Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Long December

it's been
a long December,
but there's reason to believe...
maybe this year will be better than the last.

it's just another day up in the canyon,
another night down in oblivion.
with no stars out there to guide you...
where are You?


you stand, you stand, you stand up...

the stars... the stars are out again.

- with a little help from Counting Crows

i had supper at home

i was having supper near the train station at home in Taiping just now - studying makes one really hungry. that, and the fact that i have resigned myself to being a pig everytime i'm home. i sleep more and eat more, and i cancel football dates with my friends. pig.

i was alone, and i brought a book to supper. i had half boiled eggs that were fantastic! and then i saw this old man, in his 40s i should guess, sitting comfortably at the table opposite mine.

he was fat and alone (maybe he's married, but where was his wife at 2am?), and he had his feet up. it seemed another idyllic picture of another small town, until he began scratching himself you-know-where.

man-oh-man, i HOPE that in 20 years time, i don't end up like that guy! at the very least i'll scratch privates in private!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Taman Melur Guide to Pissing in the Dark

Taman Melur (Jasmine Garden) is the name of the housing estate in which i stayed in Teluk Intan. a beautifully fragrant name isn't it, for a housing estate - but like i pictured a few days earlier, hardly the kind of stuff to make Beautiful Homes on Discovery Travel and Adventure.

now the toilet in the house in which i stayed measures about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long. you open the door and you notice that the floor is cleaner than the bathroom (because it's drier, no doubt), but the damn spiders are everywhere. there is a pair of slippers on the floor that nobody ever uses because of suspect hygiene, and there is a squat-type toilet about 3 feet from the door and it's elevated about 4 inches from the door level.

there are a lot of cobwebs around the cistern, so you have to be careful not to brush on any spider-food when you try to flush your exertions down the drain.

there is no light in the toilet - it's devoid of any holes that may even guide you to your target. so for the benefit of people anywhere in the world who may one day find themselves in the situation where they are in a light-less toilet with an intense sensation down there - i have put together The Taman Melur Guide to Pissing in the Dark, as follows:

1. When nature really calls, try to find an alternative to a light-less toilet, such as tree trunks illuminated by street lamps, the nearest petrol station, the neighbour's house, or diapers.

2. If alternatives unavailable or inaccessible, proceed to nearest light-less toilet.

3. Open the door as widely as possible in order to let maximum illumination into the toilet, and observe for 30 seconds the condition of the toilet and the distance between important landmarks (unhygienic slippers, the pipe in your way, the single step to the bowl, the cistern and prominent cobwebs.

4. Take a deep breath, step in, close the door and stop breathing. Step as close as possible to the bowl and then prepare to excrete.

5. Aim for the dark spot in the middle of the whiteness, because it is the black hole that is part of the white bowl. Begin excretion.

6. Confirm correct aim by listening to the sound of splashing water and the absence of urine splashes on your feet. When aim is confirmed, freeze. As flow diminishes, adjust position using micro-manipulators and mechano-actuators to maintain accuracy.

7. Finish up by opening the door, taking a deep breath and flushing, all the time maintaining safe distance from spider-food.


appreciate it, it was only through painstaking trial and error that such a guide can be compiled in the first place.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

coins and such

this blog has never had a picture in it. primarily that's because i don't own a digital camera, or an infrared port for my camera phone. i guess that's both a boon and a bane - the PRO is that you get a lot of words written to tell a story, the CON is that you get a lot of words written to tell a story.

but anyway - i want to illustrate now how endearing Teluk Intan is to me. i'm a big fan of the past and anything retro and antique-ish. my dad collects antiques, he loves restoring them. i guess that's how i got the bug. it's also got a lot to do with the whole "immutability of the past" and "change is scary" philosophies - but mainly it's because antiques are usually hand-crafted and therefore possesses more aesthetic value.

but anyway - when i was in Teluk Intan 2 months ago during my 3rd rotation, i suddenly was acutely aware one afternoon, that my entire pocket was filled with change. it was really heavy, and i dislike having a lot of things in my pocket. i'm a bit of a minimalist, shorts whenever possible, no cash in my wallet because it makes it very bulky, no need for one million icons on the desktop, 3 pairs of underwear will do, minimum keys and loose change, scoring goals with one touch. ok, so i'm kidding about the underwear.

