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Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT – Ampang Line

More end-of-Ramadan decorations and snippets of Malaysian culture as I visit each station on the Ampang Light Rail Transit line in Kuala Lumpur.

I’m back in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, where I spent six months in 2012, and I arrived during the fasting month of Ramadan.  To re-map the city in my mind, while learning more about Malay customs, I’ve been visiting the Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations to view their decorations for Hari Raya or Eid at the end of Ramadan.  You can see what I’ve learned so far about city and culture, food and forgiveness, at Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT, continued in Rapid KL Ramadan – Part Two.  In those posts I traversed all 24 Light Rail Transit (LRT) stops on the Kelana Jaya line, my home track of 2012.

The Ampang Adventure

The next challenge was to hit the LRT stations on the Y-shaped Ampang Line.  It has 27 km of track through 25 stations, with no tunnels so there are city views all the way (for more details, see Wikipedia).  The Ampang line trains are older than on the Kelana Jaya line (although a new fleet is arriving this year), with human drivers instead of automation and carriages that are more chunky and square.  A few of their Hari Raya displays showed more creative flair.  (Click on any photos below to zoom.)

The Ampang Line would take me to less familiar terrain than the Kelana Jaya line.  I’d been to none of these stations this year, except Masjid Jamek where the two lines cross, so there were no shortcuts this time.  I had to disembark at each stop (though found a few stations had already dismantled their displays), and chose to complete each branch of the Y on three successive afternoons.

In 1857 a local Raja sent 87 Chinese up the river and through the jungle to mine for tin in this area.  69 died of malaria within a month and more men were sent.  The mines flourished, forming the first settlement of Kuala Lumpur and leaving several lakes in the former pits – I jog around one every week.  Reflecting this history, “Ampang” means dam in Malay.  As I took a Saturday afternoon bus down Jalan Ampang to pick up the northeast terminus at Ampang Station, the vehicular flow seemed to be dammed and I almost wished I’d walked.  At last the station sign appeared and I clambered out of the bus, up and over the pedestrian bridge, and commenced phase two of my Ramadan railway ramblings.


AG8-AmpangAG8 – Ampang

A bright display at the first station, with season’s greetings in Malay and transliterated Arabic, and objects I often saw on my previous ride.  There were pelita or small lamps at the corners, and many checkered green and yellow artificial ketupat – the theme specified by Rapid KL for this year’s Hari Raya station decorations.  The real items are woven from palm leaves and packed with rice that’s boiled into a solid cake.  (I described ketupat more fully near the start of my first post in the series.)

AG8-Ampang-hari-raya

A new feature was the Muslim prayer above the route plan on the way to the platform – Malaysia Airlines displayed the same prayer after the safety video just before taking off.

AG8-Ampang-lrt-map-prayer

Once on board and waiting for the train to depart, I was pleased to see what is now a less common phenomenon: a girl was reading a bona fide physical book!  A heartening sight, and the name of my next stop even means radiance or light.  It seemed an auspicious start.


AG7-CahayaAG7 – Cahaya

Ketupats big and small alongside the ticket machine, along with pretty blackboard calligraphy and oil wick lamps, which were elsewhere mounted on bamboo poles.

AG7-Cahaya-hari-raya

These first stations are among the smallest in the city, just a solid awning over platforms either side of the rails, with no attached shops or indoor hallways.


AG6-CempakaAG6 – Cempaka

My dictionary says cempaka is a flowering shrub like frangipani.  I spotted a pinboard with a few flat paper ketupats over the ticket gates and wasn’t too impressed, then found the main display beneath the service counter.  It was a model village house, complete with thatched roof and furniture of clothes pegs, recalling the rocking chair I once made at a craft class in school holidays.  Providing relief from the oversized ketupats of most displays, this just had cute little ones like blossoms on the tree.

AG6-Cempaka-hari-raya


AG5-Pandan IndahAG5 – Pandan Indah

More thatching and pot plants here, appropriate when the station’s name means “beautiful pandanus”.  Plus a big pot to boil those ketupats over the fire.

AG5-Pandan Indah-hari-raya

Back on board the train, we’re now tracking along the narrow Kerayong River, perhaps one those first miners dammed.


AG4-Pandan JayaAG4 – Pandan Jaya

Continuing the botanical streak, this station’s name means “victorious pandanus”, but I was told their display had been removed.  I shot the commercial cardboard decoration in the service counter window instead.

AG4-Pandan Jaya-hari-raya


AG3-MaluriAG3 – Maluri

I don’t know what Maluri means and I didn’t understand what the guy I asked was saying, but I found no sign of a Hari Raya display here.  I heard thunder from the distant hills and a cool breeze dried my sweat as I waited on the platform.


AG2-MiharjaAG2 – Miharja

More luck here, with a couch, decorative crinkled paper discs, and collection of Hari Raya greeting cards.

AG2-Miharja-hari-raya

It began to pour and the train waited a little at the station before continuing.


ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow LinST1-PH1-AG1- Chan Sow Lin

Quite different from others with its geometric abstraction, like a work of Islamic art, capped by colour-coordinated cards and ketupats.  The top display of the line so far at this junction station, which I think is the only stop with a Chinese name.

ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow Lin-hari-raya


ST2-PuduST2 – Pudu

Starting to show its age, with a few letters fallen off the sign and the right-hand pillar-case collapsing, but still a cheerful sight.  The guard who saw me admiring the arrangement thought it needed a third cartoon character to complete the scene so took a photo with me in the middle.

ST2-Pudu-hari-raya

I thought the hanging ketupats were prettier, with duit raya envelopes for end-of-Ramadan gifts of pocket money (I described this practice in my first post).

ST2-Pudu-ketupat


ST3-Hang TuahST3 – Hang Tuah

An interchange station with the monorail, near Kuala Lumpur’s “Star Walk” shopping precinct.  And this Hari Raya display was the star of the entire LRT network, the biggest in every way.  The side-show at right had the best-equal real leaf ketupats I saw, in both the iconic crosshatched diamond and plainer triangular forms.

