In Carlos Castaneda's 'The teaching's of Don Juan' the titular magician said that travel is a method of initiation, now I believe whatever you think of this fictional/real characters existence he was right on this account. Like the fool in the tarot stepping blindly into the precipice you throw yourself out into the unknown, deprived of sleep, shifted from your time zone, detached from the sign posts of culture and peer group that have constantly reflected your own assumptions, you are forced to confront how much of what you perceive as you is simply a collective hallucination, a product of your environment and the culture that nurtured you. It my hope that I can share some of this initiation here in the virtual world, so expect blood, sweat, tears and waxing on and off...Next stop Malaysia!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Arrivals

Well after a truly, um, unique experience flying Air India which made the title of my earlier post quite apt - we're talking a plane that had seen better days in the seventies (hand rests hanging off and Christ it still had the bad wallpaper), still it's not many flights you get an Indian flute player and his tabla accomplice blaring out Indian Ragas a few rows back - I arrived in Penang. Penang a bustling Island metropolis where Sci-fi skyscrapers sit next to battered Chinese shop houses, where Daotist temples burning f#*% off great incense sticks compete with Buddhist Watts, Indian temples and Malaysian Mosques, where a car ride anywhere is taking your life in your own hands. Penang a riot of cultures, religions, people, smells and heat. Since it's inception in the 1800's as the British Empires first foray into Malaysia, Penang has always been one of it's more cosmopolitan cities. Growing rapidly from a small fishing village to almost a state in it's own right this place has always been slightly different from the rest of Malaysia. I've just about aclimatized now. I had horrendous jet lag for a few days and the heat is intense, the whole thing left me drained and confused, but I'm starting to feel more relaxed and settled now. Training proper started yesterday with Nigel going over my form in the morning and picking out some bad habits I'd developed (got to work on sinking my chest and rounding my shoulders), then we traveled over to Pak Zinals place for me to start my Maui Thai training. Pak Zinal (Pak a respectful term meaning Uncle) is as nicely describes him a bit like those legendary martial arts masters, a humble unassuming man who doesn't stand out from the crowd but has a depth of knowledge and experience that seems bottomless. Already a highly respected in Malaysian Silat he followed his love of Thai Boxing and traveled to it's homeland, learnt the language and a tradtional family style known as White Tiger which is what I'm going to be learning from him while I'm here. After a formal initiation where I had to give him a knife (the knife representing me the student) and read an oath he had me begin my training, demonstrating the basics of the stance and blocking then testing me out by whacking me with a stick (see I told you all I was going Malaysia to get hit by men with sticks and you all thought I was joking). He then had me moving up and down the space behind his house running through basic punching and kicking drills until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, finishing off with some conditioning exercises including some evil fingertip push ups (all you have to do get in a press up position, put your weight on your fingers then shrug your shoulders. Christ it hurts). Today I have a day off (my only one of the week) and my body is very sore, I keep finding aches in places I didn't know I had muscles in. Still this is what I wanted, masochist's that I am and I know as the weeks progess my body will get used to the heat and effort and the pain will lessen (well slightly). At the moment I can only get near a computer about once a week when I come into town so I'll try and update every Sunday, however as I explore a bit I might find an internet cafe that's nearer so I'll be able to update more frequently. I'll let you all know.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In the footsteps of John Claude

Before I left for Malaysia Nurul (my friend and project manager at work) bought me a copy of the film Kickboxer as a light hearted going away present, jokingly referring to it as my 'training manual'. It seems irony has a habit of coming back an biting you when you're not looking. Thankfully I've yet to developed a Belgium accent and oversized ego, or the ability to do the splits between two chairs (Sorry Ken and Nurul) but some of the things I've been doing this week remind me a lot of that film. Training with Pak Zinual is tough. I've been prowling up and down a bare strip of concrete at the back of his house running through punching Juros (basics) with two lumps of metal clenched in my fist. Afterwards we go to the front of his house where he gets a lump of wood and sticking it into a hole in the concrete gets me to kick it until my shins are the lovely purple colour, pausing only briefly to shadow box the leaves on his trees or rub Thai Boxing liniment on my sore legs. Training here is pretty old school, there's no air conditioned gyms and specialized equipment. It's like the martial arts equivalent of Salvage Squad, find stuff lying around and make use of it. Some of his boys came over on Monday and they set me up with a bit of impromptue sparring to see hwo I'd do, apparently I acquitted myself well, though Pak Zinual did make the comment that 'perhaps I don't like my face so much' (referring to the habit I've got of sometimes forgetting to cover my head ;-p). On top my external bruising and aching Nigel hasn't been letting me escape on the internal pain of Tai-chi front. Running through the form time and time again, holding postures till my legs shake and making subtle adjustments here and there I can already feel changes for the better. Nigels also started teaching me some meditation and breathing exercises linked to a more mystical type of Silat (the name of the indigenous Malay arts) which relies on utilizing the four elements and their corresponding manifestations. In all the first week has been physically tough as my bodies been adjusting to both the rigours of continual training and the heat. However this is what I wanted to come here for and if what I've learned this week is anything to go by I should hopefully have picked up some very useful new skills and improved my older knowledge by the time I return. This weekend we're going down south for a few days towards KL to visit Fong's Family (Nigels wife) and visit some of the local Chinese masters. So expect another update towards the end of next week when I get back.

