are more scared of the government than they are of crashing.

The Sultan and his family then fly past with their foot firmly planted on the accelerator. Danger matters not to the omnipotent ruler. His outriders clear traffic from expressways even when that sends motorists into the path of merging traffic. The police part motorists as Moses parted the red sea, and the Sultan’s loyal disciples obey.

If they don’t?

For a Bruneian, the consequences could be disastrous. The Sultan controls every aspect of their lives and could easily cut financial support. Malay Bruneians essentially exist on a subsidised lifestyle and a welfare system disguised as public service employment. Locals get out of the Sultan’s way.

For expats?

That’s easier. The government could cancel their work visa and give them 48 hours to leave the country. Expats get out of the way.

Do Bruneians resent the Sultan?

They don’t appear to. They gaze respectfully at their glorious leader as he smiles and waves back from behind the tinted windows of his bullet-proof black Mercedes SUV.

Does it cause accidents?

Yes, but no more than the everyday driving habits of Bruneians. Locals speed, tailgate and fail to indicate. They nurse their kids on their laps while driving and use their phones. They let their kids run around the car without seatbelts. They don’t understand merging and they honk like mad if they’re made to wait half a second after a traffic light turns green, even though they have nowhere important to be – there’s not much to do in Brunei. This despite the fact that honking the horn is considered very rude in Brunei.

Another peculiarity of Bruneian motorists is their habit of waiting in the shade. They will seek out any form of shade while waiting at the traffic lights, even if it’s a full 15 metres back from the lights. Brunei is always hot. If you’re four or five cars behind the person in the shade, you might miss the green light altogether. Furthermore, every Bruneian knows someone who has been badly injured or killed in a road accident, but this doesn’t alter their behaviour. The Sultan is just setting a good example.

Strangely, Bruneians also run out of petrol a lot. Strange because Brunei is a very small country and one end of the country to the other is only a two hour drive. Strange too because petrol is cheap. It’s an oil nation. Cars are often abandoned at the road side with a small branch sticking out of the window – the universal sign of an empty tank.

What about the police?

The police rarely enforce road rules on a daily basis in Brunei. Police exist to serve the royal family.

What happens when the royals travel?

What happens when they go overseas? How do they react when they’re forced to wait at a red light or sit in traffic? They must go mad. It must frustrate them enormously, or remind them that they are big fish in a very, very small sea.

Once the Sultan has flown by, the outriders trailing his car give motorists permission to resume driving. This causes more potential carnage as drivers set off without indicating or waiting for other drivers. Worse still, some canny locals will speed after the Sultan’s entourage like loyal devotees following Moses.

Next time you’re tempted to run a red light, remember you’re not the Sultan of Brunei.

Image: Ulvi Safari

Beaches of sorrow.

The beach is a happy place, right?

Not always. Two beaches in Mexico are famous for stories of sadness and sorrow.

Playa San Blas, Nayarit.

The first beach synonymous with sorrow is Playa El Borrego en San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, and it centres on the true story of Rebecca Mendez Jimenez, who was known as La Loca del Muelle de San Blas.

Rebecca was often seen at the beach, the lighthouse and the wharf of San Blas wearing the same white wedding dress for 41 years, until her death on September 18, 2012.

So how did Rebecca come to be known as the crazy woman of San Blas? Two separate stories attempt to explain her actions.

The first claims that a teenage Rebecca fell in love with a local fisherman named Manuel, who promised to marry her in 1971. A date was decided for the wedding and preparations were made. A few days before the wedding Manuel went out fishing, but did not return that day. On the day on which the pair were set to declare their love, Rebecca went to the wharf in her wedding dress and veil to wait for her love. She waited, and waited, but Manuel never returned. He and some companions had been killed by a hurricane that swept through the region. A distraught Rebecca visited the wharf in her wedding dress to wait for her beloved for 41 years.

The second story is equally sorrowful. Rebecca is said to have fallen for another man, this time a merchant named Laos, who referred to her affectionately as Smoke Girl due to her greying hair. He also promised to marry Rebecca, who waited at the church in her wedding attire, but in vain. Laos never arrived and Rebecca was left heartbroken.

Rebecca will always be remembered. Her ashes were scattered on the beaches of San Blas, a statue has been erected at the wharf, and she is the subject of a song by popular Mexican rock band Mana, titled En el Muelle de San Blas.

For locals and Mexicans, Rebecca is a symbol of eternal love.

