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Friday, December 24, 2010

Part 1: Paradise Draws Expatriates to Langkawi

On a tropical island in a Muslim country in Asia, Christmas carolers sing in English near a rainforest, and partygoers drink German beer at an Oktoberfest by a balmy beach.
Expatriates bring events reminiscent of their native lands to Langkawi, Malaysia, and they can find out about them from a calendar of activities on a facebook page in English.
Perhaps following the beat of her own drum, Vanessa Workman created the page, Island Drum of Langkawi. She refers to her 7-month-old Island Drum as an experiment to find out what would happen if given a mouthpiece. The mouthpiece might feature upcoming parties, a lecture for a "greener island," an inquiry about pottery classes as well as a reward for a missing dog.
Oktoberfest waitress, Beach Garden Resort, Cenang Beach
Vanessa and her mate became Langkawi “expats” four years ago. After considering Costa Rica, they chose Langkawi because it is beautiful and the local people seemed sincere and friendly; also, it was much closer to “many cool places” to visit. Vanessa was a respiratory therapist for 30 years; she calls herself “a somewhat” artist/painter. Her mate has a production design company for events in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Both are US natives, a minority among the “expats” of Langkawi. “So many Americans I know are afraid to come here,” Vanessa said by e-mail. “It is a culture so unfamilar to them.” Far more of the “expats” from the western part of Earth are Brits, Scandinavians, Germans, and other Europeans. Australians and New Zealanders are also well represented.

Some of the “expats” say they like the easy communication with the local population. English is widely spoken. Malaysia was a British colony for more than 150 years, and the Malay language contains many English cognates. For instance, English speakers might recognize words like epel (apple), teksi (taxi), miziam (museum), polis (police).

Expat hangout: The Pier Restaurant by a mangrove river
Karick from Norway is not fluent in English, but local people address her in English because she is a foreigner. When we met at Langkawi Computers, Karick, 65, said she retired in Langkawi with her German husband. He had lived in many countries as an engineer for cement factories, but Langkawi was his choice for retirement. When Karick became a widow in Langkawi, her Malaysian friends consoled her.

“Yachties” are among other retirees living on the island. From their boats they first saw Langkawi emerging in the Andaman Sea among other hilly islands covered with greenery. Gudrun from Norway and her British husband got off their boat in Langkawi and stayed for six years. They had lived in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and Nigeria when her husband worked for an Iraqi oil company.

I met Gudrun when she was selling calendars door to door for the Langkawi Ladies Charity Club. With an armload of calendars featuring photos of Langkawi’s birds, she knocked on Gitti’s door.

On the other side of that door, Gitti from Germany was telling me she feels “stateless.” She married a Malaysian 29 years ago; much of her family lives in Australia, and she worked in Singapore for 17 years as a pre-school teacher in a Geman school.

 She and her husband, “Bond,” both in their 50s, moved three years ago to Langkawi from Johor Bahru, Malaysia. “We are not going anywhere else,” she said emphatically. In Langkawi, Gitti wrote a book to be published in German about her grandmother, a free spirit who let gypsies camp in her yard.

 Dragon fruit on a porch: local produce is abundant.
Among Langkawi’s attractions, Gitti and other “expats” cite the low crime rate and the cost of living. (See next story on Earthy Reporter.)

Reliable figures for the “expat” population in Langkawi were not available. However, whatever the numbers may be, there are enough foreigners to support several “expat” hangouts, such as Yellow Café on Cenang Beach and the The Pier Restaurant located by a mangrove river.

The expat population is also large enough to warrant importing products, including processed foods, such as spaghetti sauce, and health foods. Several shelves at Bellis Spa are lined with organic products, such as tahine from Australia, miso from Japan, and black rice from Sabah, Malaysia.

