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Melaka Day

Some part of the night it rained slightly, because when I woke up I could feel a chil wetness in the air and see large droplets of moisture sliding from the tips of the leaves that shadowed my window.

After a quick breakfast in the hotel garden and a quick look around its ‘Malacca Museum’ I headed out to explore the town by day. The night tour was really good because I was able to correlate what I saw with the street map.

My hotel was located in one of the principal streets of the old residential area, once called the Heerenweg (the Lords’ Way) and now Chock Tan after a man whose family had a house here once (its now a Chinese cultural center) and became Malaysia’s first Finance Minister.

The first thing that struck me was how simple, almost modest, were the houses on the street. Narrow fronted but deep, they could also have been like English terrace houses but for the curved Chinese roofs and the round hole punched through the walls that partitioned the front porches of each property. Each hole was decorated differently and colorfully. At the very end, looking through them all the way to the other end, it was an ever-diminishing series of portholes, each opening up a arc of its own space. Or like looking through the eyes of Odysseus’ planted axes – a skilled archer could shoot the length of them.

I walked up to the end of the street and looked on the Malacca River. Beside e two workers were busy repainting a bollard by the riverwalk.

Just over from me several workers were sawing and sanding blocks of a deep orange stone, ready to lay in place on the section of wall that was being rebuilt on the location of a Portuguese era bulwark.

Crossing a bridge that has stood at this location since the town was founded six hundred years ago I found myself in the old main square – at least the one the Dutch and British used as such. The Stadthuis, the church, the main warehouses and the model windmill are all painted a drained shade of blood red. Who knows why? It does stand out though, like a crimson fist slammed on the ground.

As I walked down towards the river mouth I saw a reconstructed water mill and, towering over a long warehouse now converted into a tourist mall, the masts and spars of a rebuilt Portuguese trading ship called a ‘nao’. This was the container ship of its time, a bulky behemoth that transported everything from cattle to cloves. Ingeniously this one is made into a museum which recounts the history of Malacca. And good for me it was open, because just as I walked up to the ticket offce the glowering grey crowds carried out their threat – it began to pour down.

So, while it rained ferociously outside, I strolled through the decks of the great ship reding the story of the town and of its various occupiers – Sumatran, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British.

It seems the only ones that actually made something of the place were the Sumatrans and Chinese. The business model the Europeans used (monopoly trade) condemned the place to languish. The Brits wanted to abandon the place and moe the inhabitants up the coast to Penang: that didn’t happen so it just languished instead.

By the time I had finished wandering through the displays and dioramas the rain was down to a soft whisper, falling silent as I left the innards of the vessel to stand on the upper decks. Here another couple of mannequins had been posted to wind a windlass. Bronzed (literally) and frozen in position,suffering all that natre could throw at them, these two were beginning to flake a bit. I couldn’t shake “Pirates of the Caribbean” out of my head.

From the top deck I could see where the original river’s mouth had been blocked and diverted by a sand bar, now in the process of being transformed into a walking are for vistors. The river curved round and continued to the sea, passing under a road bridge that, in times past, was once the sea. In fact a lot of land either side of the river is reclaimed land. Where the ship is “moored” is once where the sea broke against the beach hard by the old fortress.

I clambered off the museum ship and walked around a land museum which is part of the complex. Other than a couple of outsized maps of the place there’s nothing of signifiance there, so I left quickly, heading for the last vestige of the fortress called ‘A Famosa’.

I walked through a park decorated by a train and a couple of airplanes (part of Malaysia’s history), the Museum of Ethical Beauty and the Museum of Islam (the Malaysian government is determined to ensure and enforce its racial distinctiveness) and a decorative Chinese roofed wagon, I got as far as the Malacca trees when the rains returned with a vengence.

Running for cover, I took shelter in the Chinese wagon. A brilliant move, as form here I coud see the whole area and watch everyone else run for cover too. The rains hammered on my protetive roof for well over an hour, leaving me to pace from end to end of the wagon as would a caged tiger in a circus wagon.