 

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Adam in chains

So I've been busy, busy inflicting more masochist's agony on my poor aching body. Spent a few days last week visiting Fong's parents down in Batu Pahat, this is proper small town Malaysia and as such doesn't get many tourists, so myself and Nigel had to get used to being stared at everywhere we went. It's funny when you're in Penang it's not as noticeable, as they're quite used to seeing foreigners, but outside of these areas you really get reminded of being a minority. Fongs parents live in a large open plan Chinese style house which seems to be the social hub for the family (Fong has 9 siblings and most of them live in the area) so the place is always humming with activity. Fong's parents were very hospitable and took us out on a number of occasions for food, I'm just about getting used to the idea of rice and noodles or breakfast but it always seems odd eating what feels like an evening meal at 8 in the morning. I wasn't allowed to escape training while I was there, with Nigel making me run through forms and kick things out the front of the house and Fong taking me up a killer of a local hill (I say hill but it's a steep gradient and takes an hour to walk up) to keep up my fitness. We left Fongs family the middle of last week and after a brief 4 star luxury stop in KL we arrived back in Penang. If I was being paranoid I'd have thought Pak Zinual had been thinking up new ways to torture me while Id been away, because the first thing he had me do when I got back was spend 20mins meditating kneeling on a chain. I'd already become acquainted with his chains training method just before I left, he had 2 of them padlocked round my ankles to build up my legs and improve the strength of my kicks, when he First explained what he was going to Nigel jokingly said 'Is going to have them round his neck next?' to which Pak Zinual replied 'How did you know?'. Nigel finds he whole thing most amusing and has is now referring to me as 'The Chained White Man'. The kneeling thing is a new one though. Sitting on the concrete at the back of Pak Zinual's house, the chain placed in a loop between my shins and the ground, I spent about 20mins letting my body weight sink down on the the loops of metal. I can say for certain that it definitely focuses the mind and once you concentrate on the breathing, sending the mind somewhere else, it is actually surprisingly bearable. The worst part is getting up as the blood rushes back into your limbs and you try and rub the chain pattern out of your flesh (or dragon skin as Pak Zinual calls it). Outside of Pak Zinuals training, Nigels not been letting me off the hook. He's been re-teaching me the Fast Form (which I've learnt before and forgot), making me shaped dents in his walls during push hands and teaching me a couple of others forms of Silat. The Silat is very interesting. The first, Silat Tari, is basically a method of traditional dancing but is also supposed to contain the highest techniques of the martial art. You learn a series of basic hand movements and footwork patterns as well as certain animal aspects (Monkey, Snake, Tiger, Dragon, Cat and Deer) and mythical personalities from the Ranayama (an Indian poem also popular in South East Asia). From this you basically enter free form movement (with or without music) moving how you feel the body should move, generally you find the movement principles will spontaneously appear during the dance and you can change the appearance and flavor of the dance by adopting one of the animals or characters. The second is the Gerak Diri, I'd like to go into more detail with this another time, but basically you are taught to take yourself into a trance from which you again move spontaneously but in a more overtly martial manner. The idea being that if you open yourself up and move naturally you'll defend yourself in the manner most appropriate to you. This does have some parallels in Chinese arts like Spirit Boxing but Nigels points out the Gerak Diri seems more holistic and pragmatic. Later this week Pak Zinual is going to take myself and Nigel on a little pilgrimage around some important Muslim tombs in Penang and at the beginning of Next month we're going to go to Gunung Ledang a Mountain in the South of Malaysia with many myths and legends associated with it. So stay tuned for more Malaysian madness.