In spite of their diversity, at the end of the day Langkawi’s “expats,” share a ritual. Many of them photograph the sunsets or simply admire them. After all, in Langkawi the sun sets on their days with intense colors, crisp blue and turquoise mixed with shocking pink and crimson.
Story & photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter,               Copyright, 2010
TO BE CONTINUED...Part 2 to be posted in 2 weeks


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chats with Women in Veils: Saudis in Malaysia

Newly wed Hannah of Saudi Arabia was on vacation with her husband, Abdul Azziz (photo below.) She was also having a holiday from covering her face while she was in Malaysia, where she was not obligated to wear a full birqa. Our communication was filtered through her husband’s limited English and my scant Arabic vocabulary.
As the ferry boat chugged along on the Andaman Sea from Penang to Langkawi, I asked how Hannah feels about covering herself in a birqa when she is in her hometown, Mecca. Imitating Hannah's  actions in jest, Abdul slapped his forehead, then stretched his arms skyward and shook his fists. Looking up at heaven, he lamented, “Ma’ambahsen.” ( I can’t stand it.)
Hannah, 23, is a college student. “What will she do after college ?” I asked. “She will go kitchen,” said Abdul, 28, a physicist. However, she can look forward to leaving the kitchen in 2014. Abdul is planning to take her to Brazil for the World Cup soccer tournament, “insh’allah” (God willing.)
Hannah will have “new look” in Brazil, he said. “She will have bikini and yellow hair.” I imagined he knew about yellow hair and bikinis from the internet. I asked, “internet mo haram ( not forbidden ) ? “Mo haram,” he said.
Hannah’s husband jokes about dressing her in a bikini, and he allows her to reveal her face in Malaysia, where the Muslim Malay women do not cover their faces or their bodies in black clothing. However, all over Langkawi, the shapeless black figures of Arab tourist women emerge from the green and flowery panorama of the tropical island. Men accompany the women; Saudi Arabian women are required to have male guardians, usually their fathers or husbands.
With their male guardians, the women walk on beaches in long loose robes, exposing only their eyes and hands (photo, bottom of post). Or, they sit next to pools in resort hotels wearing thick, opaque robes while their male guardians romp in swim shorts in the water. They are seen at Starbucks in the ferry station, sipping coffee without exposing their faces; they insert the cups under flaps of black cloth that cover their mouths.
On the decks of ferry boats, Saudi men sporting shorts and t-shirts would ask me to take their picture with their wives (photo, left.) I imagined the only way to identify a woman in birqa in a photo would be by recognizing the man posing next to her.
On one ferry ride, I met Saber Mohammed, a policeman, also from Islam’s holiest city, Mecca. Saber was traveling with two women in birqa. I imagined they were his wives; after all, Saudis are permitted to have four. However, one was his wife; the other, his mother. When I asked him how he learned his imperfect, but conversational English, he said “from TV in English.” He affirmed it is not haram to watch TV in English, but he added, “I only cannot watch sex.”
Then a woman hidden behind a birqa asked me in perfect English if I would take her picture with her husband. When I asked her how she learned her flawless English, she said she has a degree in English literature. She added, “I am interested in theatre, but in my country (Saudi Arabia) actresses are not allowed on stage without full birqa, but things are changing.”
I said I was surprised by her interests, her command of English. “Why ? she said. “It is the internet… It is globalization.” I had so much more to ask the woman hidden behind a veil, but the boat was about to dock. Her guardian led her away; on shore they moved away until she looked like just one more shapeless black figure blending into the crowd.
Story & photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter, copyright 2011

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Part 2:Monsoon Season Pours on Thai Island Trip

Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Rain kept beating me on the head as I rode on a motorcycle taxi. The driver could not possibly see the road through the rain, so I assumed he arrived by instinct to the pier in Pak Bara, Thailand (photo below).
He was about to drop me off at the deserted pier, next to a few rickety boats creaking in the wind. So I said, “hotel, hotel.” I bent my head sideways and closed my eyes as if I were going to go to sleep. He said, “bungalow,” and took me to the Bara Guest House.
My bungalow bathroom was like a cement tunnel (photo below), and one had to pour buckets of water into the toilet to flush it. However, it was not raining in there.
Later I met a young Greek man while I ate seaweed soup at a food stand on the sidewalk. The Greek god had big green eyes set in a bronze face, framed with black hair. The tall, muscular man said he had been in Pak Bara for three months since his boat broke down. “Then you meet people. You don’t know what will happen next,” he said, stroking the belly of a young Thai woman in a red mini-dress.

