Monday, October 24, 2005

10/16: cats and fish

If any city were to have a serious and comprehensive museum devoted to the cultural and biological history of cats, you’d think it would be Kuching (which, as I mentioned, means “cat” in Malay). The Cat Museum sat at the top of the hill in a big domed building, looking stately and promising. But after a quick look around, we decided it must be the pet project (no pun intended) of some government official’s wife. Someone the city couldn’t say no to.

Ever wondered what a giant plaster cat looks like wearing a hijab? Look no further! You can also find cartons of Whiskas behind glass, framed Garfield puzzles and water-stained prints of “cats in western art.” The inclusions were random, half-hearted and totally disorganized. The English portion of the info cards on the walls often started or stopped in the middle of sentences. Ryan was immediately bored and began scouring for little bits of actual Malaysian history, but I was fascinated.

There were not one but two collections of Hello Kitty zodiac key chains—displayed not with the other case of Hello Kitty stuff, but with posters of work by a Japanese photographer who liked to dress kittens as chefs and “street toughs.” One of the classier rooms was devoted to folk-style paintings of cats with captions like, “TODAY: Is always good to no look back, but some time you should look back.”

If a movie had a cat in it, even for a minute, the poster was on the wall of the Cat Museum. There was a bizarre diorama homage to a 1950s movie called Cat Burglar. The large glass case featured a masked mannequin dressed in black, suspended on ropes above a litter of, what else, big-eyed plaster kitties.

The orang-utan sanctuary, where we went later in the afternoon, was much more discreet. Not a single plaster orang-utan. Just the real thing, looping through the branches for their afternoon pineapples and oranges. B and I missed the alpha male, but we watched a beautiful red-brown mama orang-utan and her little orange gymnast baby. They’re much more graceful than their monkey cousins. They basically have four arms, and they just sort of peel from one branch to another.

We had dinner at the See Good Food Centre, a big outdoor seafood restaurant with no menus, just a middle-aged woman who recites the specials and a handful of bobtailed cats who meow loudly while you eat. We ate black pepper crab and sweet and sour fish and finger oysters and ferns and spinach.

B and Ryan are always good for State Of The World Conversations—what government should be and do. I love how smart they both are, how inspiring and honest. Even though sometimes I just want to burst out and start talking about the mall (which, actually, Ryan is pretty adept at as well, having been a passionate Banana Republic employee).

Ryan is pro-caning these days, ready to give up freedom of speech and religion for a clean, safe, egalitarian country. I’m not really sure how those sacrifices create that gain, but I agree that different systems work for different cultures (though maybe no one needs the caning system). I’m fascinated by Ryan’s ability to move about in the world, to hitch a ride on a mail truck in Uganda one day and buy mass quantities of his favorite Body Shop shampoo the next. To swing from the rough life to the high life like a smooth orang-utan.

At the Holiday Inn, there was a gazebo where you could get massages, and I was totally horrified to see white women sipping cocktails as Malay women rubbed their feet. I don’t like the idea of a poor person taking care of my personal grooming, and yet, a poor person undoubtedly sewed my clothes, and a poor person cooked my dinner. Which makes me think that maybe I’m one of those people who just doesn’t like to see “the help.” Like I want the perks without the guilt. Whereas I think Ryan understands the harsh realities and accepts the consequences.

When I started eating fish, I knew I had to fully own the consequences of my actions. I couldn’t stick with fish sticks and fillets, I had to look the fish head square in the eye.

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