 

Saturday, April 1st, 2006

 

Tomb Raider

Currently my life seems to resemble a Kung Fu movie, well without the bad dubbing and terrible dialogue. I came out to Penang in Malaysia a month ago, for a three month stint to improve my existing Tai-Chi skills and learn some of the Malay traditional fighting arts. Since I’ve arrived my days have consisted of either jumping around my teacher Nigel Sutton’s living room, dancing across his tiled floor in a vaguely threatening manner, watched but the eyes of the eclectic deities that adorn his home altar. Or alternatively sweating on the bare strip of concrete that runs along the side of the home of Nigel’s Silat teacher Pak Zinual, practicing the moves of traditional White Tiger Maui Thai, meditating kneeling on chains or being hit it the stomach with an axe (thankfully the blunt side). On top of the more physically demanding aspects of my training I’ve been introduced to more subtle mental training and spiritual insights that have added more depth to my practice. Last Friday Pak Zianal (Pak loosely translated means uncle in Malay and is used as a term of respect to an elder) took myself and Nigel to visit two tombs found in Penang that mark the resting place of Sufi saints, the idea being we should ask for there blessing and protection for our training. The first tomb belonged to sheikh nageror, an Imam who reached sainthood by apparently delivering a sermon simultaneously in Penang and India (and yes this was before the advent of television and satellites). We entered his tomb, which is a nondescript building in central Penang, and in hushed reverence we sat outside an iron grill which separated us from the tomb proper. As we sat there the caretaker came and without a word from us opened the door into the small room that contained the burial area and beckoned us inside. Silently we enter the room, kneeling on the cold stone floor, a sheet scattered with flower petals covered the casket and a picture of the mosque in India where he actually said his sermon was propped against the wall next to it. The sense of energy in the room was palpable, it’s difficult to describe but it was like the air was charged with electricity. Both myself and Nigel had brought Keris with us (a wavy bladed knife common to South East Asia and much revered as both a weapon and a symbol of power) and we both took them in our hands drawing the blade slightly out of it’s wooden sheath or Sarong (Pak Zianal had wisely advised us to not take the blade all the way out) saying prayers and asking for blessings. Returning the Keris to the bag we carried with us we stayed for a few minutes more and then left the tomb. Outside we stopped briefly to exchange pleasantries with the caretaker and talked about how we felt. Pak Zianal explained that the fact that we were allowed to enter the room by the caretaker was taken to be a sign that the saint himself was inviting us in, Nigel pointed out that I had been shaking the whole time we’d been in there and said the place had the same effect on him the first time he’d came. Returning to Pak Zianal’s car we drove across town to the second tomb. This one was slightly more remote to say the least; we drove through a Chinese graveyard at the edge of town to the back of the cemetery and parked up outside a Hindu temple to the Goddess Kali. Pak Zianal lead us around the back of the temple to a cool shaded area where the tomb was situated under a protruding boulder, he explained that the saint at this tomb was known as Kabual Ali and he was a Sufi renouncer who used to preach from the spot from where he was buried (where apparently the boulder had grown above the tomb after his burial). Again the metal gate that lead to the tomb was open and we entered the confines, stooping low to avoid hitting our heads on the boulder above. On the tomb (again covered in a cloth strewn with petals) was an offering of coffee (which Nigel later said was probably left by Chinese or Indians, who would often leave offerings at the holy sites of other faiths) and two curve handled walking sticks. We sat in the tomb and performed the same actions as before this time however we felt we were secluded enough to remove the Keris fully, after some time meditating we came out and Pak Zianal suggested we should both perform the Gerak Diri outside the tomb. The Gerak Diri is a form of Silat I have learnt since arriving here, it is akin to Chinese Spirit boxing and involves using mantra and visualization to go into a trance from which the body is allowed to move of its own accord. This movement should ideally come naturally, without the interaction of the conscious mind, so that the body will move itself is a way that is natural to it. It can be used to tap into and enhance existing skills of defense or, in a more esoteric way, allow the practitioner to open himself up to his surroundings and key into areas of power. We both stood outside the tomb, eyes closed, lips mouthing the mantra. I felt a flame ignite in my heart, as though a bonfire had been lit in my chest, energy moving in waves away from my centre, my limbs twitched with the outpouring of energy and I stood there basking in the feelings of warmth. After we had both brought ourselves back to normal consciousness and we began to leave Pak Zianal went back into the tomb and came out bearing the two sticks which he gave to me and Nigel. He felt that these were a gift from the Saint to us and we should them with us and a blessing. I noticed as we walked back to the car that the aches and pains I had been suffering from due to training had vanished and my body felt quite refreshed. Later that night as I knelt in my room I lay the keris out before me and re-entered the Gerak Diri trance, as soon as I drew the blade out I felt that fire ignite in my chest again, radiating outwards like a small sun. This time however I also felt the distinct impression of someone standing behind me just off to the right. Asking Nigel about it the next day he said that was probably the Spirit of the Keris making himself known and that it was a good sign that our trip had been successful. These experiences while not essential to martial skill add a further layer to the martial arts experience that takes it beyond mere kicking and punching. The martial artist needs a well trained mind and senses that are more open and attuned to his environment if he hopes to take his art outside of mere violent action and into something that can help create a more rounded human being.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Shaolin Master