ST3-Hang Tuah-ketupat

Dominating the transit hall was the main feature, a kampung or village house of white Styrofoam, including a rooster on the roof.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-raya

I was joined in my admiration by characters in the style of Malaysia’s leading cartoonist Lat (see Wikipedia).  I also liked the innovative white ketupats at left, with their elegant Chinese-looking patterns.

ST3-Hang Tuah-lat-cartoons

I passed a bonus display on the station’s namesake, the legendary Malay hero Hang Tuah, as I headed out for a snack of roti sardin: sardine and onion wrapped in thin layers of dough and fried.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hero


ST4-Plaza RakyatST4 – Plaza Rakyat

Back to a good example of the usual style of display, with bright coloured checkers and flowers inside a village fence, and information sheets on ketupat.

ST4-Plaza Rakyat-hari-raya


ST5-Masjid Jamek-2ST5 – Masjid Jamek

This station is at the junction of the two rivers for which the city is named: Kuala Lumpur literally means “muddy confluence”.  It’s also at the intersection of the two LRT lines and I explored the Hari Raya theme of forgiveness here in Rapid KL Ramadan Part Two.  Outside the station I found a life-size character from Lat, the cartoonist who inspired the models two stations back.

ST5-Masjid Jamek-lat-character

At a street stall I paid two ringgits for three large samosas with different fillings to fortify myself for the northern stretch.


ST6-BandarayaST6 – Bandaraya

Artificial roses along a kampung fence.

ST6-Bandaraya-hari-raya


ST7-Sultan IsmailST7 – Sultan Ismail

The highlight here was the domed tower, probably recycled from last year’s Rapid KL theme of mosques.

ST7-Sultan Ismail-hari-raya


ST8-PWTCST8 – PWTC

A vine trellis and china tea set were the original features at the Putra World Trade Centre stop that overlooks some small river rapids.

ST8-PWTC-hari-raya


ST9-TitiwangsaST9 – Titiwangsa

Near my favourite park in town, where locals play water polo on lovely lakes, but with no display to be found.


ST10-SentulST10 – Sentul

I guessed this was partly disassembled from its former glory, so I just zoomed from the ticket gate.

ST10-Sentul-hari-raya


ST11-Sentul TimurST11 – Sentul Timur

At the end of the line, with flowers blossoming in the low sun, the curtains reminded me of a wedding canopy.

ST11-Sentul Timur-hari-raya

Outside the station, new concrete apartments were under construction, towering over the historical suburb with its Hindu and Buddhist temples.  I hope KL in 10 years won’t have lost its soul.


PH2-CherasPH2 – Cheras

Cartoon coconut trees and tinsel at the 48th station I visited, completing my two-week mission.

PH2-Cheras-hari-raya


PH3-Salak SelatanPH3 – Salak Selatan

Cardboard cut-outs and pelita lamps.

PH3-Salak Selatan-hari-raya


PH4-Bandar Tun RazakPH4 – Bandar Tun Razak

An outdoor scene, with a pot to boil the ketupat and a wok with paddle for dodol.  Rice flour, coconut milk, palm sugar, and sometimes the pungent fruit of durian, are stirred for up to 8 hours in villages at Hari Raya to prepare this sweet and sticky toffee.

PH4-Bandar Tun Razak-hari-raya


PH5-Bandar Tasik SelatanPH5 – Bandar Tasik Selatan

No Raya display found.


PH6-Sungai BesiPH6 – Sungai Besi

The display from behind the ticket gates:

PH6-Sungai Besi-hari-raya-back

And the front view from the other side:

PH6-Sungai Besi-hari-raya

Having swiped out of the system, I took a dinner break: char kway teow or fried flat noodles, washed down with a cool kopi ais.


PH7-Bukit JalilPH7 – Bukit Jalil

Out here there’s more greenery and the track passes arenas built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.  Across from the platform is Bukit Jalil National Stadium, the largest in Southeast Asia, with three tiers of 87,411 seats.  The station display is a winner as well – the biggest and best show on this branch of the line.  Real palms, ketupats of transparent cellophane that I haven’t seen before, and branches ready to burn under pot and wok.

PH7-Bukit Jalil-hari-raya


PH8-Sri PetalingPH8 – Sri Petaling

The terminal station is next to the International Medical University, where my former University of Auckland biochemistry lecturer now works.  Less action here, for a lower key end to the line.

PH8-Sri Petaling-hari-raya


So the top stop question: out of 25 stations on the Ampang line, which had my favourite decorations?  PH7 Bukit Jalil takes the prize for the Sri Petaling branch.

PH7-Bukit Jalil-hari-raya-portrait

The junction at AG1 Chan Sow Lin most brightened up my day on the Ampang segment.

ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow Lin-hari-raya-portrait

And the display that gave the most delight, my overall Rapid KL Ramadan winner, which most impressively broke out of the coloured checkered ketupat box, was clearly ST3 Hang Tuah.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-raya-double

Last week I saw this station’s polystyrene props had been replaced with Malaysian flags for Independence Day next week.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-merdeka

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Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT – Part Two

I continue my romp along the Kelana Jaya Light Rail Transit line in Kuala Lumpur, renewing my acquaintance with the city, viewing station displays for Hari Raya, exploring forgiveness and Malaysian traditions of Ramadan.

For the motivation for my project, and Stations 1 to 11 (Gombak to Kampung Baru), see Part One.  Click on any photos below to expand them.

lrt-station-tunnel

There’s a warning beep, the doors slide shut, and I grab a strap as the train pulls off from KJ11 Kampung Baru.  Platform lights and advertising quickly fade away as we speed into the darkness beneath Kuala Lumpur’s CBD.  I’m en route for next stop, next photo, next encounter on my railway-raya mission.