I told him people keep telling me that during the monsoon season I can take a boat to only one island, Lipe. I said it is not possible that people who live on other islands are trapped there for months. He confirmed that little boats do go to some green islands.

So, early the next morning I spoke to travel agents who sat at tables on the sidewalk near the pier.One agent, who had permed his straight hair into curls, said with an effeminate flick of his hand, “Ugh.. what would you do in Bulon Leh? Everything is closed there.” Then I met Yoh, who spoke Thai for me to a boat driver heading to Bulon Leh. However, the boat would not leave that day in stormy weather.

Since I was stuck in Pak Bara, I upgraded my lodging. For $15 (instead of $8 for the bungalow), I settled into Best House Resort, which offered hot showers and air conditioning. The room even had original art work on the walls ( photo below), and on the TV, Hollywood celebrities were speaking in Thai.
The next morning I arrived in Bulon Leh on a little boat that made the 20 kilometer trip in about two hours (see beginning of last story). The boat took supplies, including styrofoam bowls, (dead) chicken, and kerosene for electric generators.

On shore, I squeezed out the water bulging in my pants pockets. I felt like a pickle marinated in brine, but then the rain was washing away the salt.
I walked across a stretch of grass to a row of rooms, which turned out to be the school. A woman covered in clothing, Muslim-style, greeted me; that part of Thailand is largely Muslim. She put her umbrella in my hand, pointed, and said, “bungalow.”
A muddy walk later, I met Bit at Bulone Resort, which had two rows of huts; one row was on the beach, where I would be the only guest.
From the porch of my hut, I watched the Andaman Sea in rainstorms and in drizzling rain (photo, left). Suddenly about 6 p.m. the rusty ceiling fan started whirring. The few hours of electricity for that day had just been activated.

During the green curry dinner on Bit’s porch, he told me he used to take tourists snorkeling at Bulon Leh 15 years ago. Then he met his future wife and stayed on the island. Bit’s wife and her 11 siblings, the Orgsara family, own Bulone Resort, managed by her Swedish brother-in-law.

The next morning it was deemed safe enough for a boat trip, and I was ready to leave. A cart pulled by a tractor took a few of us to the boat. There are no roads on the island; the tractor chugged along on a narrow trail through the dense greenery.

At the pier, a 50ish overweight Frenchman, who said he lives mostly in Thailand, nestled near a young Thai woman. I remembered what Marsha P.Waren, a US native who was a teacher for 4.5 years in Thailand, had said to me. She called trying to catch a foreigner “a career choice” for Thai women.
On the mainland at the food stand on the sidewalk, I met an elderly Swedish man  living quietly ever after on Bulon Leh. He was with Mark from UK, who spoke elatedly about Serendipity, the upscale resort hotel he was about to open on Lipe island. Mark, perhaps in his 40s or 50s, left behind him what he described as a stressful lifestyle as a salesman; he sold his property and put everything he had in the new business. “It is the first sort of nutty thing I ever did,“ he said.

A long trip later when I was back home in Langkawi, Malaysia, I vowed not to go ever again on a journey during the monsoon.
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Part I: Monsoon Season Pours on Thai Island Trip

Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Only the flimsy wood at the bottom of the boat separated me from the Andaman Sea. With each wave the tiny boat leaped towards the sky. The small man driving the boat ( photo, right ) kept clinging to the steering wheel. The motor behind him was red with rust.

Each time the boat bounced along the curve of a wave, I screamed, “Aiieee!“, and my Thai boat mates would laugh in unison, “Ha, ha, ha.“ Sometimes our sounds were drowned out by water falling on our heads. I tried to keep my eyes shut. The salt water was stinging my eyes.