Last week I was training at the Shaolin Temple. Well ok not the real temple, I haven't been suddenly transported to mainland China, instead we visited the home of one of Nigels Martial Arts brothers, Master Wong, where he has built a fair replica in his back garden. Master Wong is a small rotund man, shaven headed with a little moustache and a permanent grin. A grin that was still on his face when I last saw him a few years ago, standing on his head with two buckets of water hanging off his feet, while two of his students used a sledgehammer to smash a concrete block balanced over his testicles. The temple is an impressive building. Built by Master Wongs own hands, it stands on the land next to his house. There is a large main training hall decorated with framed newspaper clippings of Master Wong and his students, behind this is a smaller room packed with a large altar, an impressive collection of weapons in racks on the wall and stacks of gaudy Lion heads for various Lion Dances. In the basement there is what one of our number described as 'the room of pain', it contains various training aids for strength and striking training. A large punch bag hangs from the ceiling stuffed with thin strips of bamboo, iron shot of various weights for grip strength lay on padded cushions and a large concrete ball with a rope handle sits on the floor for developing all over body strength. After our brief tour we return outside and get down to the reason for coming here, push hands. For the next hour or so two of Master Wongs students do a round robin of push hands bouts with me (so they get to rest and I don't) across the bare concrete outside the temple entrance. For those of you who haven't come across the term 'push hands' before, it's a form of controlled sparring common to Tai-Chi. It's similar(ish) to wing chun sticky hands or Judo Kumite, generally you can't punch or kick (though you can add that in if you want) but you can sweep, lock and push. The idea is that it trains close quarter fighting skills, working on speed, sensitivity and positioning to uproot and disrupt your opponent. Master Wongs boys were strong, fast and pretty skillful but I was pretty pleased with my performance. I dumped one on his backside a couple of times and even managed to get another in a headlock using tiger returns to the mountain (a move in the Tai-Chi Form, Dave you would have been very proud :-)). Nigel seemed pleased as well, he commented that when I cheated I did it just like him. After my hour was up, Master Wongs lads went through an impressive display of some of there forms and then we all sat and drank tea at Master Wongs special table come water fountain that he'd built at the other end of his yard. Other training is going well, I've finished the fast form and have now moved on to doing it with weights (which hurts but makes you do it properly). Pak Zianal has moved from hitting me with sticks to using an axe (the blunt side of the head so far thankfully). We also had a fantastic Journey to a Malay Mystic mountain, but that will have to wait until my next post.

 

