It’s been so long since I posted anything on here as, although I intended to carry on blogging when I moved back to the UK, it felt a bit like I was moving backwards instead of forwards to be writing about Brunei when I was setting up home elsewhere. I’m glad to be back in Scotland but still think fondly of my time as an expat and when I saw a travel writing competition run by Travelex and Penguin in January I thought I would write about an aspect of my time in Brunei. I was utterly shocked to find out that I have made the shortlist, and thought that my entry would be a good way to end my blog – at least for now. You never know what’s going to happen in the future and one day we may move abroad again, but for now I am content to live there solely in my memory.
You can see the entire shortlist for the competition at The Next Great Travel Writer 2017, and if you want to vote for my entry you can do so on Twitter using the hashtags #NGTW and #NGTWElizabeth as well as the @TravelexUK twitter handle (any votes gratefully received!)
The Ultimate Tourist Experience
It’s early morning and the heat from the sun is still weak, so that it could almost be a hot summer’s day in the South of England. But here the similarity ends. Curious faces turn to look at the only white person walking uncertainly from one market stall to another and, although the stares are not unfriendly, they make me too nervous to stop and ask what these strange-looking fruits and vegetables are. I feel like the tourist I am, but can’t help gaping at the live fish and eels flapping frantically in an inch of water in a small black bucket. I wonder what will be the fate of the tiny terrapins piled five deep in a crate at the end of a trestle table selling bananas. Even the foods which should be familiar are different – the bananas are a quarter of the size of the variety I am used to and come in bunches of a preposterous size.
I am made conscious of the fact that it’s getting warmer by the trickle of sweat I feel roll down the small of my back, so I settle on a busy stall run by a Chinese lady who I overhear speaking English. I select a couple of brightly coloured plastic bags and begin to fill them: oranges, apples, tomatoes, fresh chillies, ginger… my selections get more exotic as I get into the swing of things and run out of familiar foods. I place my bags down at the base of a mountain of onions as I explore further and, picking up a large oblong-shaped fruit, I vow that I will try something new each time I visit the market. When I get ‘home’ I will Google Asian fruits and vegetables and discover that I have selected a papaya – I even find a You Tube video explaining exactly how to prepare it. Eventually I will find out from a novel that a sprinkling of lime juice will transform it into a delicacy. But in all the time I am here, I will never discover how to tell with any accuracy whether a papaya is ripe before I have cut into it – I have about a fifty percent success rate so always buy two.
Several bulging bags hang heavily from my arms, the plastic digging into my palms and leaving red imprints, but this is preferable to making the long pilgrimage back to the car before I have seen everything. Besides, my purchases make me feel like less of a tourist and more like I belong. I walk back through the corridors of laden tables with my head held a little higher and after a couple of small purchases I finally turn away from the cries of “se ringgit se ringgit”, deciding I can carry no more. I have nearly made it to the air-conditioned car, but then I see an island of stalls set apart from the rest and my newfound confidence propels forwards. I move towards the first stall, but as I do so I disturb a cloud of black flies which are crawling over every inch of the glistening fish. Repulsed, I move on but it is the same at the next stall and the next. I come to the last stall where a man is lazily waving his hand over his wares in an inefficient attempt to repel the unwanted customers. I don’t want to buy any of these tainted goods but something inside me insists that I must or I will appear foolish at having made this journey with nothing to show for it. So I point and purchase, only to throw the fish away uneaten when I get home along with the miniature bananas which are bitter and have an unpleasant aftertaste.
I learn much from my early morning visits: how to point with my thumb; cook jungle ferns; to visit the fish stalls at dawn before the flies arrive; and, although the stares will never cease, I find that they are not unfriendly, merely curious. I also learn that I will never cast off my Britishness: queueing politely where no queue exists; unable to haggle from prices already so low; nor unable to overcome my horror at rats the size of guinea pigs scaling market stalls. I embrace some of the local customs – curry for breakfast is better than any fry-up – but draw the line at durian fruit, equally put off by the worry I might like it as by its pungent perfume.
I have many adventures in this tropical paradise, and have experiences that many people would only dream of. But none of these experiences teach me as much as my visits to the market.
A local market is the place where you can meet the real inhabitants of a country as they go about their everyday lives, and they always say that it is through the food that you really get to know a place. Here the rich and poor come together (although I discover the rich often send their amahs instead), language barriers disappear in the face of universal communication through gestures and smiles, and I feel part of something which I don’t feel anywhere else in the country. Often when I am out by myself I feel uneasy or even unwanted, but here I finally feel as though I have as much right to be here as anyone else. I belong. And, when you are living eleven thousand kilometres away from home in an alien climate, that is something special.