We finally arrived at Bulon Don Island, the destination of the three other passengers, including Ana, the teacher for the children of that tiny community. She waded in the pale green sea towards the two goats grazing on the desolate beach. Her jeans were completely soaked under her long Muslim tunic. We waved good-bye while the rain became thicker and drenched us even more. Ha, ha, ha.

My destination was a nearby island where there is electricity only a few hours a day. On my way there, I realized I could be stranded on the island until weather conditions were safe enough for a little fishing boat to sail away.

A few days earlier the trip began on a placid morning when it was not raining. I went on a ferry boat to Satun, Thailand, from Langkawi, Malaysia, where I am living for now.

On the ferry between Malaysia and Thailand, the people panorama started changing. On deck, Thai men were passing around a bottle of whisky and smoking cigarettes (photo above). To Muslims, those items are “haram” (forbidden), and in Langkawi, they probably would not be consumed overtly. Also unlike Malaysia, where English is widely spoken, people were speaking to me in sign language.

At the ferry station in Satun, two immigration officials sat behind what looked like ticket booths at a movie theatre. Peering at me through metal bars, one of them asked, “Where you go? ” I said, “I don’t know. I want to go to a wild island.” He looked at me blankly; he did not understand, but he stamped my passport, and I entered a ferry station where most of the businesses were closed.

In that economic desert, a travel agent, An, was looking for business. Since it was monsoon time and “off season” for tourists, he insisted the only island I could go to was Lipe; a speedboat went there once a day from the pier at Pak Bara.

I did not want to visit a developed resort, but I had to go somewhere, so I headed for the pier. The van ride I negotiated with An turned out to be public transportation that stopped at storefronts and sheds. A couple of hours later, the van driver dropped me off at an open air market in the town of La Ngu.

“Now take moto-taxi,” the van driver said. I did not have other choices, but even if I did, I could not communicate with anyone. So, I hoisted myself onto the back of a motorcycle. My 5’4” frame towered over the skeletal body of the driver.

At first, it was not raining hard. Then, as we whizzed along on the motorcycle, the rain started pounding on my head. I was not wearing a helmet. I could not help shouting, “ow, ow !“

Of course the driver could not see anything because of the thick rain. Even if I could speak loud enough for him to hear me, we did not have a language in common. So, I did not try to interfere with my destiny.

TO BE CONTINUED…Part II to be posted soon.
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dancing Queen: Sultans Legacy for '1 Malaysia'

Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

The Sultana of Kedah made her entrance with a dozen citizens in costumes representing Malaysia’s ethnic diversity (photos, bottom of this post.) Behind her majestic shoulders, two subjects in the entourage waved giant wands shining with metallic shades of gold, silver, green, purple. In dazzling colors they paraded into the grand ballroom at Awana Spa & Resort.

A theme for the event was ethnic unity; the government’s “1Malaysia” campaign is aimed at creating unity among the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious people (58% Malay Muslim, 24%, Chinese origin, 8%, Indian origin; 10%, others.)

But I am getting ahead of my story. It began when I asked a waitress at the Phoenix Restaurant in Bayview Hotel why some 10 women were dressed in the same long red and black silk dresses.
She explained they were hotel staffers dressed to greet the Sultana of Kedah, who was about to arrive in Langkawi. The Sultana Haminah Hamidon was coming to tee off a golf tournament.

I braved my way to a young man sitting at a table in the lobby at Bayview, even though a hat was drooping over my face and my clothes were damp from a mix of rain and sweat on a tropical afternoon.

I asked the man a couple of questions; quickly, he said with his radiant smile, “May I extend these invitations to you?“ Later, I found out he was Nazran Bin Abdul Mutalib of Kedah state’s tourism department and an organizer for the royal events.

He gave me invitations to that evening’s Welcome Dinner and to the Gala Dinner the following evening (Sept. 18). I assumed Nazran was looking for “extras” to fill tables. Or, perhaps a white person would add variety to banquet participants. I felt privileged to have a chance to see a different slice of life.