Monday, April 17, 2006

Khatam

It's after eight in the evening but I'm still sweating as I sit cross legged on the floor of Pak Zianal's living room, I'm not sure if it's because I'm dressed in the heavy black cotton of my Silat uniform, complete with colorful Sarong and headdress, or because I'm nervous. People bustle around preparing for the evenings proceedings, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque lilts softly in the background and the smell of incense and burning wood wafts through the door. Next to me a my friend, Don, also from England and my senior in our Martial arts organization sits dressed in similar garb, I look across out the corner of my eye and wonder if he is feeling the same as me. We are here for our Khatam, Khatam is an Arabic word that means 'last' or 'ending' it is also used to refer to the last prayers said at someone's death. In Malay martial arts it is the name of a ceremony that closes a students formal instruction in an art, where he or she must demonstrate that they can perform to a certain level in front of a group of their peers and instructors from other arts (who have the final say on whether or not a student has passed). This probably doesn't sound too bad until you realize that some of the tests on tonight's bill include fighting with some of the local students and going through certain 'ordeals' involving flames and lumps of rock. Finally as the call to prayer fades to silence Pak Zianal calls us out to begin. We sit on the bare concrete at the front of his house in meditation while Nigel, my teacher, opens the proceedings with the Tari. Silat Tari is form of Silat most often associated with dancing and like Tai-Chi often misunderstood as lacking in any martial application. As Nigel moves gracefully through his free form dance, arms waving in front of him as he moves into a low stance, you could be forgiven for mistaking the moves as that of simple dancing. However a good Tari, one that follows all the principles, should be able to have a martial application for any move within the dance. Once the proceedings are considered open we are moved to one corner of Pak Zianal's yard and the fun begins. One by one we have to go up and strut our stuff in front of Nigel (who is overseeing the proceedings) and a panel of other students and teachers. Myself and Don run through our Tari first empty handed and then with weapons (Don with a Kris and myself with a stick). Next comes the sparring, in this form of Silat sparring you have to show that you can fight using the moves of the Tari. So though we are fighting without any protective padding it's as much about style as it is about content. My opponent, Arri, is one of Pak Zianal's Thai Boxing students and a guy that likes to fight, but surprisingly I'm feeling very calm. We leap around the yard exchanging blows and weaving the patterns of Silat moves with our hands and feet, he's very fast and tough executing some crippling kicks at my legs and body but I think I give as good as I get. After two rounds of frenetic action we are called to stop, both of us grinning and panting, blood coursing through our veins, each of us disappointed we had to stop. Don's fight is almost the opposite of mine, while mine was a flurry of blows Don's and his opponents Fayiz is one of patience and strategy. We find out later that Fayiz is a regional champion in competition Silat and at almost got on the team to represent Malaysia in the South East Asian games, he moves with feminine grace and commands distance perfectly taunting at Don with his facial expressions and movement trying to get him to rush in so he can punish him with kicks and punches. Don though is having none of it, he stays outside of Fayiz's range and plays the same game waiting for him to cross the distance to him. It's like watching a game of chess both fighters testing each other in short bursts of action and then retreating to a safe distance. They are quite evenly matched, Fayiz executes some lovely side kicks at Don and at one point Don sweeps one of the kicks out of the way with his arm and lands a beautiful strike to the face which takes Fayiz off his feet. Fayiz however retains his cool and as he gets up he pantomime's surprise to the crowd, continuing to fight with a zen like composure. After the fights have finished the real fun begins, I have some ideas as to what the tests are as Nigel (who's done all of them) has made the occasional comment but I have little idea of the order or the details. The general idea is that you have to channel one particular element (fire, earth, wind, water) to negate another, so fire counters stone, water counters fire etc. Sort of like a mystical paper, scissors, stone. Pak Zianal calls me up first and gets me to stand on scrubby patch of grass with my back to the audience. I'm told to channel fire, I imagine it igniting in my chest and spreading until my whole body is aflame, I'm shaking and twitching with the feeling of energy in my limbs. I can feel Nigel standing behind me, I try to relax and keep my mind focused on the flames, I have no real idea what's coming next so I just try to keep my mind on the meditation. Suddenly Pak Zinals voice cuts through the night in a short sharp command, a couple of seconds later I feel an enormous blow between my shoulder blades, the air is knocked out of me and I take a step forwards. Trying to keep my composure I push the 'what the %£$* was that!' thoughts out of my head and keep my concentration on the flame in my heart. Nigel