KJ12-Dang WangiKJ12 – Dang Wangi

I presume the old mosque photos are remainders from last year’s theme.  I’d have liked to be here – there might have been more variety than the artificial ketupats (a special food for Hari Raya introduced in Part One), which are indeed pretty, but getting a little repetitive by halfway through.

Again the phrase “maaf zahir batin” that you see everywhere during Hari Raya.  “Maaf” means forgive, “zahir” means external or physical, “batin” means internal, emotional or spiritual.  In all, a request for comprehensive forgiveness, which is a major theme of Ramadan.

KJ12-Dang Wangi-hari-raya

Not only does God promise forgiveness to those who keep the fast, but in many Muslim countries prisoners are pardoned at Ramadan.  On the morning of Hari Raya here in Malaysia, Malays don new clothes (often shiny satin pyjamas) and visit family graves, then ask parents and others for forgiveness.  It’s doubtless often a mere formality, but for many it seems to be a deeply moving time.  Some say the ketupat has a rough outside of woven leaves that represents our sins, while the white rice inside, like the new Raya clothes, symbolises our new purity once washed clean through Ramadan.

Every Ramadan Malaysian companies produce videos reflecting the traditional themes we are seeing here.  On 30th June this year, for example, TV broadcaster Astro showed the above true story of ex-drug addict Herman asking his father for forgiveness.  It was introduced with the words,

“We have all made mistakes or chosen the wrong path at one stage of our lives… It is never too late to seek or accept forgiveness because forgiveness has no boundaries.  Tiada Noktah Untuk Kemaafan….  We would like to wish all Malaysians, Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.  Maaf Zahir Batin, Kosong Kosong.”


KJ13-Masjid JamekKJ13 – Masjid Jamek

Located at the junction of the city’s two LRT lines, this is one of the busiest stations.  Their Raya display had elf-like characters in a ketupat-patterned train or bus.

KJ13-Masjid Jamek-hari-raya

The Masjid Jamek station’s advertising often narrates a story right along the wall – above is the start of a Samsung-facilitated romance.  Right now the station also has Astro’s more meaningful advertising, based on this year’s Ramadan hashtag of #kosongkosong.  The word kosong means empty, nil, no score, zero, “not written or printed on”, the blank slate after Ramadan-Raya forgiveness and reconciliation when debts are written off and past wrongs wiped away.  A man in one advert says, “I’d like to patch things up and kosong-kosong with my neighbour”.  The corridor between Masjid Jamek platforms begins with the KL skyline alongside a village scene and the words “Try forgiveness, share with sincerity.  Share your stories of kosong-kosong”.

KJ13-Masjid Jamek-kosong-kosong

The rest of the wall is painted with quotes on Raya forgiveness from local celebrities.  “I want to kosong-kosong with all the teachers at my school because formerly I was very naughty.”  “I want to kosong-kosong with the inhabitants of Kayu Ara because I used to always steal bananas near the prayer room.”  “I’m easily angered, but if I do wrong I quickly ask forgiveness.” (Left below)  “I used to skip fasting and forced my friends to buy food at the canteen.  Please forgive me!” (Right below)

kosong-kosong-forgiveness

A month of fasting, then the day that brings forgiveness and reconciliation.  A little like Lent and Easter.  Coming home to bright new clothes and a fresh new start, joy and gifts and a feast. Echoes of Christmas and Christ’s parables.


KJ14-Pasar SeniKJ14 – Pasar Seni

On the way to this station we pop above ground again and the train speeds through the concrete-glass jungle for more great views of this great city.

lrt-city

A lady stepped before my lens as I shot the simple Hari Raya display from afar, through a gateway advertising lemon tea.

KJ14-Pasar Seni-hari-raya


KJ15-KL SentralKJ15 – KL Sentral

The central train station had both a Hari Raya presentation on the ground and the largest hanging sign of any station, in an elegant Arabic-type font.

KJ15-KL Sentral-hari-raya

KJ15-KL Sentral-hari-raya-sign

The adjacent Nu Sentral mall (new since I was here in 2012) had the biggest Hari Raya village scene I saw.

KJ15-KL Sentral-nu-sentral-mall

As we pull out of KL Sentral the train speeds between futuristic glass towers.  It’s like a sci-fi movie – I half expect to see the Millennium Falcon docking above or an X-wing fighter zipping past.  Maybe this stretch of track inspired the life-size model-mural on the wall outside Masjid Jamek station:

kl-lrt-mural-sci-fi


KJ16-BangsarKJ16 – Bangsar

This station is near a Ramadan Bazaar known for its coloured kuih or sweets (see Timeout KL), as bright as the upper part of the display.

KJ16-Bangsar-hari-raya

Bangsar itself is a more upmarket expat suburb, reflected in the elegant drawing-room beneath, complete with framed photos of station staff, grandmotherly flowers (again), and the rural kampung scene relegated to a painting.

KJ16-Bangsar-hari-raya-detail

One evening after dinner I found a bonus display at Bangsar station further outside.

KJ16-Bangsar-hari-raya-outside


KJ17-Abdullah HukumKJ17 – Abdullah Hukum

A station I’ve seldom visited, with a bright display that I simply shot from the ticket gates – the mosque domes perhaps recycled from last year.  Outside, the brown-cream mosque under construction in 2012 appears to be complete, and cranes are erecting new tower blocks in every direction.

KJ17-Abdullah Hukum-hari-raya


KJ18-KerinchiKJ18 – Kerinchi

Again very green – as in India, often seen as the colour of Islam.  By now it was getting late for lunch and I wouldn’t have minded if I’d had to swipe out through the gate.  Being near my old stomping grounds, I knew there was a shady street stall of tasty fare around the corner outside.  But the display was inside, so I soldiered on.

KJ18-Kerinchi-hari-raya


KJ19-UniversitiKJ19 – Universiti

The stop for the University of Malaya (I visited the campus several times in 2012), with annoyingly bright sunlight behind the display and an elegant banner contrasting with the cartoon figures.