Other participants included golfers from nearby Thailand and faraway Korea as well as staff from the Gunung Raya Golf Resort. Many of the 100 or so banquet seats were filled with government employees from national, state, and local tourism offices.

Both banquets featured speeches by high-ranking tourism officials, sometimes speaking in English. They extolled the natural beauty of Langkawi, “the jewel of Kedah,“ and they referred to its status as a UNESCO geopark.

Meanwhile, I asked Nadia Taib, assistant secretary at the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia, what her country’s royalty meant to her. She said the sultans (who perform a primarily ceremonial role ) are the ultimate representatives of her country; they represent a legacy, a national identity, the preservation of customs. Nadia is Malay Muslim, a "bumiputra" ("sons of the soil;" or, literally, "princes of land.")

She described her country‘s royalty as humble, approachable. However, the royal feasts were not humble. The first banquet featured Malaysian specialties, such as curries; the second one showcased the cuisine of the country’s largest minority. The 9-course Chinese dinner included braised shark’s fin with dried scallop, baby abalone, rice cooked in lotus leaves, prawns in bean sauce. The dishes were accompanied by multiple courses of entertainment, including traditional dances ( photo, second from top. )

The dinner fit for a queen ended with a chorus that roused the crowd, “Satu..Malaysia !” ( One Malaysia.) The ballroom seemed to vibrate with emotion. Then the sultana turned into a dancing queen ( top photo, lady in royal blue.) She has been one of the Sultan's wives for 35 years, but she became the Sultana just 7 years ago after the Sultan's first wife died.

At last I mustered the courage to ask Nazran if he invited me because he needed to fill seats. “No, not at all !“ he said , beaming as usual. “You were simply at the right place at the right time.“
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ramadan Fasts 'Normal' for Langkawi Muslims

Sitifara Ilyani, 5: In training for Ramadan fasts 
  Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

A young Muslim Malay woman fasted all day the first two days of Ramadan, but when she accompanied two foreign infidels to lunch at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, she decided to give up her fast.

When Norsafura was about to choose from a menu that included burgers as well as curries, the smile faded from the waitress’s face. “We do not serve Muslims (during the day),“ the waitress said firmly. “Even the management said so. It is Ramadan.“

Norsafura, who calls herself Aura ( photo, below ), did not order lunch. Later while Muslim eyes were not watching, she picked up her favorite meal of doughnuts from Big Apple Donuts & Coffee at the Langkawi ferry station.

Elsewhere in Langkawi, however, Muslims apparently kept on fasting. Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, which is based on the Muslim calendar. It is a time for Muslims to learn about patience, humility, and spirituality, according to Wikepedia.

During Ramadan in Langkawi, it seemed like it was business as usual. At Maybank in downtown Kuah, colors burst from the row of women working as tellers in ankle-length skirts with theirs arms, necks, and hair covered. They were dressed modestly, Muslim style, but with a Malaysian flair of colors, including brilliant pink and lime green.
I asked one of the ladies how she can fast and work at the same time. With a smile that lit up a face framed inside a bright yellow scarf, she said, “It is normal.“

At the posh Bon Ton Restaurant located in front of a rice paddy, I asked a waitress how she can fast while serving platters of coconut lamb curry and barbecued shrimp. She said, “It is normal.“

Amanda, owner of Amanda‘s Cafe, explained how she grew up with partial fasts since she was very small. By the time she was 12, a full day’s fast felt “normal.”
The ability to fast is “a mindset,” declared Jaffri Kahn, who was fasting while working at his father’s store, SK Intertrade, a print shop that also caters to “yachties” with items such as used books in English and flags from different countries.

On an island that is close to 90% Muslim Malay, it is also normal for followers of the faith to wait with their plates full, just before sunset.