asks if I'm OK and I nod waiting for what seems like an eternity until Pak Zianal's command barks out again and I feel the stunning impact for a second time, I still manage to keep my feet and after a third blow I'm told that this particular ordeal is over. Don then follows suit, I'm not sure which of us was in the better position, myself not knowing what was coming next or Don having to watch me knowing that he would have to do same in a few minutes. Next we switched to fire, Pak Zianal called me up and asks me to roll up my sleeves and trouser legs then with a flaming stick in each hand he runs the flames along my arms and legs, I can feel the heat of the flames on my skin and a sensation of burning but no pain as I try to focus on changing my whole body to water. After Don has had his turn with the flames we were subjected to more fire, lines of paraffin are drawn on the ground and Pak Zianal and his helpers bend to light them. However as they do so we feel the first spots of rain, there isn't much of it but it's enough to prevent them lighting the ground. Pak Zianal accuses me of using my Yoga powers to summon rain, though to tell the truth I just want to get on with it, I'm more worried about what test we'd have to do instead if they couldn't get the fire lit (some of the others that could have been chosen involve being hit with sharp prarangs or walking on broken glass). Thankfully someone brings out a pile of newspaper and lights it so we can proceed (you know you're in a weird place when you're glad of a pile of burning newspaper). Once the flames are going nicely both myself and Don had to walk through the middle of it, slowly, making sure both feet go through the flames (otherwise they'd make us do it again) . I can feel the flames licking around my feet, ankles and around my shins, but the sensation is the same as the flaming torches, a feeling of heat and burning but no pain. Afterwards I thought I'd burnt my right foot, but five minutes later the feeling had gone. I'm thinking we must be close to the end now, I try to remember what other tests we might have to do. Then we are called over to the corner of the training area were a metal pan had been set up over a flame, inside it's filled close to the top with boiling oil, sizzling away with bits of ginger floating on top. We both know what we have to do, placing our hands into the oil we have to rub it into our arms and faces, I went first initially hesitant then with more gusto once I realized I wasn't being burnt. Don came after, liberally applying the oil with such abandonment that he managed to splash Pak Zianal who gently mentioned 'You are getting it on me my friend'. Once this was finished we were brought to the front of the house, battered, bruised, slightly singed and covered in oil. I thought it was all over and breathed a sigh of relief. Then Pak Zianal pulled up Arri and placed him in front of me, speaking in Malay and pointing at his clenched fist, 'Oh bo#*&^s' I thought. Arri takes a big stance and cranks up his fist punching me full belt into the stomach, I take the punch relaxing the muscles and letting the air out of my lungs but the blow still makes me step backwards. Next Arri hit Don who deals with it easily but still our ordeal wasn't over, one of the other lads Eddie steps up and delivers a low sweeping kick full power to my thigh, catching my hand in the process, my finger swells up immediately after the strike and I couldn't walk properly on my leg for a couple of days afterwards but I stayed standing. He tried the same thing with Don but I think he hurt himself more on Don's tree trunk legs than the other way round. Finally we were finished, Pak Zianal came up and shook our oily hands, congratulating us on our success. We gratefully dragged ourselves to the living room where we sat on the floor to eat a lovely meal prepared by Pak Zianal's wife, followed by music and dancing at the front of the house where the local lads show they are not only talented martial artists but musicians and dancers to. In all it was one of the craziest nights of my life so far, but by far one of the best. The tests themselves seem insane but follow a definite logic, they confront you with your most primal fears of pain, injury and death and force you to either overcome or succumb to them. We found out afterwards that many had failed the tests previously and been injured, but generally injury happened when fear takes over and hestitation occurs. If you fear the fire and pause you will get burnt, if you are scared and tense then when the stone hits you will be thrown of your feet. The whole evening is not just to prove your outer strength and skill (though that is equally important because the physical is the gateway to the mental and without that Yang there is no Yin) it is also to test your inner strength and control which is invaluable both on the battle field and in life. If you can enter into the right mindset you get an inner confidence that you know will carry you through. I knew, as I put on the Silat clothing before we left, that I was going to be fine, it's difficult to explain it's like a quiet calm comes over you and you know that whatever happens you'll be OK. The difficultly now is to carry that feeling past the Khatam into the everyday life, to let the lessons learned there gradually show themselves. A true initiation never ends and I will carry that night with me for the rest of my life, though Khatam may mean end it should also be seen as only the beginning.

