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Mah Meri

View SE ASIA on J kerouac's travel map.

I know im remiss in blogging but ive been busy. Last time your heard from this self styled "wayward anti-hero" he was getting ready to visit the Mah Meri Tribe on P. Carey so I suppose thats a good place for this edition to begin. For the record, these events took place in the begining of March.

I met Ra-Tah at the Klang bus station at 1 PM. After 20 minuits of driving east I didnt see a single tourist. The bus ride lasted another hour and a half and a nervous smile crept across my face as I found my way happilly off the beaten path once again. After a stuffy ride we stopped in a town that can only be described as "podunk." You know; one "main" road, a handfull of assorted food stalls and a greasy motorcycle mechanic asleep in his shop. It was the kind of town that exists everywhere in the world, but boasts no particular reason for anyone in the world to visit. The curious stares that followed me around confirmed that I was probabally the only tourist for 50 kilometers (Yes ive started thinking in kilometers and celcius).

After an unidentifiable but tasty lunch at one of the food stalls two kids cruised up on motorcycles. They smiled politely, avoided eye contact, answered my questions briefly and attempted none of their own. They were our rides to the village.

After a few introductions to the elders and the folks with the largest English vocabulary (perhaps 50 words) Ra-tah left me with in the care of Maznah, the leader of the womens weaving group and a quinticentiual mother figure whose kindness and broad smile crossed the cultural and language barriers when nothing else could.

While staying in the village I slept on the floor of the craft workshop (the open air building with the thatched roof in the photo) and ate with the women, who were amused that I wanted to help clean the dishes. My favorite meals were fish head soup (delicious once you got over the fish head) and boiled bananna flower which tastes a bit like artichoke. Lunch and dinner were followed by betelnut, lazyness, and attempts at conversation and laughter over its inefficiency.

On my first visit I stayed for 2 days. During the days I wandered around the village meeting carvers, watching the women weave palm fronds for an upcoming festival and playing with their children. (For anyone at CAS who is reading this: "motor boat" and "spaghetti arms" are now an international sensation).

As I was leaving, Maznah asked how long I spent in Kuala Lumpur. When I told her a week, she was a bit offended that I had only spent two days with her and she asked me to return in 10 days for the festival.

The second trip was similar to the first except I was somewhat less looked after. That is not to say that all my needs werent met (they were and then some) but I felt that I was less of a vouyer and more a guest. During the day I managed to read a bit of my book (im trying to tackle War and Peace) and go for a ride to the river. At night when the band from the next village showed up, none of the women would let me take a break from dancing. Acording to the the Maznah "I much good dance." I think she was just being polite :)

Much as i would like to describe the village as idyllic and the people as traditional the truth is that the Mah Meri are struggling incorperate modernization while holding onto their traditinal identity. The Mah Meri's land rights were not recognized for many years and palm oil plantations have encroached on their land so much that they are no longer able to subside by fishing and forraging. Everywhere around the village are constrasting images of modernity and tradition. The oldest generation speaks no english and had no formal education while the youngest generation is receiving a standard education from a new school on the island. Everyone still lives in raised huts with thached rooves but the teenagers take breaks from their weaving to answer text messages on their cell phones.

For the Mah Meri it seems that daily objects and lifestyle were the medium through which culture was transmitted from generation to generation. But, as those lifestyles and objects are no longer possible or necessary the memory of their traditional culture is fading. In an attempt to strike a balance between the benifits of modernity and the importance of history Ra-tah and the villagers are attempting to make comercially viable replics of taditional objects that can supliment their inome while keeping tradition and traditionals skills alive.

After two days of negotiating, I managed to purchase a small moyang votive statue from Piun. He is the eldest wood carver and recently recieved a UNESCO award for his work.

Take care,


Posted by J kerouac 01:03 Archived in Malaysia

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