At the Flamingo Café in the Bayview Hotel, couples and families were waiting for the iftar, the fast-breaking meal. They sat in front of plates brimming with dishes from the special Ramadan buffet, chicken curry seasoned with anise, beef soup prepared with cloves and cinnamon sticks, fish topped with hot pepper soy sauce; tom yam soup with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, banana pancakes, shrimp, roast lamb with fresh mint sauce.
Finally the moment arrived. The muezzin’s mournful drone filled the restaurant, “Allah u’aqbar…” Some of the fasters raised their arms to the sky. The same melodic prayer in Arabic was being broadcast to fasters throughout the mountains and rainforests of Langkawi.
 Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Langkawi Crocodiles no Longer under Curse

Mutalib feeds just a mouthful, about 10 fish or so, to each crocodile at the Langkawi Crocodile Farm.

 Photos and story by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Kholil coaxes a one-ton crocodile out of a pool.
 Against the backdrop of mountains covered with rainforest, Mutalib feeds fish dinners to crocodiles in Langkawi, Malaysia. Each crocodile receives just a mouthful, about10 fish.    
Before the feeding frenzy at the Langkawi Crocodile Farm, tourists focused their cameras on a show. Udat the d.j. announced every crocodile move to the beat of disco, African drums, and the theme song from the movie, “Exodus."
The farm’s largest crocodile, more than 20 feet long and weighing a ton, made a splash hit as it was coaxed out of a pool by Kholil.

Kholil pets a crocodile while his assistants watch the routine.
Head showman, Kholil, stroked the animal’s huge head while tourists gasped, "o ! ay!", and his assistants, Mutalib and Khairul, again watched the daily routine (photo, below). There were 10 or so Thai tourists, a family from India, and a few white tourists, perhaps from Australia or Europe.
In addition to their shows, the more than 1000 crocodiles on the farm provide pelts and meat for sale. The crocodiles live among paths landscaped with banana trees, palm trees, and flowers ( photo,left, below), par for the course in Langkawi, designated as a “geopark" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO.
Mostly green coveres the island, some 60% forest, mountains, mangroves, and shrubs, and about 20% agricultural land. Some 64,000 people live on the island, the largest one in an archipelago of 99 islands.
Crocs live in greenery of a UNESCO geopark 
This enchanted island was apparently cursed for seven generations by Mahsuri. The lady with “lips akin the sweet and luscious pomegranate ” was the consort of the sole Minister to the Sultan of Kedah in Langkawi, according to information at the Mahsuri Mausoleum.
Mahsuri was executed for adultery for allegedly betraying the Minister to the Sultan. When she was killed, she bled white blood, which proved her innocence, according to the legend. “Her blood, white as that of milk, gushed from her wound, leaving all of Langkawi in silent numbness.”
The seven generations cursed by Mahsuri have already passed through the island since she was put to death in 1819.
The island gets its name from a small brown eagle called langkawi in the Malay language; and now, small brown eagles glide peacefully above the mountains, waterfalls, beaches, and crocodiles of Langkawi. It is apparent that "Sumpahan Mahsuri" (the Mahsuri curse) has ended.
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Croc Shows & Shooting Roos: Random Encounters in Wynnum, Australia

Story and photos by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Wayne Crotty speaks matter-of-factly about shooting kangaroos and conducting barroom trials in St. George in Queensland’s bush. Wayne was born 63 years ago in St. George, where his mother, who was being “bashed” by his father, gave him up for adoption to another woman on the post office stairs. Since then, the population of St. George has mushroomed to 3,800.

“I was a bush kid,“ said Wayne, currently a Brisbane area resident (see photo). He grew up among aborigines and the missionaries who were hell bent on saving their souls. Also, there were the solitary “coppers” (police) sent to his neck of the bush, who were sometimes shot to death by bushmen, then tossed in the river. After all, there were no other police to protect the lone coppers from bushmen.

To make a living, Wayne shot “roos” ( kangaroos ), meat for export to Germany. He also played trumpet in a band, and for entertainment, he would drink beer in the pub, where a “kangaroo court” might sentence a fellow drinker who stole $20 from a bar top. As Wayne told it, he once watched as “the court” meted out a sentence of 25 lashes with a shoelace on the penis.

