We were just discussing what we’re going to be doing this evening. We were thinking that maybe we could meet for something to eat (if you’re cool with that?) at about 6:45 (if you’re in town) and we’ll show you a little secret. But, for this secret some rules apply:
– Shoulders & most of arms to be covered.
– Legs must be covered (at least past the knee).
– Must bring something to wrap & cover all your head hair.
So without giving the game away too much, what do you think?
If you only have room in your brain to know three things about me, let them be this:
1) I love costumes
2) I love surprises—and secrets!—but am terrible at keeping them myself
3) I love food
Given these facts, you can only imagine how excited I was to receive the above message from our friend Dale, the Anglo portion of AngloItalian, Follow Us! Quite honestly, the only thing that could get me more excited about reuniting with him & his partner Franca while in Melaka would be to couch that reunion in a dinner swirling with mystery and a stringent dress code. Ok, having to dress chastely isn’t exactly the same as forcing friends to dress up like a spy or their favorite literary character (both themes for parties I have thrown, by the way), but travel teaches us to be flexible and given that there isn’t enough room in my backpack for flamboyant wigs or wizard robes, I will take what I can get!
When we arrived in Melaka, it had only been a few weeks since we had last seen Dale & Franca, but time moves differently on the road and time away from friends always seems too long, so it honestly felt like a lifetime had passed since we had bid one another farewell in Taiwan. As Tony & I walked towards our designated meeting point, a picturesque bridge just on the outskirts of the city’s Indian district, I was positively buzzing with excitement, the jaunty, jangling notes of Bollywood pop doing little to mitigate that.
If I were to add a fourth thing to my original list of important things you should know about me, it would probably be that I am horribly impatient. Perhaps this is somehow related to why I am so terrible at keeping secrets, but pretty much, whenever I get it into my mind that I want to do something, I like to get it done right then and there. What can I say—the heart wants what the heart wants.
Thankfully, it seemed like the universe was in complete agreement with me, because we didn’t even make it all the way to the pretty little bridge serving as our rendezvous spot before muffled giggles from behind us caught our attention. Turning around, we caught Dale & Franca, twin impish smirks plastered across their faces, slinking towards us clearly intent on sneaking up and startling us. Gleaming grins to match theirs blossomed across our own faces, and we quickly pounced, capturing them in a big hug as a cacophony of enthusiastic greetings filled the air around us.
If not for our hunger, we might have stayed laughing and excitedly chattering at one another all night, so excited were we to be reunited and to catch one another up on all the adventures we’d had in the wake of our last meeting. But stomachs rumbling like thunder reminded us of our purpose, and our merry band of four set out through Melaka’s cramped streets. Dale & Franca had already been in the city for a few days and had a head start on us in terms of uncovering its secrets, so they confidently led the way, steering us through pastel-hued breezeways and a crisscrossing network of lanes that, like veins in the body, brought us to the heart of Little India.
When we stopped in front of a Sikh temple (or as it is known in Punjabi, gurdwara, meaning “gateway to the guru”) I momentarily wondered whether the big surprise of the evening was that we would all be joining a cult or that Dale & Franca had found religion during our brief separation. Anticipating the line of our thinking, Dale hastily explained that a fellow at the hostel they were staying at had brought them here on a previous evening and that the temple had a kitchen that served up meals to people of all colors and creeds. He assured us that the food was excellent and—even more tempting—completely free.
Sometimes we do not recognize a presented opportunity for what it is—a chance to produce a ripple in the river of our life’s adventure that changes the course of our journey, however infinitesimally—and we let ourselves sail by without ever realizing that we have lost out. But sometimes it seems that certain opportunities are so important that they echo back at us, giving us another occasion to grasp them. I’ve learned that rarely does life provide us with second chances; if we do not find the courage to master our fear or our doubts when an opportunity first presents itself to us, then our punishment for our foolishness is generally that this first appearance winds up also being the last. So, when we keep drawing the same card over and over, no matter how many times we shuffle the deck, it is important that we recognize that this card is meant for us alone and that we be willing to tuck it in our pocket and carry it until the time comes to play it.