but anyway - the coins, right? i've got a handful of them, and i was bored, so i decided to count them and see how much i had. i had about $2 in loose change, with 7 coins in total. now 5 of those coins were from the old minting series, discontinued in phases starting the late 1980s.

now i bet that if you take a handful of coins in KL you'll find that the majority of, if not all, the coins will be from the new minting series. but in Teluk Intan, a town trapped between history and the future - the majority of coins are from the past.

yes, this is an imperfect experiment - but hey, isn't it romantic to just live with the idea that there are towns in Malaysia that have such strong links to the past, where nothing much changes, people don't move out indiscriminately, where the life is still elegantly simple and simply elegant?

what a thought, isn't it? *smile*

Monday, December 26, 2005

housing in Teluk Intan

the place i stayed in in Teluk Intan (yes, we're continuing the subject) is a low-cost single-storey terrace house in a housing estate surrounded on 3 sides by an oil palm plantation and on the 4th by the trunk road to Ipoh. there are 4 of those houses rented by UKM, 2 for the ladies and 2 for the gents.

naturally, by some inexplicable pre-ordained arrangement, the nicer houses (meaning better renovated, cleaner, better located houses with fancier faux wrought-iron gates) were given up to the ladies. musn't grumble about this one.

the house that the guys invariably stayed in was the one that's furthest away from the access road, opposite an empty plot of land overgrown with lallang and all manner of insects. i haven't had the chance to make a comparison, so i'll comment that it's perpetually cobwebbed, dusty and mouldy.

generally, the guys like to sleep in the living room, but because it can only take a maximum of 4-5 at a time, i'm quite happy to have a little privacy in the master bedroom. well, you'll call it privacy if you didn't include the presence of the 8 spiders and 187 mosquitoes. there are 2 bunk beds in the room, with about 3 feet of space between them. somehow, we slept on the top bunks, reasoning that the dust should be less at such rarefied altitudes.

perhaps, but that put me about 4 feet from the ceiling, and about 3.5 feet from the 3 spiders who chose to set up home directly above me - one directly above my chest, another above my crotch, the last above my feet.

now these spiders - they don't look poisonous, with long thin legs and non-threatening-looking cobwebs (more enticing to their prey perhaps) - but the second night i was there i took a good look at them and realised that i was *very* near a potentially fatal, embarassing or incapacitating (in that order) bite. i didn't sleep well that night.

at least 15 different species of mushrooms, fungi and moulds awaited us in the bathroom. the toilet was better - staffed with the requisite spiders and with no working light, but no mushrooms.

one will think that we're a step upwards now - living creatures that don't move. but man, you've got to just take a bath there to realise that there are rules. for instance, there's a small "Dead Zone" in the middle of the bathroom, a rough circle measuring about 1 feet plus in diameter. that's the zone without any life - and that's exactly where you want to stand while you pour cold water on yourself.

and then you'll need blinkers. you don't want to take notice of the afore-mentioned mushrooms on the walls, on the ceiling, along the pipes and of course, the "Non-Dead Zone" on the floor.

oh, when you're hanging your towel, don't forget to keep as small an area as possible in contact with the wall. it looks clean... but you never know.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas - How Shalt we Celebrate?

for Christmas the past 8 years, Bruce Wall, a theatrical director, has been going to some prisons to share Shakespeare with the inmates there. he taught iambic pentameters, sonnets and Old English - and then went ahead and asked them to write their poetry a la Shakespeare. here's my favourite, courtesy of The Guardian:


At Christmas I no more desire a rose
I no more yearn to see the bars stand proud.
I no more lust to party with this crowd
I merely covet the joys that freedom grows.

At Christmas I don't beg my family's call
I no more yearn my sole child's shame to see
I no more crave that "Happy Christmas" plea
I merely thirst to move beyond these walls.

Of Christmas I no more aspire to think
No more the joys of Christmas morn entreat
No more hunger I such rich fruit to eat
I merely sit; mind lost upon a brink.