When Wayne appeared at my friends’ Wynnum home, he struck me as a colorful character; I could not resist engaging him in a  conversation. Now a furniture craftsman, he came to deliver a desk made from Tasmanian oak to my friends, Manuel Benito Sainz, and his wife, Glenda.

Manuel and Glenda were moved from the U.S. ( North Carolina ) to Australia by Manuel’s company, Syngenta. Manuel, a microbiologist, was known as Benny when he was my close friend in junior high and high school at the American school in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He and his wife have enjoyed living for 2.5 years in Wynnum, Queensland, half a block from a bay (see photo below) and a short walk from a mangrove forest.

In that suburb of Brisbane, populated mostly by whites ( 11,719, according to the 2006 census), I would walk past the yellows of sponge-like flowers and the brilliant red of poinsettias in neat yards filled with the green of palm trees, fir trees, eucalyptus and jacaranda trees.

Getting lost was great fun in that multi-colored town (see photo). Somewhere near Perry's Fruit Barn, an aborigine college student helped me find my way. With his Aussie accent, he told me he found a cheap rental in Wynnum, about $1,200 per month. “Cheap enough for a college student ?” I asked. But then he said he makes $21 (Australian dollars ) an hour bagging groceries; it seems that menial jobs fetch a living wage in Australia.

Another time, a man walking at a quick pace went out of his way to point me in the right direction. I thanked him, and he declared, “You ( the U.S. ) took care of us during World War II, so now we should take care of you.”

Then there was Leigh, a retired lawyer, born in nearby Toowoomba, whose son is a lawyer he described as “a rogue.” He is “either going to become prime minister or go to jail,” Leigh affirmed.

Meanwhile at the Wynnum Library Book Chat Group, Noreen might be chatting about a book she just read, “Landfall” by Neville Shute. A British naval officer was having a relationship with a barmaid. The class difference between the two “is not up to scratch,“ but she hastened to add, “it is all very proper.” One lesson gleaned from the book was “you don’t gossip before the barmaid because she is a woman and has big ears.”

Keith also indulges his love of books at weekly meetings of the book chat group. Apparently, the “book supermarket,” Borders, is his idea of paradise.

The closest Borders is far away from Wynnum, but “no worries.“ If you seek excitement, just drive 40 minutes to the Village of Tamborine. The Bearded Tavern Country Lodge appears like a mirage among the foliage beneath a mountain. There, you might watch “Nick’s Cranky & Nasty Reptile & Croc Show, " or, better yet, a race of poisonous cane toads. “Face your Fear,” goads a sign announcing the shows, appropriate entertainment in a country crawling with Earth’s most poisonous creatures.
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Helen Bekhor records it all: From Iraq to India to Japan to Internment Camp in China to Australia

Story by Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

The first member of my extended family who found a home in Australia is the keeper of family records that date back for centuries in Iraq.

Australia became home some 60 years ago to Helen Bekhor ( bottom photo), born Habiba Helen Reuben in Bombay, India to Iraqi Jewish parents in 1925. She picks stories to tell from the meticulous records she keeps in her Melbourne home.

For instance, she might tell you about a relative, Reuben Battat, who froze to death in 1950 when he tried to escape from Iraq to Iran, hidden inside a freezer on a truck. That was during the mass exodus of relatives from Iraq after Israel became a nation (1948) when the Muslims in Iraq persecuted Jews.

Meanwhile for Helen the post World War II years were good. She drank Coca-Cola and sang, “drinking rum and Coca-Cola, working for the Yankee dollar.” It was a time of celebration for her in Shanghai, China. Helen and her sister, Florence, (now Florence Ovadia of Chicago, USA ), were working as mail sorters in a U.S. army base.