During our time in Singapore, Tony & I had walked by a beautiful gilt Sikh complex. Singapore is a country filled with many lovely and imposing buildings; so many, in fact, that it is easy to become somewhat inured to the allure of the architecture. But this Sikh temple was so especially magnificent that it quite literally stopped us in our tracks. While we were stopped, we managed to tear our eyes away from the graceful, glittering curves of its onion domes to read the informational plaque outside. Amongst other things, we learned that gurdwaras used to be popular pit stops for weary wanderers (and budget backpackers) because they munificently offered free food and lodging to any and all who requested it. Unfortunately, due to the abuse of this generosity by Western travelers during the 60s and 70s, Sikh temples in Singapore now only offer this hospitality to a very select few. At the time, we both remarked that it would be pretty fantastic to have the chance to sit down to a free meal at one of these places, though we both wondered whether we would actually have the nerve to request the service. Shrugging, we had dismissed the question as one that we would likely never have the occasion to really answer.
Standing with Dale and Franca in front of the Gurdwara Sahib in Melaka, that question came ricocheting back at me. The awareness that, despite the odds, an opportunity thought lost was being presented to us once more sent a surge of giddiness through me while also suffusing me with an unerring sense of certainty of what we had to do next. Twice now we had stood before a Sikh temple and wondered at the experience of eating amongst its disciples. But whereas we had walked away before, turning our backs on the taste of enlightenment, this time I knew we had to step through the gates and discover what awaited us on the other side.
When Tony & I enthusiastically nodded our agreement with Dale & Franca’s plan for the evening, all apprehension melted from their faces only to be replaced with the puckish grins of co-conspirators. Grabbing us by the arms, they ushered us onto the grounds and over to dozens of shoes, from cheap rubber flip-flops to kitten-heeled mules bedecked with intricate embroidery, that had been doffed in front of a large trough filled with water. Shoes are not permitted inside the temple itself—not even its dining hall—and prior to entering the building, all visitors must wash their feet. Additionally, all who enter—men and women—must do so with covered heads and, as Tony learned, this means using a turban or scarf, not a baseball cap. Thankfully, the temple has a basket of surplus shawls that can be used by visitors without appropriate coverings of their own, though the dubious cleanliness and patterns formed by stains of indeterminate origins certainly made us wish we had purchased our own sarongs already (truly the most indispensable of all accessories for travelers to Asia!).
Appropriately cleaned and covered, we then proceeded to the main prayer room, which was absolutely silent save for the rhythmic chanting of an older man who sat cross-legged on a raised platform at the back of the hall. Letting the lilting stream of Gurmukhi—the melodic language of the Sikh’s holy scripture—that fell from his lips wash over us, we individually walked up to his dais and each placed a 2 MYR note in the offering plate that was set before it. Although one can technically eat for free at the Gurdwara Sahib, standard practice is to offer a few notes as a token of appreciation for the temple’s generosity: in our case, we left the equivalent of $0.66US, which is a small price to pay for the feast, and the experience, that awaited us.
Before leaving the hall, we were intercepted by a local woman. Though my initial impulse upon her approach was to feel a bit chagrinned, worrying that she might call us out as interlopers, her face was open and warm, and her evident enthusiasm at our visit made us feel exceedingly welcome and soon set us at ease. She was happy to hear that we were there to enjoy the temple’s evening meal and was even more delighted to hear that Dale & Franca were repeat customers, so to speak. Before we left to eat, she told us a bit about the temple and its operation; in particular, she shared that the current prayer session that we were observing had begun a few weeks ago and would continue for another three months without any kind of pause or break in the recitation! When we expressed amazement at this, she smiled sanguinely and shepherded us into the dining hall, foisting plates into our hands and urging us to eat as much as we could. We smiled brightly at her enthusiasm and promised we would do our best to make her proud.
