Peace Corps – Letter 3

Peace Corps

Letter from Malaysia 3

August 2, 1964

278 G Jalan Brickfields

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Dear Friends,

A great deal has happened to me since you last heard.  I was back in the States on emergency leave in June.  But first, let me start back a bit to the middle of May when I had an accident on my motorbike in which I broke my left collar bone.  I spent a day in the General Hospital here in K.L. and after its being set, was released.  About two weeks later I got a cable from Peace Corps Washington saying that I was to report to Dallas, Texas immediately because my father was in critical condition from a car accident.

I arrived in Dallas to find that my mother, who had been visiting relatives there had gotton sick and hospitalized.  My father was on his way to Dallas from Oklahoma to see her when, a few miles outside of Dallas, had a car accident in which he had severe brain damage.  He is still in a coma after approximately 60 days and there is very little chance of his recovering.  Mother, now out of the hospital, is doing as well as can be expected but isn’t, and hasn’t been in several years, in good health.

To complicate things even further for me and my family, I also became a patient in the same hospital.  Upon arrival in the States, not being happy with the way my shoulder was feeling, I went to the doctor and found that my collar bone was not in proper position and an operation was necessary to pin it back in place.  The pin, very uncomfortable, is still in and won’t be taken out for another 25 days.  I was gone from Malaya for three weeks and as you can see, it was less than a happy time other than being able to see my family.

While home, I managed to put on some weight.  Upon arrival in the States my weight was down to 145 pounds and after 2 ½ weeks on hamburgers, potatoes, pecan pie and other such delicacies, I had gained about 10 pounds.  I’m back on my rice, chapatis, me, and mee houn diet and I think that I am losing again.

A rather amusing thing happened while I was in the hospital.  I was allowed to get up every two hours to go to see my father and since the bed gown, while perhaps “fetching”, wasn’t really the proper thing in which to wander the hospital corridors – being rather short.   Not having a pair of pajamas with me, and to observe proper modesty, I did the only possible thing, I put on my sarong.  I created a sensation!  I’m sure that even the bed-ridden patients got out of bed to see this “thing” wandering the halls.  I must admit that it was a little unusual – the sarong, rather colorful, hanging to the ankles with the white bed gown above.  Undaunted, I kept up my visits and one day while waiting to see Dad, a rather elderly woman came up to me, after looking me over several time, asked very contemptuously, “What are you –   some sort of religious nut?”

Back to Malaya.  I have an additional roommate now – a very intelligent and interesting University student named Gurcharan Singh.  By race, he is a Sikh or Punjabi.  The Sikhs are originally from the Punjab in NW India and are easily recognized by their turbans, uncut hair and beard.  However, “Guru” has cut his hair and seldom wears his turban.  By the way, every male Sikh has the word “Singh” as part of his name.  The females all have “Kaur” as part of theirs.

A friend of mine in the University Library has been awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship for study at the University of Chicago in Library Science.  Without your permission, I am passing around some of your names and addresses in case he ever visits your part of the country.  His name is Abdul Aziz bin Sheik Mydin.

A lesson in Muslim names. Bin means “son of”.  His name is Abdul Aziz and he is the son of Sheik Mydin. They have no surnames.  I wouldn’t have the name Howard at all.  If any of you meet him just call him Aziz.  He is an Indian but a Muslim Indian – doesn’t eat pork. He is an excellent cataloger, cataloging all the Malay language materials (both in the Arabic and Romanized script – as well as all of the Arabic materials.  He speaks English, Malay, and Tamil.  As most English educated Indians here, I don’t think that he can read or write Tamil.  It is also true that most of the English educated Chinese are not able to read or write the Chinese characters.

A little about my wanderings.  In early May, I went to Ipoh (a town north of KL) to teach and having left early, I got three days of vacation.  One of the days I spent in the town of Teluk Anson to observe the Hindu festival of SITHARAPARVAH which is the most fantastic thing that I have ever seen.  It is like the Deepavali festival here in KL that I mentioned in my last letter.  I observed this all at very close range.  The devout who are taking part, first take a bath in the river.  Then with the help of a priest, incense, etc. are transformed into a trance after which they are stuck with small spears, large needles, etc. – through their tongues, arms, backs, chests, etc.  Then, carrying a very colorful religious altar-like affair made their way to the temple from the riverside.  It is rather frightening and unnerving.  I even got weak and had to back off for a little while until I could watch it impersonally.  There was never a drop of blood.  I was standing within 3 or 4 feet of them many times.  My Peach Corps nurse friends also swear that there is never a scar after the spears are removed.  Fantastic!

My other two days of vacation were spent on the lovely little isle of Pulau Pangkor, a few miles off the west coast of Malaya.  It was wonderfully restful – swimming and sleeping on the beach.  While there I met four University students who took me with them to Emerald Bay (another island close b).  They rented a boat which dropped us off with instructions to return for us that PM.  Upon arrival, we found a gorgeous wide beach outlined by jungle, with the clearest, greenest water you ever say – all to ourselves.  Using their snorkel, fins, spears, etc., I was able to swim around looking at the numerous types and colors of fish.  We managed to cook some of the fish they caught, which was our meal. By the time the boat returned for us, the tide had pushed us back up the beach until we were at the edge of the jungle.  A magnificent day but I was blistered!

Back to Ipoh now for teaching.  The first week I taught part of the library course for PC teachers who had, upon arrival at their assigned schools, found that they were also to be the librarian.  In one week, the PC librarians made rather dubious librarians out of them.  The only thing that I can say is that they know more now than they did and, hopefully, will start their libraries out in a more acceptable fashion.

The next week I also taught in Ipoh, and I think that this was the most rewarding thing that I have done since I’ve been here.  It was a workshop for primary school teachers who were non-Malays (i.e., Chinese and Indians) who teach the national language – Malay.  I was asked by the Ministry of Education to teach Malay children songs and the methods of teaching (non-musicians) in 5 groups and only two hours with each group.  Not only the utter impossibility of it all frightened me, but even worse was the fact that I didn’t even know any children’s songs.  In two frantic weeks, with the help of a Malay friend of mine, I gathered songs, wrote them down, reproduced, and learned them.  The response was so gratifying that I held extra classes in the late afternoons and nights to get more covered.  I had a marvelous time.

Recently, I had two very interesting evenings.  Some University students came to my place, bringing all sorts of food, with which they cooked the meals.  Both meals were primarily Chinese.  Not one of them knew how to cook but each one had his own idea.  It led to 2 extremely lively evenings, but you never witnessed such a mess in the kitchen in your life!  One night there were seven cooks, the other night there were ten.  The first night we had “steamboat” which I described in my first letter.  The next night we had Chinese barbecue – both of which were wonderful.  Next, they planned a crab dinner which we will have in a couple of weeks.  They are really a fascinating bunch of people.  Oh yes, they are teaching me to play mahjong – played with plastic blocks resembling dominos but played more like a complicated rummy.  The real complication at first was to learn about 15 Chenese characters- this threw me for a while.

The Sunday before last, my boy scout choir appeared on Television, singing 2 Malay songs.  Generally, they sound pretty good but even they admitted that that had never sung so badly.  They want me to go with them on their 5-day camping trip, but considering the pin in the shoulder, I think that I will have to decline.

It is hard to believe that I have only 7 months to go before I start home – probably via Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

So, my friends, you have only 7 more months in which to write.  Don’t be caught short.

Thanks for your letters.  I wish that I had time to answer each one but lack of time as well as laziness prevents it.

Best wishes,