On Christmas day to save us Christ was born
Still, my child sits home. Alone. Forlorn.

HMP Brixton


we all too frequently forget other people during times of joyous celebration - let's spare a thought, shall we?

Merry Christmas, dear world.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Teluk Intan - town of smiles

this is a town where everyone's always smiling. you find it so easy to smile at people here - at the hospital, at the traffic lights, at lunch. you smile at everyone - at the cleaners, the sour-faced puss at lunch, a middle-aged old lady on a motorcycle at the traffic lights - it's almost like it's expected of you, and you're quite happy to live up to this particular expectation.

this is a small town set in the heart of a rural part of malaysia. rural folk from rural outposts and villages come to the hospital - sometimes taking a bus, sometimes a few buses - to get their diseases looked at. they're strong folk, used to a life of hardship and toil, and they don't mind making the weekly/monthly trek to the hospital and then waiting patiently for the doctor to attend to them. and the appreciation they show... you sense it a lot more than you see/hear it. it's a voluminous gratitude emanating from the core of their souls, manifested as a simple "Thank You" perhaps, but underlined with sincere and deep happiness inside their hearts.

*smile* if cynicism needs reversing, maybe a trip to the frontier is in order, with strict instructions to see with the heart, not the head.

Friday, December 23, 2005

(i tried very hard, but must every post have a title?)

dear swee kheng,

i'm back from Teluk Intan, a small town about 2 hours north of KL. it means Bay of Pearls in the malay language - such a charmingly natural name for a town huh? i was there for a week, training in the hospital there as part of my curriculum.

this was my fourth time there. and because i have 4 different rotations in my final year, this was also my last time there. it was with a nagging sense of reluctance that i left Teluk Intan, for a number of reasons.

so i came back to my hostel - there were christmas presents hung on my door, a christmas card (actually more like a christmas note), notes on everybody else's doors wishing happy holidays and good luck for exams, the water filter was filled to the brim with water, bathroom cleaned - but no people present.

in the week while i was away, one of my housemates finished his 3rd year and left for home. one of my other housemates, best friends since 1st year, left to spend christmas in Kuantan. the 3rd room was locked; someone new had moved in but i haven't met him yet.

i'm left alone, with my laundry and memories, my nostalgic longings and beckoning future, with my music, with my books, with my room... with my self.

all at once, my entire 5 years in medical school boiled down to today, to this moment, the evening 2 days before Christmas. when i got home from my final attachment in Teluk Intan, i was:
- coming home to a housemate who finished his 3rd year (making me realise the finality of ALL our journeys in life)
- coming home to a housemate who left for Christmas with his girlfriend (making me realise the imminent-ness of parting with my friends, just 6 months away)
- hit with the realisation that my professional exams are 11 weeks away, representing the single biggest challenge i have EVER faced, bar none (making me afraid)

i knew that from now on, i'm on a slippery slope towards increasing responsibility; work, family, human life. Teluk Intan was almost a holiday (i had enjoyed myself with good friends), and i knew that i had better get it over with as early as possible as i needed to settle down to intense work. intense work that will lead to my exams, that will lead to a 2 month break before work begins, that will lead to a 30year career in something. my student life is over - the period of no obligations is over.

i'm not that weak - i don't fear loneliness, i don't fear challenges. but you know, when you spend 18 years of your life as a student, you fear the unknown. when you spend 5 years with your friends in the faculty, you thought it'll always go on and on. when you grow with your debate team, you find it hard to let go. when you've had some of the best times in your life with someone in particular, you are afraid to move away. when you realise that in 8 months time, you'll be responsible for someone else's life, it's just plain scary.

i have to grow up now, starting today, starting right now. i just wished i wasn't alone when this particular moment came.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

doctors and cab drivers

there was this UNHCR refugee, a 28 year old Achehnese with reactivated TB, who was referred to HUKM by a MSF doctor and i was asked to go help out. it all went well, no problems with registration etc, but he couldn't be admitted to HUKM because we ran out of beds (funny for a 800+ bed hospital, tertiary hospital, university teaching hospital, malaysia's premier hospital) and therefore had to be referred to GHKL.