They had just been freed from a Japanese Civilian Internment Center in China along with their sister, Grace, brother, Felix, and mother, Naima. World War II was over (top photo, Helen, after the war). During the war, the Japanese had imprisoned Helen and her family as “enemy subjects” because they were British. They had become British citizens while living in India under British rule.

When Helen first became a prisoner, she went to work clearing rubble with her long, manicured nails. Before camp she had been living in a Shanghai she called “a shopper’s paradise” with an elegant social life among foreigners.

Asia became home to the Reubens since before her birth when her father, Sassoon Reuben (my great-uncle), opened an office in Bombay to export textiles and other goods to Iraq. Then, in 1932, my grandfather, Salim Reuben, left Baghdad with his wife and children to open a Reuben Import Export Company office in Kobe, Japan.

Political upheaval then blew Reubens to other lands. In 1939, Japan became Germany‘s ally; all foreign schools closed down in Japan, and the Reubens sailed to Shanghai.

However, the war followed them; Japan took over Shanghai after its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sassoon was in Bangkok; Salim was in Bombay on a business trip. The war prevented the family patriarchs from returning to Shanghai. Soon after the war, communists took over China, and the Reubens fled to Hong Kong.

Helen meticulously kept records as both sides of her family scattered all over the U.S., Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia. She also compiled family trees of ancestors as well as their descendants.

High tech Helen’s work became easier with the advent of computers; she also contributed to a genealogy website about Iraqi Jews. See

Helen gathered the genealogy data because she said, “I wanted to know who my relatives were in Baghdad or wherever.“ Referring to her memoir material, she simply said, “I guess I wanted to keep a record of my life.”
Copyright, 2010, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Shames of Boca Raton, FL

By Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter

Just before The Trip around Earth, I escaped from a gated community in Boca Raton, Florida, U.S.A.

Outside the gates of that speck on the globe, neither trash nor delinquents were ever visible. The Mercedes Benzes would glide past landscapes of carefully arranged flowers and stretches of grass; every single blade was precisely trimmed.

In Boca, you are what you drive, and so, those Mercedes Benzes would be parked for the show at the outdoor shopping center in Boca, Mizner Park. It was a place to be seen with your designer handbag and your miniature dog, relaxed from its pedigree massage in a pet salon.

Watching people at Mizner, I could not doubt a statistic I never verified. Boca Raton allegedly has the highest per capita rate of breast augmentation operations. Mizner was one of the places for women past 50 or 60 to show off enormous breasts that squeeze out of the tops of low-cut blouses.

“Sun burned breast implants,” Martin Myers commented. “Double yuck. What could be colder than a lump of heated silicone.” Martin, a high school friend, is now an established artist living in The Adirondacks in NY. At the American school in Sao Paulo, Brazil ("Graded" ), he was the juvenile cynic. He was commenting on my recent e-mail description of Boca.

Martin also asked, “Did Dante visit Boca ?” He was referring to “Dante’s Inferno,” a description of a journey through a medieval concept of hell. Indeed, Dante would have encountered a unique blend of hell and heaven behind the guarded gates of Village Homes at Town Place, ruled by a homeowners’ association.

At Village Homes, we, the inmates/homeowners, once walked past the green density of ficus and palm trees and the violet and red of impatiens flowers to a poolside meeting. At the pool in front of a placid lake, the board for the homeowners’ association had called a meeting for a proposed $300,000 “emergency” assessment in spite of the economic crisis in the U.S. (April, 2008).

A couple of gaps in the garden at the front entrance, which I had not noticed before the meeting, were among the dire emergencies included in the assessment. In spite of homeowner/inmate protests, by the end of the year, $32,000 had turned into a front entrance decorated with piles of rocks, more trees, and more impatiens flowers.

At the meeting when we heard about funding the emergency projects, a board member said with a voice that sounded like it was choking with tears, “People drive by and they see it ( the gaps in the garden at the entrance ).”

Her voice trembled as she peered at us from the top of her glasses. “We are the shame of Boca.“
2010, copyright, Carola C. Reuben, Earthy Reporter