Playa La Llorona

The crying beach lies in the state of Michoacan, also on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

It is one of the picturesque unspoilt beaches scattered along the coast of Michoacan and it is referred to as ‘una playa virgen’. The sound of crying does not emminate from a crazed widow or a ghost-like creature, but from the sand itself. Such is the chemical composition of the sand on this particular beach that visitors hear a crying sound while walking upon it.

The beach is also more isolated than other beaches on the Pacific coast of Mexico and it has so far avoided the construction of a hotel or other accommodation which smother many of the country’s best beaches. In fact, the coast of Michaoacan hosts many precious beaches devoid of large hotels or development.

Camping is popular at La Llorona due to its tranquillity, its beauty and its clear night skies. Campers drift off to sleep to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. If you’re lucky enough to visit and camp at La Llorona, and you hear what sounds like crying during the evening, do not despair. It is most likely a fellow visitor taking a romantic walk along the seashore under the light of the moon.

Preparing to greet the dead.

They will commune with the dead. They will welcome the unliving into their lives, for one night only.

The people of Guanajuato join their compatriots in creating elaborate artworks and displays to honour their ancestors who will share the earth with them on this one night of the year. Mexicans young and old will hang ofrendas in homes and public places which carry images of skeletons and other macabre images. For on Dia de los Muertos, the deceased return to the earth and walk among us.

Mexicans will bring forth the dead so as to never forget them. To remember the relatives who were once part of their lives. To pay their respects again and again and not just at that person’s funeral. The annual tribute to their ‘antepasados’ allows families to honour the dead without the overwhelming emotions of a funeral immediately following a passing, when grief releases a torrent of sadness. They will honour all of the dead in colourful and striking public installations, over which they have laboured for hours and hours.

In a land all too familiar with drug wars, gang violence and death, perhaps Dia de los Muertos helps local people come to terms with death.

Mexico is colour. Vibrant colour. Bold colour, and this is true of the installations which welcome the deceased.

Mexicans will celebrate. They will laugh and smile and sing. They will eat and drink and be merry, even when surrounded by death and the unliving. Because even in death, Mexicans will find joy and fun and happiness. There is always an excuse to socialise and to party. Deceased Mexicans wouldn’t expect it to be any different.

The families preparing the public and private installations do so with pride and joy. They smile at the striking images of skulls and gore. They revel in their distinct indigenous customs which survived the Christian influence of All Souls Day and the cultural colonisation of Halloween, which fall on the same day. Yes, they celebrate both of these traditions, but they have never strayed from the expression of Mexican culture which is Dia de los Muertos.

Which is your favourite national anthem?

National anthems stir emotions in us all. They evoke national pride and a sense of belonging. They can inspire international athletes, and persuade patriots to lay down their lives. Anthems can make grown men cry and create incomparable life-long memories.

So which is your favourite anthem? Is it the anthem of your nation of birth, or the nation you now call home? Does your country have an anthem, and what does it mean to you? Perhaps your favourite anthem belongs to a foreign country.

I have heard a number of national anthems during my travels and I’ve listed the songs which created the strongest impression on me.

Multilingual anthems

I like multilingual anthems. I like the interchange between the languages and the recognition of the multicultural composition of the country. Multilingual anthems acknowledge the indigenous inhabitants of the country and attempt to unite every citizen, at least symbolically.

South Africa – Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica translates as God Bless Africa. The anthem features Zulu, which is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, as well as Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The anthem moves seamlessly from one language to another and encompasses the contrasting cultures which make up the rainbow nation, which actually has 11 official languages.

New Zealand – God Defend New Zealand

God Defend New Zealand is another bilingual anthem, which is sung in English and Maori. Now, as an Australian, I’m not supposed to like the New Zealand anthem, nor their Rugby Union team, nor their cricket team. I’m also not supposed to admit that anything from Aotearoa is better than anything in Australia, but NZ gave women the vote before Australia, signed a treaty with their indigenous population, and gave us Sir Edmund Hillary, the All Blacks…

A national song featuring Maori lyrics is also a perfect precursor to the Haka, performed by many New Zealand sporting teams. Needless to say, I enjoy watching rubgy games between the Springboks and the All Blacks.

Ireland – Ireland’s Call – Amhran na bhFiann

Ireland does not have a bilingual anthem, it has two. Amhran na bhFiann is the official anthem, with Irish Gaelic lyrics, while Ireland’s Call is sung for the Irish Rugby Union team, because the team is comprised of players from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Ireland’s Call is said to promote a greater sense of unity.

