After embarrassingly turning Marian and Dan’s house upside down in Singapore, Nanay decides she wants to rent a car and drive everybody north to Malacca. We pack our stuff and realize a little too late that in these parts, people drive on the left side of the road. Because everyone in my family believes two hours of driving in Japan give or take five years ago qualifies someone to be a keep-left chauffeur, I am given the wheel. In exchange, I have absolute dibs to the radio and decide to torture everybody with Deepavali music for four hours. Every once in a while, my mom screams I am on the wrong side of the road.
We drive through the impeccable Lebuhraya Utara-Selatan past manicured embankments, palm plantations and cloud forests. I’ve heard so many ecological horror stories about the innumerable trees felled in the name of palm oil, I feel guilty admiring the plantations.
In Malacca, we give ourselves a fitting reward with street food and Kampong chicken, which my mom and my nine -year old nephew, Enzo, inevitably eat secretly in their hotel room every night when everyone is asleep. We walk around in the merriment of Deepavali, an ancient Hindu tradition of celebrating the victory of light over darkness. Becaks, souped up trishaws in fairy lights, hurry past like little fireflies.
Malacca has a rich cultural history owing to Dutch, British, Hindu, Chinese, Malay and Portuguese heritage. Peranakan architecture is also quite evident downtown, and is most lovely in its slightly decrepit incarnation, when paint peels and baby bushes begin to grow in cracks and crevices. The Stadhuys and the clock tower are a historical counterbalance to a docked galleon which strangely looks like a set from Peter Pan.
Sitar and tabla permeate the air. A few blocks away, floodlights flatter the colonial Christ Church Melaka where, in its plaza, teenagers in hijab take peace-sign photos of each other and the requisite duck-face selfies. Three blocks down is
Chinatown with Jonker Walk offering a cacophony of smells, eats, and spiffy souvenirs. The serene Melaka River makes little bridge lights dance on its glassy surface, while the smell of unmistakably excellent food caresses me with a promise that there will be excellent dinner tonight, every night.
I can’t always lay a finger on the political atmosphere of any given town I end up in and I might be overly appreciative, but right now, I feel like there is something to be learned in Malacca. There are few places where cultures as distinct as these live in relative harmony. Fewer still where they all party together.