so i went out with these 3 guys, and i spotted a taxi coming into the hospital on the other side of the road, so i went over and hailed it - wearing my white coat and in collars. the taximan stopped, a malay guy in his 40s. i saw that there was a fare in his cab, so i told him that i would cross the road and wait for him there when he got out. he was all smiles and said ok.

so i crossed the road and joined the refugee and his 2 friends to wait for the cab to take them to GHKL. 3 minutes later the cab came along, having dropped his fare off in the hospital.

i stuck out an arm to indicate that i was the one who spoke to him just now, but as he got nearer he didn't stop or slow down. instead, he waved his arm and shook his head, and disappeared.

so they looked like indonesians, and being in hospitals it likely meant that they had some sort of disease - i can understand how he would want to refuse this particular fare. but the look on his face, the two sides of the same person - to a doctor hailing a cab and to 3 Indonesians hailing a cab - i'm angry.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Cambodian Midget Fighting League (CMFL)

BBC headlined a report recently: "LION MUTILATES 42 MIDGETS IN CAMBODIAN RINGFIGHT", so i think this particular story warrants a full re-telling!

now there exists in Cambodia a Cambodian Midget Fighting League (CMFL). there are 42 midgets in this league, but it's not immediately clear what they fight for, or who they fight with. anyway, i'm guessing the reason why they're in the CMFL is because they're, well, midgets, and we all know midgets don't get much employment opportunities.

so, their boss goes around boasting that his CMFL can (and will) take on any man, beast or machine, and beat them. this boast reaches the ears of another Cambodian, who senses a marketing opportunity - and promptly challenges the CMFL boss (not sure if HE's a midget) to pit his entire CMFL against... an African lion.

so they get the lion from somewhere, and maybe grease some palms in the government to let the fight go ahead.

and so they fought - 42 midgets, the entire crew of the CMFL pitted against a single African lion, who isn't too pleased that the 42 midgets were taunting him (to entertain the crowd, i'm sure), and proceeded to fight back.

whereupon 8 minutes into the fight, it was called off... because the lion had already killed 13 midgets.

which just leaves us with one question - do these midgets get to choose who they fight?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Shobin Durairaj (11), Penang

this is an actual letter written by Shobin Durairaj, aged 11, from Penang - on page 21 on Variety in The Star newspaper, Sunday, 11 December 2005.

"I LOVE cars. I started learning the names of cars when I was still a little guy. My favourite cars are Mitsubishi Evo IX, Nissan Skyline GTR34-V Spectwin Turbo and Peugeot 406 Coupe 2.2 HDI because they are fast and foxy. I bet I know more about cars than you do. My ambition is to be a car designer."


"...because they are fast and foxy..." usually doesn't feature in the vocabulary of 11 year old boys, unless puberty has set in early. and even then, usually it's to describe girls and not a few kilograms of aluminium, plastic and rubber.

"I bet I know more about cars than you do"... strong words indeed, little guy. but you know, i bet you can't drive one.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

i've got a sore throat!

voice boxes are for communication purposes. the vocalis muscle inserts directly into the vocal cords and are responsible for phonation. it is innervated by the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

the posterior cricoarytenoid muscle is arguably the most important muscle in the human body - being the only muscle responsible for abducting (opening up) the vocal cords, without which we will not be able to breathe.

so anyway, those two muscles and a few others and some mucosal surfaces are inflamed in my throat. and it hurts, bad.

talking hurts, swallowing hurts, breathing sometimes hurts. i'm hurting, sigh, and yet i have to continue working. hope this gets better - real soon!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Paediatric Assessment

i've got an idea to pass my clinical exams tomorrow.

i'm told that in undergraduate medical exams, one is passed, until proven to be so inept that one has to be failed. the converse is true in postgraduate exams - where one is considered to have failed, until proven to be able to redeem one's self.

so, i've got 20 minutes tomorrow during my clinical exams. a lot would depend on me not doing so much damage that i will fail. it's only 20 minutes - surely i can last that long sounding intelligent and correct?