 

Monday, May 01, 2006

Demo

So you think after having rocks chucked at me and being almost set on fire I could handle anything, but this morning standing at the edge of a small stage dressed up again in my Malay gear (which I have to admit I find most comfortable) waiting to go out in front of an audience I could still feel that familiar dry throat and gurgling tummy. Myself, Nigel, Fong (Nigel's wife) and Lien (Nigel's son) where all at the USM ABN-AMRO Arts and Cultural Centre in the centre of Penang performing a Silat Tari demo to help launch an art exhibition by a local artist Shamsul Bahari. One side of the small stage was crowded with the traditional instruments of a Gamalan Orchestra, metal bells and gongs hanging in beautifully crafted housings adorned with intricate carvings, the other half clear for us to jump around in. It may sound odd that a group of Europeans should be out promoting Malay traditional arts to Malays, and I'm sure there is some novelty value in it, but as Pak Zianal says; when people see that someone is willing to travel half way round the world to immerse themselves in Malay local culture and arts it helps to make people realize how much it is worth. Nigel took the stage first opening the proceedings with a Tari dance to the four directions while some of Pak Zianal's lads banged out a rhythm on the gongs and drums. As he finished the rest of us came on clutching small bowls of flowers, I passed Nigel his and Fong and Lien left the stage we began Silat Smarap. This is a dance, normally performed at weddings, where the participants each hold a bowl of flowers, one representing male and the other female (the female is distinguished from the male because she has the bigger bowl, which seems quite appropriate I think :-p). The idea of the dance is that the male has to try catch and touch bowls with the female while the female has to simultaneously tease and avoid the male, so the female is characterized by her creativity in avoiding the male while the male is distinguished by his cunning, trying to corner the female and use feints and tricks to lure her out. Apart from being great fun, my nerves were soon forgotten as I chased Nigel around the stage grins on our faces (I was the male, much to Nigel's annoyance but he could do the feminine moves much better than me :-)), the dance is a fantastic footwork and sensitivity exercise as you attempt to trick, tease, corner and escape from each other and because it's a dance it's less likely degenerate into a forceful contest. After Nigel had kindly conceded (otherwise I'd have been chasing him for hours) Fong and Lien took the stage and performed the same dance. One of the best things about Silat Tari is that it allows the exponent to bring him or herself to the picture from the beginning. Instead of having to conform to a set style, conditioned by set patterns of movement, the principles and basics allow the person to find his or her own way of moving. This means that when you watch a group perform Silat Tari, though it is obvious that each person is moving in a similar fashion, there is also a certain stamp or quality of movement that is unique to each individual. Therefore watching Fong and Lien do the dance was quite different to myself and Nigel, Fong moves with fluid grace and strength while Lien's movements have a focused intensity that you can feel across a room. Once they had finished the dance we all took our turns to perform various Tari, empty handed and with weapons (Nigel used a Pedang, a Malay single edged sword, while I had my trusty stick and Lien had a Kris) , to finish myself and Nigel performed a 'skit' whereby Nigel played the aggressive 'hard' martial artist, terrifying both the audience and the band stamping and shouting (he hammed it up beautifully and the hardest part was keeping a straight face), and I was the soft and flowing Silat Tari guy deftly avoiding and countering his blows (obviously we' been rehearsing this before and Nigel kindly uttered a blood curdling scream every time he attacked). The skit ended with Nigel crawling off the stage and Lien coming on to defend his fallen father, by running up my leg and elbowing me in the head (he was kind to me today as yesterday he landed a beautiful knee right on my nose while practicing). In all it seemed to go very well and both Pak Zianal and Nigel got positive feedback and seemed happy, which is the important thing on these occasions. Something that can be easy to forget coming from the West is the concept of Face, if you are performing a demo it's not just your own embarrassment you have to worry about if it goes wrong but that of your teacher and their lineage whose skill you are representing. Once all the excitement was over we got to have a proper look round at the art exhibition, the artist was a Penang local who I think had lived overseas in the States and Japan before finally moving back to Penang. The art was really good, with a diversity in style ranging from pen and ink miniature's and cartoons to full size canvases of everything from abstract images to landscapes. The two particular things that caught my eye where a series of pictures of tropical fish, their dayglow colours against a stark black background that seemed to fix them in it's embrace and a large canvas filled with intertwining tree branches reaching up to surround/ensnare a white dove at the centre. I'm glad that I had another opportunity to something out of the ordinary while out here but I'm also glad that the demo is over as these things are always nerve wracking, still it's good to get the chance to help in a small way to promote the local culture and art and hopefully give back something of what it has given me.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Training, training and more training

Well things have been relatively quiet here for the last few weeks. I've mainly been drilling the stuff I've learnt over the last couple of months trying to etch everything into my synapses, make the most of my time before I start the long trek home via India and give Nigel and family a bit of a break from having the lanky foreigner jumping around the living room. Pak Zianal also told me yesterday that I've completed the syllabus for the White Tiger Thai Boxing. This doesn't mean I've suddenly transformed into some martial arts master, rather I've now learnt all the basic drills, conditioning and forms, all I've got to do now is go and practice them for the rest of my life :-). It was quite interesting yesterday, I joined in training with some of his Malay students (something I haven't done for a while) and the difference between when I trained with them when I first got here to now was startling. All my techniques were much more solid and had a lot more power and my shins weren't killing me after 15mins of kicking, just shows you what a few months of beatings will do for a mans character. On top of all the Silat and Thai boxing my form has improved no end with a lot of niggling problems if not ironed out at least in the process of being fixed and Nigels taught me a kick ass staff form that I've been dutifully practicing until my arms fall off, it's very nice and has lots of fa-jing training that's feeding back into my fast form which seems to be developing some oomph now. I've got about a week left now, my little sister is in Malaysia (passing through on a leg of her own round the world jaunt) and she should hit Penang next week, so we should have time to meet up for a few days before I leave for India. I've got a place booked up in Mumbai for a couple of days and then the plan is to head down South and work my way back up (a slight change of plan than previous but more realistic I think). I'll try and do another post before I leave, I've helping Nigel and Fong teach some kids martial arts at a local school on the weekend before I leave so that should be amusing.