From the moment we entered the grounds of the gurdwara, the generosity and kindness we experienced was almost overwhelming in its scope; these two actions are members of a small family of things that we can have heaped upon us and only ever feel lighter for their weight. The one possible exception to this is perhaps when it comes to food, for the volunteers standing at the buffet were so exuberant in the servings they doled out for us that we had a hard time carrying our hefty plates back to the long communal tables that were laid out in rambling rows. When we took our seats, we tucked into a veritable Punjabi feast:
Our plates were piled high with fiery baigan masala (spiced eggplant), a ladleful of thick lentil soup and tender potatoes (aloo ki dal) atop fluffy white rice, bitter melon that had been stuffed and then poached rendering the plump morsel delicious and mellowing out its more astringent notes, creamy puréed palak (spinach), lip-puckering cucumber achar (pickle), cooling and cleansing raita to soothe our burning palates, and flat chewy chapatti bread to mop everything up. For dessert, we were given heaping scoops of sweetened and spiced rice pilaf (a bit like a drier version of Indian rice pudding, kheer) and as many bananas as we could hold in our hands.
I’d like to be able to say that due to our weeks apart that the four of us didn’t fall upon the food like animals and instead gave each other the attention our separation deserved, but no. The food was incredible and we were all too busy trying to get it into our mouths as quickly as possible to bother with things like table manners or conversation; there would be time enough to talk after we had eaten our fill, but for a solid 20 minutes or so, the only sounds coming from our end of the table were those of chewing punctuated every so often with supremely satisfied sighs of delight. Everything was delicious and impeccably seasoned: there was a real finesse and balance to the spices so that all the flavors sang in harmony with one another creating a real symphony of taste that we just couldn’t get enough of. I was stuffed after just one plate, but the boys both went up for seconds; were it not for our desperate pleas announcing defeat, the ladies working in the kitchen would have happily kept topping them up until they were fit to burst.
It is a commonly held belief that there is no such thing as a free meal, and even at the Gurdwara Sahib, this is to some extent true: though no monetary remuneration is ever expected or demanded of diners, those who partake are expected to pay for their meal through the simple act of washing their dishes and cutlery after their meal. Dale and Franca had warned us that once you start washing you might find it difficult to stop as generally you are expected to perform this service so long as plates are handed to you (even by fellow diners shirking their own dish-washing duties). Replete from our feast, we were rolling up our sleeves and getting ready to get our hands wet when our friend from earlier sidled up to ask whether we had enjoyed the food. Seeing our satisfied grins and our bellies slightly distended from the epic meal, she bestowed us with a smile so wide that it eclipsed most of her diminutive face, and swept our empty plates into her arms. Despite the mass quantities of food in our stomachs, we collectively leaped to our feet and tried to insist that the least we could do was clean up after ourselves, but she was resolute: tonight we were her guests and as such, our dishes would join her own.
Long minutes passed in contented silence; we were only roused from our stupefied food coma by the return of our new friend who was briskly shaking the last drops of water from her hands. Beckoning us with a slight nod of her head, she led us back into the prayer hall, this time to a secluded corner. Turning to us, she spoke in hushed tones, inviting us to end our time at the temple by taking part in one of the holiest of Sikh rituals: known as karah parshad, the ritual refers to a crumbling sweet biscuit made of flour, sugar and ghee, which is considered extremely sacred as it believed to represent a taste of heaven. Following her directions, we kneeled before a woman draped in a sari the color of ripe aubergine swirled with turquoise and flecked with gold sequins the size of my pinkie fingernail that winked in the hall’s lamplight. Using both hands, we accepted the proffered karah parshad and then, remaining in the supplicant position, were careful to eat every speck of it, never allowing even a crumb of it to fall or touch the ground, for this is the greatest of offenses: that something divine should touch the earth.
Though none of us were followers of the faith, we all felt very touched and blessed to be included in this ritual and it was the perfect culmination of our visit to the Sikh complex. Whether I believed in the symbolism behind the act seemed secondary to the fact that those who had invited us to eat of the karah parshad believed wholeheartedly in its sacrament and wished to share it with us. It may have been my tongue that had the taste of heaven bestowed upon it, but it was through my heart that I witnessed the spectacular beauty of the moment.
As I rose from the kneeling position, I felt a curious sensation that I can describe only as a lightness that stems from the feeling of deep satisfaction, the kind that seems to emanate from your very soul. Saying thank you to the two women for their kindness, we turned and walked outside to the courtyard where the sun, hanging low in the early evening sky, was beginning to dip below the horizon. Slipping on our shoes, the four of us linked arms, and as we headed out into the bustling, busy streets of Melaka in search of the next adventure, the added bounce in our steps made it feel as though for the rest of the night that our feet never touched the ground.