Scandal

Spain – La Marcha Real

The Spanish national anthem, La Marcha Real, sparked a social media meltdown during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. The Spanish players did not sing to their anthem before their first game against Portugal, and people blasted them for being unpatriotic, pampered, unworthy and disloyal, and demanded the entire team be dropped before the next game. People unleashed their own fury on La Furia Roja until one informed user explained;

The Spanish national anthem has no words.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and San Marino also have no words to their anthems.

Sport, religion and war

A pattern exists in national anthems. Most of them reference war and religion, and they provide an effective backdrop to sporting contests. Most anthems pay tribute to the country’s most prominent deity, and encourage loyal citizens to give their heart, their soul or their lives for their country. Anthems of colonised peoples honour battles against oppression, and anthems of the colonisers praise the might of the nation, normally referred to as the Fatherland.

Was any national anthem written by a woman?

Sporting competitions are obviously the most visible expressions of nationalism, and anthems are central to that expression.

Australia – Advance Australia Fair

You’ve already realised that I’m not very patriotic; after all, I extolled the virtues of New Zealand. And no, I don’t love my own anthem. The tune is boring and uninspiring, and the words are equally tepid, as well as being problematic.

I’m not the only Aussie who doesn’t love their anthem. In fact, custom dictates that any Australian who knows all the words to the anthem is UnAustralian. Anyone who sings with their hand on heir heart is pretentious and trying to be American. The phrase ‘girt by sea’ confuses most citizens and even the most patriotic locals sing ‘let us ring Joyce’ instead of ‘let us rejoice’. No one knows who Joyce is and why we should call her – maybe she knows what girt means.

Advance Australia Fair is problematic. The opening lyrics tell us that ‘we are young and free’. Calling Australia young ignores the indigenous history of the country. Aboriginal Australians are the world’s oldest living civilisation, having occupied this land for about 60,000 years. Calling Australia young recognises only the history of the country since colonisation in the late 1700s – i.e. White Australia.

Using the word ‘free’ also ignores Australian history, and the fact that Aboriginal people were enslaved (yes, slavery existed in Australia) were stolen from their families, were denied the right to vote and were not even counted as people until 1967. For these reasons, and the ongoing disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, many indigenous people disapprove of the anthem, and many indigenous athletes refuse to sing it while representing their country.

Many Australians find little inspiration in Advance Australia Fair, and often look to pop songs for patriotic stimulus. I am Australian by The Seekers is a popular substitute.

I’m also not a fan of God Save the Queen, because England is ‘The Old Enemy’, and because I despise royalty. I also dislike the Star Spangled Banner because the only thing worse than losing to England is losing to The United States of America, and because the anthem usually accompanies chants of “USA!!, USA!!…” I found the national anthem of Brunei so uninspiring that after three years of living and teaching in the ‘Abode of Peace’, I don’t remember a single word.

Cyprus

I’ve never heard the national anthem of Cyprus, but not because I’ve never been there. Cyprus has no official national anthem.

Mexico – Himno Nacional Mexicano

Invoking war and warriors is a common theme in anthems, and this is true of Himno Nacional Mexicano. The stirring tune begins with:

“Mexicanos al grito de guerra…” which translates as “Mexicans to the cry of war”. It ends with “un soldado en cada hijo te dio,”, a promise that every son or daughter is a soldier for Mexico. It is one of the more passionate anthems, expect when mumbled by a bunch of teenagers at 7am on a Monday morning.

A legend also accompanies the creation of the hymn. According to historical accounts, Francisco Gonzalez Bocanegra wrote the lyrics after being locked in a room. His girlfriend encouraged him to enter the competition to devise the lyrics and when he refused, she locked him in a room full of patriotic images and only released him once he slid the ten-verse piece under the door.

France – La Marseillaise

I nominate La Marseillaise as my favourite national anthem. I know I’m not alone in this choice. I’m not French, I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile and I don’t speak French, but I was moved most by this national anthem.

I experienced a rousing rendition of the anthem on two occasions at the Stade de France in Paris in 2003. After Eunice Barber won the long jump, and her compatriots won the Women’s 4 x 100m relay at the World Championships in Athletics, I witnessed a stadium full of French patriots belting out their anthem with unbridled passion and raw emotion. I felt goose bumps and the hairs stood on my neck. It was so moving that I stopped working. Most reporters at international Athletics competitions don’t stop working during medal presentations because they’re too busy. When the French filled the stadium with their patriotic fervour, however, we all savoured the sound of thousands of patriots singing one of the world’s most inspirational anthems.

Image: Anders Kelto