 

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Khatam vids

Here are some clips of the Khatam (see earlier post) that a friend has kindly let me host on his server, enjoy. don_adam_weapons.wmv (7163 kb) adam_fight.wmv (6269 kb) dons_fight.wmv (30,578) stone_vs_fire.wmv (7513 kb) fire_vs_flesh.wmv (6607 kb) fire_walk.wmv (2081 kb) washing_in_oil.wmv (3100 kb)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

End of the beginning

So it's been a #*&%ing mad 3 months, I've been punched, kicked and thrown into walls. Had rocks thrown at me and been set on fire. I've ached all over, had bruised shins and swollen ankles and I think I may have fractured a toe last week (I dunno it still hurts like a bugger). I've climbed magic mountains and meditated in sufi tombs. And last but by no means least I've sweated, a lot. So after all that was it worth it? #*&% yeah, I'd do it again in a heartbeat, it has been a truly life changing experience and I'm going home leaner, meaner and with more information than you can shake a stick at :-). Thanks go to Zianal for torturing me the last few months and sharing a small amount of his massive knowledge with me but mostly to Nigel, who has put up with my annoyingly cheerful face darkening his doorstep almost every morning, has graciously opened many doors and allowed me to steal a small amount of his chi, giving me enough material to keep me occupied for a lifetime. Thanks also go to Fong who has fed and watered me, given me lifts all over the place and been very gracious about the lanky foreigner sweating all over her nice living room floor while she's trying to watch her Korean soap operas. And finally thanks also to Lian and Min, just for being Lian and Min. All I've got to do now is practice the stuff for the rest of my life....:-) So next I'm off to India, I fly out Tuesday night and am currently planning to go South to Kerala (though this may change as I get there just in time for the monsoon...bugger). Well whatever happens I'm sure I'll have a few more things to post about.

 

 

Friday, June 02, 2006

Welcome to India

So Malaysia is now far behind me and I've hit the home leg of my journey through India. Even after spending 3 months outside of England India is still a shock to the system, if Malaysia was a foriegn country then India is another planet. I've began my journey in Mumbai (formally Bombay) the largest city on India's west coast. It's an insane place, a city of juxtaposistions, hastely constructed shanties vie with the stone edifces of the former Raj and overly dressed security guards sit with glassey stares outside plush department stores while a few feet away a beggers in flithy rags squat on bits of cardboard. It's also not a city you can become anonymous in. As a 6ft 2in white bloke with shoulder length hair, when you're striding around the city you're like a black hole dragging every, merchant, begger, drug dealer and cab driver in the vacinity towards you with the inescapable attraction of the exchange rate. In the 3 days I've been here I've had 4 people ask me to be in a Bollywood movie, countless people try and sell me dope, kids and beggers follow me with for streets at a time, taxi drivers make up prices at the drop of a hat, and every stall holder under the sun try to entice me with their riches. It is I admit quite draining walking around fending off the advances of all and sundry. But the people are generally friendly and cheerful, even when they're trying to rip you off, and as long as you keep a sense of humour about it it's not so bad but still it's nice to be able to retreat to a hotel room, shut out the hustle and bustle and recharge before another sortee. My plans have changed again since I arrived, Monsoon has come early (in fact the day I arrived) and Mumbai is awash with a constant stream of water from the heavens. Checking around down south it seems the weather is just as bad down there, I had thought about going to Goa anyway to see what it was like but a string of bad luck around buying my train ticket (that cumulated in a frantic couple of hours where I thought I'd lost my passport) convinced me the universe didn't want me to go south. Instead I've decided to head up north away from the rain, my train leaves tonight for Jaipur where there's a spectacular red sandstone hill fort perched above the city, from there I figure I'm going to head into the Thar desert for some camel treking then work my way to Delhi and check out the Taj Mahal and surrounding area. So no beaches just plenty of sand, still that's what I love about traveling, everything can change at the drop of a hat and as long as you relax and follow the flow things generally turn out as they should.

 

 

 

Adam Lammiman

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