KJ19-Universiti-hari-raya

Now comes a long stretch of track past a forested hill.  When I hiked through here three years ago I was a little nervous of the monkeys.  After the Masjid Jamek mural, I wonder if there are bigger creatures in the jungle now.

kl-lrt-mural-wild-life


KJ20-Taman JayaKJ20 – Taman Jaya

A good effort from my home station of three years ago, beneath the Amcorp Mall apartment where I lived.  The only display with herons (or any bird).

KJ20-Taman Jaya-hari-raya

Inside the mall for Hari Raya was a village house façade.

KJ20-Taman Jaya-amcorp-mall

And here’s the station’s flag-draped Independence-Raya display I shot in 2012.

KJ20-Taman Jaya-hari-raya-2012


KJ21-Asia JayaKJ21 – Asia Jaya

A clean and compact display, with ketupats, duit raya envelopes and pelitas (definitions in Part One), all pleasingly balanced between ticket gates.  My sense of direction is less well-balanced as I’m on-off-on-off, and the stations are merging in my mind until I forget which platform I arrived on or which way I was going.

KJ21-Asia Jaya-hari-raya


KJ22-Taman ParamountKJ22 – Taman Paramount

Further from the centre, the tracks winds through tropical foliage that constantly threatens to submerge the buildings.

lrt-suburbs

A modest display brightened up by the best electric ketupats of any station, while the bathroom entrance showed off their five-star win in the 2013 Clean Toilet Campaign.

KJ22-Taman Paramount-hari-raya


KJ23-Taman BahagiaKJ23 – Taman Bahagia

Past a golden mosque dome glinting in the sun and we come to station 23.  It’s early afternoon, my stomach is rumbling, and – despite air-conditioned trains between stations – I’m feeling rather warm.  Commuters cluster under the platform fans.  Here at the penultimate stop is a cheerful display with ketupats like slices of Rubik cubes.  Only one more stage to go before I’m done and can head for the restaurants opposite Kelana Jaya.

KJ23-Taman Bahagia-hari-raya


KJ24-Kelana JayaKJ24 – Kelana Jaya

The end of the line!  An ex-local who has emigrated to Australia and clearly absorbed the culture – sunnies on his forehead and shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest – offered to snap me and I accepted (unusually), to prove I’d made it.  Beneath the platform, my final Raya display photo was delayed by guards toting large guns as I heard clinking and clashing.  The ticket dispensers were being opened to unload the cash into large dark sacks.

KJ24-Kelana Jaya-hari-raya“Syawal” comes after Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, a month of celebration to balance the month of self-denial.  My water bottle had run out a few stations back and breakfast had been 24 stations away at Gombak, so it was time to break my own brief fast and transit across the highway overbridge towards a celebratory lunch.  RM7 for a dried fish, dal and flavoursome sauces on rice, washed down by an ice coffee and a chat with immigrant waiters from Bangalore and Indonesia.

KJ24-Kelana Jaya-victory

Cost of an edutaining day: RM15 (under NZ$6) for three meals and drinks, plus RM12.40 on the train for 24 LRT stations and 24 Hari Raya arrangements.  I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.  If I made any errors along the way or offended any readers, minta maaf, I hope you’ll forgive me and we’ll be kosong-kosong.  As Abu Bakar, Mohammed’s father-in-law, says at left below, “Water will not break when it’s chopped up.  Accept my sincere apology.”

kosong-kosong-quotes

And now, the obvious question.  Which station has the best display?  I can’t see a clear winner, but my favourite three were Damai (KJ8), Bangsar (KJ16) and Asia Jaya (KJ21), with a big bonus prize to Masjid Jamek station (KJ13) for its moving and amusing murals both inside and out.

lrt-train-mural-kuala-lumpur

Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT

Trains and tunnels, ketupats and kampungs, fasting and food and forgiveness.  I take the Kelana Jaya line across Kuala Lumpur, rediscover the city, and learn how Malaysians celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Light Rail Transit and the Ketupat Challenge

Three years ago in Malaysia I was charmed by the Muslim fasting month.  The array of Ramadan greeting cards in the supermarket, some with Arabic calligraphy swirling around lamps and mosques, others with comic cartoons in Malay slang I hardly understood.  The vibrant colours and aromas at the evening Ramadan markets, where I’d wait with hungry locals for the prayer call to sound at dusk so we could eat.  And the displays at the entrance of each Light Rail Transit (LRT) station for Hari Raya, the Malay celebration at the end of the fasting month that’s elsewhere known as Eid.  Evoking both spiritual values and the rural life of yesteryear, some reminded me of nativity scenes and Christmas.

Now I’m back in Malaysia, again in Kuala Lumpur during Ramadan, and thought it could be fun to visit and photograph each station’s Hari Raya decorations. I thought it must have been done, but Google found surprisingly few shots of said station decorations.  The challenge was on!  What better way to reacquaint myself with the city’s geography while learning more about Malaysian culture?

KJ1-Gombak-terminus

The Kelana Jaya line begins at Gombak to the north-east (terminus photo above), soars over roads and rivers on elevated rails for eight stations, dives underground beneath the CBD for another five, then re-emerges for more great views past 11 more stations before it terminates at Kelana Jaya to the south-west.  In all, 29 km through 24 stations.  (17 km of further track and 13 new stations are under construction.)  In 2012 I could list them all by heart, as both places I stayed were on this line.  (For more info, see Wikipedia.)

kelana-jaya-lrt

As I set out, a whole two dozen stations seemed intimidating.  Would I get through them all in one day?  At least I’d already seen and shot four or five LRT displays in the past fortnight, so could leapfrog over several stops.  I soon found that some Ramadan displays were inside the ticket gates and others further out, so I sometimes needed to exit the system for a clear view.  This meant paying another fare, but public transport costs much less than in New Zealand and it was a chance to poke around the station, practice reading Malay signs, and search outside for food and drink.

