The Portuguese In Melaka

© Author Unknown

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” ~ Maya Angelou

Journal, 2 December 2011. Melaka, Malaysia.

A LONG WAY FROM HOME.

I had just sat down at a local restaurant when I get a call from Debbie asking if I’m coming back to the guesthouse anytime soon to join them for the visit to the Portuguese Settlement. “Yup, yup, already on my way.” (Totally forgot about the whole thing…)

Back at the guesthouse, the group has become much bigger than I had expected: there’s me, Shary (the owner of the guesthouse), Debbie (the lady that Cameron and I had met earlier that morning), her husband John and her daughter, and another traveller from South Korea also named John. Cameron, meanwhile, had already left for the bus to Kuala Lumpur.

Two cars and half-an-hour later, we arrive at the Settlement.

To be perfectly honest, my research regarding Southeast Asia other than Singapore was absolutely nil. Zero. So obviously, in my mind, when I heard about a Portuguese Settlement in Melaka I immediately imagined a colony of expats that had just been around for a long long time. A coffeeshop here and there, and maybe even some pastéis de Belém.

That “long long time” was roughly about 500 years, give or take a few. And the expats, descendants from the Portuguese who decided to stay in Melaka after the Dutch took over, didn’t look like Portuguese anymore. In fact, as the mixed offspring of Portuguese and natives from Malaysia and nearby countries, I could have easily mistaken them for Indians or Indonesians.

The food, however, was still delicious. There was even some fried squid which reminded me of my hometown of Setúbal. Most of the dishes, though, I don’t recall ever seeing them in Portugal and am still unsure what some of them were.

From the corner of my eye, I notice Shary discreetly paying for our meals. I immediately try to intervene and pay for my own lunch, but she insists that I am her guest and for me to not worry about it. I’m caught in a logical bind: I cannot press this matter without seeming rude and ungrateful for her generosity, so I drop the subject.

YOUR STORY IS MY STORY TOO.

After lunch we decide to explore the Settlement. Mostly restaurants with Portuguese motifs. And a “Portuguese Museum”, guarded by an 80-year-old man called Edgar enjoying his afternoon power nap.

Once we wake him up and explain the reason for our visit, he cheerfully begins giving us a tour of the place and describing the history of the Settlement.

He explains how the Portuguese language around here has developed itself in isolation from the European stream since the 16th century, and now feels more like archaic Portuguese mixed with other local dialects. (Which explains why when I tried to have a conversation with him and any of the local residents it felt more like an acid trip than an actual dialogue.)

I feel a mix of amazement and confusion. These people have never been to Portugal. True, they’ve kept in contact with other Portuguese cultural groups and colonies such as Macau, but…. they don’t know Portugal. How can you have such a strong connection to a nation you’ve never even set foot upon?

It’s only when saying goodbye to Edgar that I realise he’s almost completely blind and can only see objects within very close distance. And yet he managed to navigate us through the museum and all of its contents effortlessly. I guess he knows his home by heart.

RETRIBUTION.

Back at the guesthouse, I help John create his own CS account and write a message on the local group’s page, to see if anyone would like to team-up with him during his next few days in Melaka. Shary becomes curious from hearing us talk so I help her create an account as well.

Is this how I’m supposed to retribute all the generosity I’ve experienced today? By introducing John and Shary to CouchSurfing?

Video call with Mom on my iPhone. She tells me I look like I haven’t had much sleep lately. Yeah well, been a couple of intense days, but curiously I feel supercharged with energy.

Shary’s shift is over so she returns home. John and I head out for dinner and find ourselves exchanging travel stories and discussing how wonderfully today just flowed.

Passing through the street on our way back, we spot a stand selling table lamps. We decide to buy one for Shary and another one for Debbie (who on top of everything will also be hosting John when he passes by Singapore in a few days), as a thank you present. Remembering Shary has two young daughters, I choose a lamp with two butterflies.

I leave the present at the guesthouse together with a note. Tarynn, the CSer who I met yesterday over dinner and drinks and who’s hosting me tonight, shows up after a few minutes and we drive back to her place. Her funny looking Ewok dog is happy to see us.

Nice big comfy couch. Time to catch up on some sleep…

GRATITUDE.

• Unconditional, inspiring generosity.
• A wonderful day exploring Melaka and learning about the Portuguese Settlement.
• Tarynn’s hospitality.

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