Soon, their inner rhythm takes hold. A man drops to the ground. He shudders and writhes, upending the bamboo floorboards, scattering his leaf whisk so violently it turns into confetti. Other men embrace him as if to absorb his energy, or perhaps to steady him; they anoint him with their bouquets. Then, he stops still; the exposed soles of his feet, turned up, look strangely vulnerable.
The Temiar trace their origins back some five thousand years. “Sewang selombang is a tradition we inherited from our ancestors,” Dendi says. “When we dance, the spirits come, and they speak in their own way through each of us. We ask to be forgiven for all the harm we have done to this world.”
If the forest were to be razed, all this, and much more, would be lost.
“Growing up, we could make up two cricket teams with the young guys around here. Not anymore.”
Trevor Chen sits with his brother Stephen inside Sei Vui Club in Tiretti Bazaar, Kolkata’s old Chinatown. They’re waiting for the rest of their group to show up. They used to play gully cricket outside, Trevor says, when they had more friends. But now they’re down to just the handful of them, in their thirties and forties. “Almost all bachelors,” one of their friends would say later.
So it’s boys’ night some evenings after work, and tonight, in a hall upstairs decorated with portraits of Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen, they’ll be playing ping-pong. That, they have enough manpower for.
Since the Troubles ended, loyalist and republican paramilitaries once at war with one another have sat in the same room to share their experiences. They’ve met with victims in the name of truth and reconciliation. They’ve given talks to students and led wide-eyed tourists on Troubles-themed tours—something of a cottage industry here—as ambassadors of peace of a kind, so that what happened will not happen again.
But all the talking, Donnelly says, hasn’t always been productive. “Sometimes, people are revisiting old anger, and you think, Do we keep having the same conversation over and over?”
Perhaps it's as 27-year-old Cristian Navarro, the youngest of Oasys’ showmen, said, “Me siento mas realizado aqui"—I feel more realized here. He would rather be playing a romantic hero at Oasys than work as a ranch hand or compete in equestrian competitions, even if (in a departure from how things usually end) the sheriffs always win and he's always shot dead.
There was no hurried pow-wow before they opened the show, no talk of what story would be performed, no ironing out of logistics. Instead, we lounged on the verandah of Abang Man's house eating keropok while discussing the virtues and foibles of the characters in the Ramayanic universe. The troupe members knew their repertoire so well they were ready to perform at a moment’s notice. The genius of a master puppeteer is his ability to improvise, to pick a story based on the audience and the mood of the troupe. No two performances—even of the same story—are ever the same.
The last wave of boats was pushing southwards before the coming of the monsoon. Thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims, fleeing from ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar’s Buddhist-majority Rakhine State or untenable living conditions across the border in Bangladesh's refugee camps, were making their way across the Andaman Sea on rickety wooden boats in hope of safe refuge in Malaysia. Among them this sailing season was Muhammadul Hasson, seventeen years old and still just a boy despite the life experiences that have already conspired to make him less of one.
On Arturo Prat, the main street, a weathered banner hangs from a gutted old house. “Pisagua debe ser puerto”, it reads. Pisagua should be a port. But there is just one dock, and you can count the number of boats bobbing in the bay. I wondered if the dream still lived.
TRAVEL ESSAYs & Features
‘Bizarre and serendipitous’: 3 stories from solo travel
(Washington Post, The Lily)
Killer Fish for Breakfast in the Amazon
(Roads & Kingdoms)
The Aunties of Chinatown, Guatemala
(Wanderlust by Geo Ex)
Swimming with Big Fish
ARTS & Culture
In conversation with Amanda Lee Koe
Apollo 11 anniversary: 50 astronauts, in their own words
Neil Strauss: What I’ve Learned
Rock Out with Chris Sharma
Interview with Miguel Syjuco
Interview with Shih-Li Kow
Profile: Craig Fong
Profile: Tan Twan Eng
For Some People, Sex is a Total Turn-off
(The Straits Times, Singapore)
More on Malaysia
Petaling Street, the ‘Chinatown’ of Malaysia’s capital, bets on its heritage for a modern revival
(South China Morning Post)
Life, Death, and the In-Between
The Temuans of Damansara Perdana
Claire Newcastle Brown: What I’ve Learned
The Science and Sentiment of Division
Pygmies in Peril
In the Last Room
Former Leprosy Patients Search for Children They Were Forced to Give Up
(The Malaysian Insider)
In Ipoh, a Secret Loyalty for Pakatan Among the Chinese
(The Malaysian Insider)
Court dispatches from London on the Batang Kali Massacre
(The Malaysian Insider)
Neighbourhood Guide: Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur
(Silverkris, Singapore Airlines)
City Guide: Kuala Lumpur
(Silverkris.com, Singapore Airlines)
Neighbourhood Guide: Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
(Smile, Cebu Pacific Air)