I learnt from station staff that Rapid KL, the public transportation operator, sets an annual theme for their Hari Raya decorations.  One year it was kampung or village.  The end of Ramadan brings the country’s biggest holiday (like Christmas in the West), when Malays gather with family in their home town for a week or so.  Malaysians share a sense of nostalgia for this “balik kampung” or return to the village, and malls throughout Kuala Lumpur have life-size models of village houses (see The Star’s 2015 photos here).  The day before Hari Raya two weeks ago 1.6 million vehicles clogged the highways out of town.

kampung-baru-lrt-2012

When I was here three years ago Hari Raya fell near Malaysia’s Independence Day so, I learnt, Rapid KL had a combined Merdeka (Independence)-Raya theme.  This explains why the 2012 LRT station displays included so many Malaysian flags, as in the photo above.  Last year’s Hari Raya motif on the LRT was mosques.  For 2015 the theme is “ketupat”.

Ketupats are pouches the size of a small fist in the shape of a diamond or a triangle.  They resemble items woven from flax by New Zealand Maori.  In one market I watched women wind ribbons of coconut palm leaf around the fingers of one hand, then tuck and turn and pull and presto – the ketupat was done!  The pouches are filled with rice and boiled until it expands and is compressed into a dense lump.  They are then cut open, and the rice cake typically diced and served with spicy beef rending or satay.  Over Hari Raya ketupats adorn greeting cards and posters, dangle on shiny green and yellow ribbons, and twinkle in chains of lights like on a Christmas tree.  You’ll see plenty below. (See Wikipedia on ketupat.)

Setting out with Lemang

Last Wednesday morning I left my guesthouse and walked to station number 7, Dato’ Keramat.  My dictionary defines “keramat” as a place that is “holy and sacred, endowed with supernatural or magical powers (such as the ability to cure sickness)” – an auspicious stop for my start.  On my way I passed a rack of bamboo tubes over a charcoal barbecue, like some infernal pipe organ as it billowed with smoke above the flames.  These were another Hari Raya special of lemang.  Hollow bamboo is lined with banana leaf and filled with glutinous rice and coconut milk.  Once cooked for several hours and cooled, the tubes are split open with a machete.  The compressed rice is sliced into disks and served much like ketupat rice cakes, with a more smoky-coconut flavour.  Lemang are in hot demand during Hari Raya – some stalls prepare hundreds per day.  Look out for bamboo tubes in the Raya photos below.

hari-raya-lemang

From Dato’ Keramat station I worked my way to the northern end in almost vacant trains, gloating to see the city-bound coaches were packed.  I then shot back to Damai station, jumped over Ampang Park and KLCC where I planned to eat dinner, and continued stop by stop to the far end (bar another jump over Taman Jaya and Asia Jaya where I’d been the night before).  For our photo journey online, however, let’s embark at the northern terminal of Gombak and track through the stations in order.


KJ1-GombakKJ1 – Gombak

Serenity at the end of the line, almost in the jungle, with the vapour trail of a plane hanging still in the sky.  There’s a parking building for commuters and buses leaving for the Genting Highlands and Batu Caves.  The Hari Raya display was tucked behind the ticket office, so I had to swipe out of the station.  I bought nasi lemak for a classic Malaysian breakfast: rice cooked in coconut milk, with salty anchovies, peanuts, spicy sambal sauce and – in this case – quail eggs.  Wrapped in a tetrahedron of banana leaf for RM3 (NZ$1.20).

nasi-lemak

As well as toy ketupats dangling from the bamboo fence and filling a cane basket, the Gombak display featured other items I’d see all day.  A metal and glass kerosene lantern, wick lamps on poles and models of oil lamps or pelita that flicker along pathways to village houses during Ramadan nights.  There was a mock wood fire under a pot for boiling the ketupats, a silver bowl and teapot for rinsing fingers before eating, and a basket of white and purple onions.  Later stations added baskets of cinnamon sticks, red peppers, or other spices.

KJ1-Gombak-hari-raya

The greeting on the big green diamond (with the cute little train fronts) is in Malay – “Selamat Hari Raya”, while the poster at left is in Arabic – “Salam Aidilfitri”.  1436 indicates the current Muslim year of 1436 AH, the number of lunar years (354 days) since the Hijra, Mohammed’s move from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.


KJ2-Taman MelatiKJ2 – Taman Melati

This station featured more pelita and ketupats, and pink artificial flowers which looked more like a bouquet in my granny’s house than a Malay artefact.  There was also a greeting from the staff, roughly reading:

A blessed Aidilfitri from Rapid KL.  We workers of the Taman Melati station wish you happy Hari Raya, complete forgiveness [more on this in Part Two], and a safe journey to your village.  Drive carefully.  Be careful on the highway.  Remember, dearly loved ones are waiting your return as a family.

KJ2-Taman Melati-hari-raya

We pass a pretty mosque dome, pink with daisy patterns above the lush green undergrowth, then corrugated iron roofs scattered among the foliage, before tidy rows of tiled roofs and Chinese restaurants announce the next stop.