Rickshaw drivers passed by with their colorful rickshaws wrapped in plastic, expressions resigned to the rain hammering at their heads. Locals huddled and ran for the shopping mal over the way. Schoolchidren in bright yellow capes scampered to the Independence Museum. Tourists clattered down the steps from the church on the hill above and into the protective arch of ‘A Famosa’, the steps themselves a cascade of water chasing them all the way. Three men came out of the Museum of Islam, sat on the steps, lit their cigarettes, and ruefully looked out at the darkening sky – no business for now at least, no enlightenment possible.

The tempest played tricks on everyone; it diminished to the point of exhaustion and then, just as everyone bagan to pick up their plans and set bravely forth, it wheeled back with even greater force and thoroughly drenched however had dared cross the square. My refuge turned out to have a few leaks, leaving me to dance a light dervish as I avoided drops trying to wriggle down the back of my neck.

Eventually the darker of the cluds rolled away to torment someone else. It was still dripping but I determined to cross the square to get to the Independence Museum and under a less drippy shelter. Another squall rode in, leaving me there for a few minutes. Then I hopped over to ‘A Famosa’, now emptied of the better part of refugees, and up to the church on the hill.

Whereupon it began to rain heavily yet again, leaving me – and everyone else – to scrabble for the one vaulted area protecting what would have been the altar and is now the void where Francis Xavier was once laid to rest.

Dutch tourists, English schoolteachers leading their local and expat students, Chinese visitors and local vendors trading old prints; everyone sheltered between the gravestones of Dutch governors, English sea captains and Portuguese bishops.

A long, long wait later, long enough for me to have read and translated every inscription on every stone several times over, I renounced the hope it would cease raining completely and strode out to take the pathway that lead down to the Dutch cemetery and behind the Stadthuis. Unbelievably, I made it without being oaked through, so continued on back to the hotel and download the fotos I managed to take.

Fifteen minutes after I walked into the hotel the grey clouds thinned into wispy trails and the sun began to shine. I took a green tea and some cake in the hotel’s foyer, then went out again to pick up my tourist trail from where I had left off – the church on the top of the hill – by way of a quick detour to see the Chinese temple, the mosque and the tilted church (St. xxx’s church isn’t built straight, it leans to the right in mimicry of the Tower of Pisa).

The street vendors were still there, with their stalls laid out in the courtyard before the church, by the one-handed statue of Francisco Xavier and under the shade of the great trees which towered over the yard’s raised dias. This time the ‘tourists’ were local girls, chatting on their cellphones and browsing the stalls.

I walked down and headed for the tower with a rotating observation deck so I could get the full panorama of the town. As I did a chill wind plucked at my T-shirt and very dark clouds appeared on the horizon, bearing down fast. I walked smartly to the tower and just got under cover when it began raining again. This time it wasn’t playful; it was vicious. It let up slightly; I got aboard the deck and, as it began rotating up to its full height, black clouds came screaming in from over the hills. We were at full height and rain pummeled the glass windows of the deck. Lightning cracked, the wind roared and the sight below me was washed away. Not the cleverest place to be – a glass crow’s nest in the middle of a monsoon storm.

After a few minutes the deck began rotating down towards the ground, and frankly I was happy to get off. “Could you install windscreen wipers the next time I come by please?”, I called out as I left the area, heading for the nearest café to drink a warming cup of coffee.

The rain wouldn’t let up, so after an hour I lost patience and scampered from eave to tree to stall to covered walkway till I made it back to the hotel again, suitably damp for the second time in the day.

Evening was modest – dinner in the Geographers Café and back to the hotel because it was chilly and still threatening heavy rain.

Still, what a delightful place Malacca is. The local government is clearly investing in infrastructure to develop local and international tourism. The weakness is access to long distance transportation, but if this could be overcome or mitigated, then I think it has great potential because it is one of the few towns in Asia that has retained in its heart both character and history – and is not merely strings of shopping malls, hotels and flyovers.