Enjoy it while you can

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EYE OF THE STORM: The writer is seen at Oxford Circus station, London.

THE eye of a storm is a pocket of calm in the heart of the furious movement that is the storm. It is a strange phenomenon, two contradictory forms — tranquillity and turbulence — co-existing side by side. I am sure it must be an amazing experience to be in one, though I suspect it can be an unnerving one as well.

I’ve never had the experience of being in the eye of a storm and thus, didn’t really know how it felt to be in one … that was until a few days ago, when I foolhardily ventured into the heart of London during the morning rush hour.

That’s when the millions of Londoners, in their mad dash to get to work on time, give a good impression of headless chickens. I was on holiday, and hey, I am from Kuching and so, no headless chicken dance for me.

There I was, standing in Oxford Circus station and walking at my Kuching pace while the sea of humanity was just whirling faceless forms around me, people rushing helterskelter in all directions. I was Tai Chi to their Tae Kwon Do, Shaolin and Karate rolled into one. I was in the eye of a frantic human storm.

I always hear people say, “You don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone.” Though in this case perhaps I can rephrase it as, “One does not really appreciate something until one has experienced the contrary.”

For those of us who live under the hot tropical sun all our lives, it is a puzzle that those pale pink Europeans would bake themselves in the hot sun. Noel Coward (1899-1973) must have had the bemused natives of the tropics on his mind when he included the line “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” in his song.

I suppose it is equally puzzling for the English to see some of our Malaysian ladies carrying umbrellas in the park on a hot sunny day. Of course, we Malaysian men are too macho to be seen shielding ourselves under umbrellas but that does not stop us from hiding in the shade of the park trees.

Now back to the tale of the two cities: London and Kuching. Sometime ago I was talking with some friends about the attractions of Kuching and if we were to promote it as a place to visit what would we say about it.

For a while we fell into the trap of many a tourism writer who succumbed to the formulaic description of the tourist attractions of a place. We talked about pristine beaches, crystal clear water, vibrant nightlife, and shopping — all predictable stuff.

However, even as we were talking about it, we were feeling the hollowness of what we said. Using that standard yardstick and comparing to our neighbours, Kuching really doesn’t have too much to shout about.

We don’t have the powdery white sand of Boracay Island of the Philippines, the crystal clear waters of Sabah, or the wild nightlife of Bangkok. Our shopping complexes are dwarfed by mega malls of the other Asian cities. In focusing on such run-of-the-mill tourism products — spectacular scenery, sea and beaches, nightlife and shopping, etc — we are missing the point.

Some years ago, I acted as the unofficial guide to a group of journalists from Britain and some other Commonwealth countries. They did agree that Kuching might not be as jazzy and a “happening place” like other cities but all of them said that they loved the city and given the chance they would like to come back.

When I asked “Why?”, one of them answered, “It is not just the buildings and the scenery I like, it is the feel and the gentle pace of the city.”

As I reflected on the experience of the human maelstrom of the morning rush hour in London, I felt that I might have not counted my blessings of having the opportunity to live in a city where people can still come home for lunch on a working day.

This was especially so when my London friends told me that it took them at least one hour to get to work and another back. Two hours every day spent sitting in a car! I can’t help but be smug about our good fortune and went on for quite a bit about our gentle city.

Eventually they got tired of it and one of them asked, “Don’t you have traffic jams in Kuching?” Knowing that many of them still have families here and they do come back for visits sometimes, I had no choice but to admit the fact.

“Err, yes we do, but only for half an hour or so when the parents pick up their children after school.”

“Don’t worry. Now that Kuching is a city, soon it will acquire the thing that is common to most Asian cities — traffic jams. So enjoy your tai chi while you can,” was the reply.

His remark gave me a jolt. Images of the gridlock in Manila, Jakarta and our very own Kuala Lumpur flashed across my mind.

Indeed, we may not be able to be smug for too long if we don’t do something about it. The problem is that “we” does not necessarily mean “the people”. The “we” are the people whom we elect as our lords and masters every few years.

If the past is a good indication of the future then the best I can say is “enjoy it while we can.”