KJ3-Wangsa MajuKJ3 – Wangsa Maju

I simply shot this display over the ticket barriers.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-hari-raya

I loitered here a few weeks ago at the neighbouring Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL feature), where I bought the new-fangled fusion of Maggi murtabak (see Wikipedia): instant noodles fried in a batter pancake.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-ramadan-market


KJ4-Sri RampaiKJ4 – Sri Rampai

This year’s display included paper figurines in a garden and a cane trap for fishing in rivers (at right).  From it dangled small envelopes for “duit raya”.  The National Bank reported withdrawals of RM 500 million the day before Hari Raya this year, 90% in one and five ringgit notes.  This is given in green envelopes to children as they visit houses with Hari Raya greetings.  The paper estimated that 5 million Muslim children 14 years old or under might receive five ringgit at each of 20 neighbourhood houses, making RM 100 or NZ $40 each.  This Malay tradition combines Muslim giving of alms, especially at Ramadan, and the red Ang Pow packets of cash delivered at Chinese New Year.  It reminds me of Halloween trick-or-treating in Colorado when I was six, filling my pumpkin-shaped bucket with candy as I knocked on doors around the block.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya

A mosque from last year’s decorations (1435 AH) hung on a back wall.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya-2014


KJ5-SetiawangsaKJ5 – Setiawangsa

Cubic cloth ketupats above coconuts on the floor.  There was also a “Pearl Word Corner” with posters of quotes like “Success comes in a can, not a can’t” and “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses” (Abraham Lincoln).

KJ5-Setiawangsa-hari-raya


KJ6-JelatekKJ6 – Jelatek

One of my two closest stations, where I often embark.  An electric flicker in this fire, and I saw people posing for photos with the parasol.  Outside the station is a muddy lot covered in yellow cranes and again I hope construction won’t quench the city’s soul.  From the last stretch of track I saw a billboard by the motorway, “Sayangi Kuala Lumpur” or “Love KL”, and I do!

KJ6-Jelatek-hari-raya


KJ7-Dato KeramatKJ7 – Dato’ Keramat

Ketupat pentagons, strange frilly balls, and the apt (though misspelt) message, “Keep calm and eat ketupat”.  My second nearest station, where I began my tour.

KJ7-Dato Keramat-hari-raya


KJ8-DamaiKJ8 – Damai

Perhaps my favourite display so far, tidy and symmetrical, with its dignified blue carpet and cushions hinting at Middle Eastern opulence.  The service counter was adorned with the tinsel greetings you see in many shop windows at this time.  Lots of hibiscuses, Malaysia’s national flower.

KJ8-Damai-hari-raya

South of Damai the train dives below ground in a tunnel that’s sometimes square, sometimes round.  The Kelana Jaya line is fully automated with no drivers, so there is a clear view out the front window.  As we accelerate I’m reminded of the psychedelic swirling in the credits for the old sci-fi series of Dr Who.

lrt-tunnel


KJ9-Ampang ParkKJ9 – Ampang Park

Here I ticked off my 24th display, the last one of the day.  Like me by then, it seemed a little tired – I pushed a letter falling off back onto the poster at right, and straightened the carpet.  Then I rode the escalator down to the platform, trained back to Jelatek Station, and walked the 15 minutes home.

KJ9-Ampang Park-hari-raya


KJ10-KLCCKJ10 – KLCC

Traditional Raya icons, including a split open bamboo-rice lemang, plus cut-out white leaves I thought looked more Japanese.  “Lebaran” is another name for the festival after the fast.  Behind me two guitarists were strumming and singing at a “Busk Stop”.

KJ10-KLCC-hari-raya

Down the station corridor is one of the city’s biggest malls, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, with a huge kampung house for Ramadan on the concourse beneath the Petronas Towers.  Outside the mall is Malaysia’s biggest model ketupat, as acknowledged in July by the Malaysia Book of Records: 12m high by 9.8m wide.

klcc-mall-hari-raya-2012


KJ11-Kampung BaruKJ11 – Kampung Baru

Kampung Baru is one of my favourite places in KL, a suburb of traditional wooden houses on stilts, with carved verandas and chickens on the ground and a lovely variegated roofscape of corrugated iron in autumnal shades.  Not far off above the rust loom the gleaming sci-fi Petronas Towers.  The bustling Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL), was the first one I visited this year.  I bought a Roti MacGyver for dinner – a bread roll filled with black pepper beef, all wrapped in crispy deep-fried batter.  Believe it or not, that night I hung out with Chinese friends who were watching American reruns on TV (good old Fonzie in Happy Days!), and on came my first episode of MacGyver since I was a teen!

KJ11-Kampung Baru-hari-raya

At the Kampung Baru station I especially liked the cards distributed by Prasarana, the parent company of Rapid KL, listing the virtues of Ramadan in the form of a Metro map.  Peach-coloured Line 3 runs from Gratitude at top left through Familiness (how to translate such abstract nouns?),  Honesty, and Bonds of Hospitality to the interchange station at Relationship where it joins brown Line 4 (coming from Willingness via Pardoning, Happiness, Friendship, and the Blessing of Father and Mother).  The two lines proceed together through Blessedness, Sincerity, and Celebration and terminate at Homecoming.  Pink Line 5 departs from the Village Compound, passing through stations of Nostalgic Longing, Divine Blessing and Brotherhood en route to Forgiveness.

hari-raya-lrt-card-2015

As we’re nearly halfway to the end of the line, I hope I’ll receive Raya – Jaya forgiveness if I take a break and pick up the remaining stations in Part Two.  If you’d like a break, here’s a love song to Ramadan by my favourite Muslim worship singer, a Lebanese-born Swede who also sings in Malay and tops the charts here.

You can continue the Hara Raya journey through Kelana Jaya stations 11 to 24 in Part Two.

Rioting Colour: Movies and Mayhem on Holi

I’m bombarded by colourful threats and left red-faced; I’m rejected by Bollywood but star in cricket; I meet a pimp and hot chicks, pink drunks and purple pups.

Today was International Women’s Day.  Newspaper articles honoured female Indian leaders and deplored on-going problems.  A recent Hindustan Times survey found 91% of Delhi women have experienced sexual harassment, which Indians euphemistically call Eve-teasing.  Two thirds of women find public transport unsafe, few have complained to police and nearly three-quarters who do have found them unhelpful.

Today was also Holi, the Indian festival of colours that celebrates the start of spring.  Over the last few days street stalls sold vibrant packets of powders and dyes, and all manner of water pistols.  Plastic pipe-and-plungers were built like the bamboo rods I saw in an 18th-century painting of Holi.  “Machine guns” hold 6 litres of ammunition.  Figurines pee spray when pressed.  I read of upper-class parties with swimming pools of coloured water.

holi-colors-marketNewspapers exhorted dye-fighters to purchase safe organic colours, not cheaper industrial dyes – made from nice substances like lead, mercury, asbestos or other toxins – that may permanently stain clothing, damage skin, hinder breathing, cause poisoning or even blindness: that charming glitter comes from powdered glass.  My SpiceJet magazine showed how to make your own eco-friendly colours from natural substances.  Crush black grapes and tomatoes for purple and red, dry and crush Marigold and Jacaranda petals for yellow and blue, mix henna powder with spinach paste for green.  It recommended smearing face and hair with coconut oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin.  Papers carried big adverts for washing powder.

The Hindustan Times said laws against psychoactive drugs are relaxed at Holi and warned against overdosing on sweets and drinks containing cannabis bhang.  It also warned of eye injury from high-speed balloons: don’t try to clean your eye as contaminated water can cause infection, but just shut it tight and rush to the nearest hospital.  I visited a Toastmasters club the night before Holi and heard more tales of wild intoxication.  One speaker feared the hazardous holiday and planned to stay at home.  After all this build-up, I faced the big day with both anticipation and trepidation.

At my hotel breakfast this morning, two enthusiastic American women had already smeared each other and were keen to initiate others.  I consented and sallied into the fray with reddened hair, cheeks, beard and shirt.  Countless cheerful “happy Holi!” greetings from locals delighted to see a foreigner participating.  Now and then a guy gently topped up my smears with red powder, which I’d read was the most safe and wash-outable.

Everything was closed for the public holiday and the metro didn’t run until the afternoon when most of the action is over, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  An auto-rickshaw driver offered a lift into town at a dirt cheap rate.  As his first customer of the day, he smiled, I’d bring good luck.  I’ve heard this line before and, as I suspected, he took me for a ride all the way to his mate’s emporium.  I refused to enter and endure high-pressure sales tactics, thanked him for the ride, consulted my compass and headed for Connaught Place.  I’d retreated in defeat on my first night (see here) so thought I’d take it back by day.

The circle was almost deserted.  Then a man darted across the road in desperation, dodged oncoming cars and leaped into a moving bus.  “Cut!”  The vehicles reversed a block, and then it all happened again.  The film crew waved me away – the fools didn’t want a skinny kiwi in red sunhat to grace their Bollywood blockbuster, although teenage guys take photos with me everywhere I go: I must be a Hindi Facebook sensation!

I joined the assorted spectators, their clothes blotched in assorted colours.  Another ear cleaner approached, cotton buds stuck in cap, and flourished a note book of references from satisfied customers.  He even had one from NZ.  He was eager to investigate my otological condition – “No touch, just looking!” – but I was having none of that.

holi-colorsOn a corner by my local metro station between drink-vending carts is a tiny mosque you’d almost miss if you blinked.  I popped in after the Bollywood action and 8 Muslim boys befriended me.  They were 10-13 years old and live here to study the Koran.  Good Muslims don’t participate in Holi so they were bored and enjoyed my broken Hindi attempts to chat.  Then I was ushered out to the parking lot behind the Metro, given a bat-shaped plank and placed before a concrete slab with stones balanced on top for bails.  The lads cheered valiantly when I finally hit the tennis ball before it hit my wicket.

My friendliest Hindi experience yet was followed by the worst.  A dozing guy hailed me as I farewelled the lads.  After greeting him I clumsily asked, “Do you have boys and girls?”  Most people are proud of their offspring.  When I asked the rickshaw driver the same question that morning, he had happily enumerated the ages of his kids.  This guy’s response seemed to be different.  I shook my head in puzzlement and he resorted to a visual aid.  Curling one hand into a loose fist, he thrust his other index finger in and out.  It dawned on me that he was offering a youngster for less savoury pursuits than cricket.

I played the dumb foreigner – no comprendo – and escaped to the metro, now open, and sped off to another market for the afternoon.  One courtyard was lined with cages of live chickens and boiling pots of dead ones.  The ground was covered in carcasses, blood, feathers and flies.  I was tired and hungry but scenes like this made me unsure what was safe to eat.  I found a small general store and bought a pack of digestive biscuits and another of chips.  So many of the highs and the lows in India revolve around the stomach and food.  Sometimes I eat like a king, with a bottomless delicious platter for three dollars; sometimes I spend the day in a fascinatingly aromatic market where all visible fodder swarms with flies and I’m forced to fast.  Perhaps that’s appropriate in Lent.

In the market maze I saw statues of Shiva and Krishna.  These gods mostly have blue bodies, which was most fitting for Holi.  I was still coloured red and amiable drunks with pink hair and lurid faces shook my hand.  Bright splotches on the footpath marked the scene of morning bombardments.  The streets were roamed by green and purple dogs.

Saris, Jack-O’-Lanterns and Marmite

Blasted barking and poignant chants, trick-or-treat at breakfast and bickies for exams, divine dancers and farewell fireworks – a motley Kiwi-American-Indian exchange.

To cite last year’s St Olaf report, the one-month course on India has indeed been a blast, packed with trips and lectures and laughs, though of course there have been some lows.

For the first days I ran in the mornings, sometimes with others, until my right shoe heel collapsed.  Worse, a St Olaf girl on a morning jog was surrounded by barking stray dogs right outside my window and bitten – only a scratch, but she needed rabies shots.  Directly after her misadventure we headed out for the day, and our bus could hardly make it as the bottom scraped through potholes.  I was not in love with India that morning.

One optimist from home emailed me that the curs are merely affectionate and starved of love, but central Bangalore signs quite rightly warn, “Don’t let the children play with the street dogs”.  I’ve stacked two slim mats to provide impact padding for star jumps safely inside my room.  One day I felt my stomach was succumbing and feared sickness-sweepstake Grant was going to cash in.  But alas, dear friend, providence has not yet smiled on your devious speculations: it was aching abdominal muscles from abominable yoga sit-up exercises.

The food in fact is great and the campus mostly serene.  The Muslim call to prayer sounds from the Whitefield mosque like a bell chiming the hour five times per day.  Its lament is haunting in the distance and when I’m reading in my room at sunset about 6 p.m. it lets me know it’s one hour to dinner.

There was no rain for the first one and a half weeks, but we now need the umbrellas we were given.  Most afternoons brief downpours turn dusty gutters into chocolate torrents, forcing us on long detours to cross the road.  Cooler weather makes the cold shower more challenging, but I’ve been warmed by the friendliness of the Indian staff and American students.

Breakfast has brought some cultural exchange.  With their supplies dangerously depleted in Egypt, the Minnesotans have stocked up big on peanut butter, some buying several jars, and introduced me to peanut butter with jelly or banana.  I shared my Kiwi Marmite spread on toast with them.  Neither of us is fully converted.

We’ve been stimulated together by lively lecturers, and nodded off together at others.  These began with long-winded promises of an “interactive” class, and then monologued in obscure accents until they finished by asking if we had “any doubts”.  Sometimes we doubted our eyelids could stay up any longer, but we perked up at evening shows by visiting performers.

A drama team from United Theological College showed us their village awareness campaign for AIDS, and a tearjerker puppet show on the struggles of a dalit boy to get schooling.  Then came a troupe of classical dancers with pleated red and green dresses, black tresses snaking down their backs and ankles jangling with bronze bells.  Gold and silver sparkled in hair-ears-nose and around each throat-wrist-waist.  Crimson henna on feet and fingertips and kohl-shaded eyes highlighted darting pupils, twisting fingers and pointing toes that portrayed gods like elephant-headed Ganesh – welcoming the pious in a posture of mercy, or glaring with wide white eyes and a trunk trembling in rage.

We also had a classical music group.  A singer wailed Sanskrit scriptures, accompanied by an electrical drone that sounded a bit like bagpipes, a violin with electric pickups, a two-ended wooden drum played on the lap, and a Jews’ mouth harp, sounding like a cross between a twanged saw blade and a didgeridoo – you’d swear it was electronic.

We also entertained ourselves in an evening of skits, songs and dances.  The St Olaf choir sang a Negro spiritual, before hot break-dancing from the normally shy lad behind the kitchen counter.  Children of the staff danced and sang a Hillsong worship chorus.  The male ECC staff dressed in saris, pirouetting (un)gracefully under parasols.

The American girls have also been tempted by saris, patronising shops walled with mirrors and shelves of neatly stacked silk rainbows like a library of bright-spined books.  They cascade over counters in a vibrant flood whenever customers enter.  The ladies’ chosen silks are now being tailored, and I bought a long white kurta shirt and baggy “pyjama” pants.

On October 31, we celebrated Halloween (see my photos here).  The Minnesotans purchased the most pumpkin-like vegetables they could find and I helped hollow them out for kids to carve into jack-o’-lanterns.  I gave out NZ stickers to “Happy Halloween”-ing kids at my room door, while the Americans gave sweets.  Costumes were mandatory, so I became “snake man”, wrapping the wooden snakes I bought from hawkers around my neck, donning my Indian kurta-pyjamas, and joining the kids for face-painting of a snake on my forehead.  (Coincidentally, over dinner the first live snake sighting was reported, though I saw a 20cm squashed baby on the road last week.)  There were impressive costumes from American cartoons, with prizes for the most creative and most scary.  The most realistic was Eric as a bandaged hospital patient, sporting live scars from his bike tumble on the ECC road.  The kids also tried cookie decorating, bobbing for apples, blindfold pinning eyes on the ghost.

Early this week everyone was busy studying for the 3-hour exam on Wednesday morning.  Staff delivered tea and biscuits as we scribbled at half-time – something we wished Western schools would implement!  At the farewell ceremony the girls were treading gingerly, lest their new saris fall off.  I said I’d been apprehensive about spending a month with 30 crazy Americans.  Now I was sad they were leaving.  Overcome with emotion, I presented my jar of Marmite to their professor for the group to share.  They seemed more amused than touched at my sacrifice.

The Director Dr Chacko reflected on three components of every journey – origin, purpose and destination – with three corresponding questions: “where am I from?”, “why am I here?” and “where am I going?”  All are mysterious, but he suggested the answers: I have come from God, I am created in God’s image to reflect God to others, and I am journeying back to God.

Two nights ago, Ben, Paul and I bumped through dirt ruts and potholes on the rickety bikes to the main road, remembering Eric’s scars, then wove between pedestrians and busses 15 minutes down the tar seal to the Big Bazaar department store.  Without cycle helmets it was pleasantly cool, and as exciting as a fairground ride.  “It’s all fun and games”, said Ben, “until someone gets hit by a bus.”  We got back alive with Indian quiz books and brass lamp souvenirs for a late night pyjama party, watching “Shakespeare in Love” on TV for Beth’s 21st birthday.

Yesterday we celebrated the end of the course with Diwali, the Indian festival of lights.  Blindfolded with a stick trying to smash a clay pot of water and confetti hanging from a tree.  Running races without extinguishing a burning candle.  Kids lighting sparklers on half-burned fireworks that exploded in chaos on every side.  Like biking the street, it was fun but alarming, breaking Western fire safety codes.

I’m now at the ECC computer for the last time, the campus sad and quiet after the Americans were dropped with overflowing cases at the airport this morning. 😦  I gave New Zealand calendars, wall hangings and badges to the ECC staff; kiwi, sheep and fern pencils to their kids.  After lunch I’m off on my own for the next stage of the Indian adventure: three nights in central Bangalore, then an overnight train to Hyderabad for one week, on to Chennai/Madras for another week, and then back here to fly out.