Helen Harper

Haze

I live in Malaysia, a beautiful, friendly tropical country. For most people that probably conjures up images of blue skies, swaying palm trees and sunny weather. Most of the time that’s true. Kuala Lumpur, even as a busy, traffic-congested capital city is surprisingly green. There are a lot of trees. Malaysia itself is one of those happily located places in the world, much like the UK in fact, which manages to escape most of nature’s ravages. There aren’t earthquakes or typhoons or active volcanoes to worry about. When the tragic and devastating tsunami of 2004 struck, it would be fair to say that Malaysia got off lightly. Thailand to the north had over 5000 deaths. Indonesia to the south had a staggering 130,000. Malaysia’s total was 68. The island of Sumatra essentially shielded Malaysia’s coasts from the worst. Unfortunately, there’s no protection from the ravages of man.

 

Since around the start of July, many South-East Asian countries have been affected by air pollution – or haze – that’s sweeping in from Indonesia as a result of slash and burn farming practices. Sometimes, there will be a thunderstorm or two and the skies clear for a few days. Most of the time, Kuala Lumpur is shrouded in smog. On the worst days, when I wake up, I taste the burning in my mouth. Friends’ Facebook posts are littered with ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of views from their apartments and houses. The difference is staggering. Sporting events at every level have being cancelled. This week alone schools were ordered to be closed from Monday to Thursday because the API (Air Pollution Index) levels were simply too high to be deemed safe for children. That is usually when the numbers reach above 200 or ‘very unhealthy’. Imagine what it must be like in Indonesia. On October 2nd, Palangkaraya hit 1,986.

 

The situation has been exacerbated this by year by the El Nino effect. There are numerous suggestions and theories about when it will all end. Some say next month. Some say it will go on until March. There have to be considerably grave concerns about the long term effect on the health of millions and millions of people, not to mention the planet. I remember years ago sitting in lesson after lesson where the dangers of the hole in the ozone layer were spelled out and using CFC gases or driving a car without a catalytic converter was potentially going to destroy the world. When I look out my window, it seems like we’ve learned nothing though. It’s not just here – think about Volkswagen.

 

It’s easy to point the finger and blame others for what’s happening, but maybe we’re all culpable. We all demand cheap products. We all could do more to recycle or cut down on our carbon footprints. I had a long Skype chat with a good friend today who’s vegan and he was telling me about how difficult veganism can be nowadays. You’d think it would be easier as it’s grown in popularity. Instead, companies all around the world have jumped in and worked out ways to label their products as vegan. Yes, they are vegan but very often they’re not ethically sourced or produced either. They might not be lying per se but their products still also seem to go against almost every tenet of veganism.

 

I don’t have a solution to any of this. Or even a conclusion because right now it doesn’t appear that there ever will be one. There is a quotation that I’ve found, however, by Terry Swearingen. I don’t know who he (or she) is or if he even really said it, but it seems apt: “We are living on the planet as if we have another one to go to.”

Photo by thienzieyung

Helen Harper

Pickpockets

Sometimes fiction collides with reality – and not in a good way. A new series I’ve been working on involves a main character who’s a thief. She generally goes for big ticket items but she’s also a mean pickpocket, although she targets a very specific group of people for her own reasons. I spent a fair bit of time researching how pickpockets operate. It’s disturbing how easy they can find it to steal.

 

This was terribly apparent a few days ago when I went out with some friends to a pub quiz. Admittedly, we were in a tourist area called Changkat Bukit Bintang. It’s rife with touts but there’s also a great atmosphere and lots going on, not to mention to some staggeringly good bars and restaurants. We were sitting outside on some high chairs. My friend had her bag looped around the back and she was sitting against. After an hour or two had passed (and I’d done the best I could to convince everyone that rhinoceros horns are made out of hair for the animal round) she got up to go to the bathroom and realised her bag had gone. It’s not the first time it’s happened to either her or any of the rest of us but it’s still heartbreaking when you think about the loss of her phone, her husband’s phone, all her bank and credit cards, ID card, driver’s license…

 

The bar had CCTV and although it was poor quality, we were able to watch the moment it happened. One man walked past and stopped to ‘use his phone’. Needless to say, none of us noticed him. He tried to take the bag, failed and tried again. As soon as he’d grabbed it, another guy sauntered past in the opposite direction and it was passed over. So even if we had spotted the lift, we’d have run after the first man – and he was carrying nothing. These were professionals who knew what they were doing. It sounds strange but the fact that I’ve been enjoying writing about someone who also does this kind of thing for a living – and who’s the heroine – made me feel extraordinarily guilty. It’s not that I’ve not been a victim of such incidents either. The worst was on holiday in New Zealand when the window of our hatchback hire car was smashed open and our suitcases were stolen (along with my passport, I might add – not the greatest way to spend your Christmas).

 

Unbelievably, the Eiffel Tower was closed in May of this year when staff walked off to protest the rise in pickpocketing (Clever Travel Companion). And while it might seem as if Kuala Lumpur is filled with bagsnatchers and pickpockets, it doesn’t even get a look in on the list of the top ten worst cities. Barcelona, if you’re interested, tops the list and almost all of the less than illustrious named cities are in Europe. Apparently, pickpockets hang out near signs that tell the unwary to ‘Beware Of Pickpockets’ because as soon as someone sees that sign, they immediately pat their pocket to check their valuables are still there – and the pickpocket then knows exactly where to aim for.

 

There’s lots of advice about how to avoid pickpockets. Use moneybelts, be aware in crowded situations, keep your bag hooked around something and so on. It’s all too easy to forget or to think that you’ve already done enough though. It’s also made me slightly less enamoured of my own fictional thief. Perhaps in book two I’ll have to make sure that she’ll develop a stronger conscience…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by matiasjajaja

Helen Harper

Ciao

It’s a strange time of year in expat land.  With the school year at an end, lots of families are relocating – some back home to Europe or Australia or wherever and some on to new jobs in new countries.  You get very used to people coming and going and there are lots of new holiday destinations to visit as old friends end up all over the world.  It doesn’t stop it from feeling very bittersweet, however.

I’ve personally been living abroad for ten years now.  It’s easy to remember as an anniversary, even for someone as useless at dates as I am, because on July 6th 2005 I travelled to London to collect my first work visa for Tokyo.  I vividly remember standing on the tube platform waiting for a train and the announcer telling us all that London had won the Olympics.  The response was remarkably muted.  Maybe all of us commuters were simply focused on other matters.  Of course, the next day those trains were being blown up.

There is something remarkable, however, about living in a different country.  You gain a completely different perspective on so many things, not to mention experiencing so much.  It’s not like the perspective you have while on holiday.  When you live somewhere, it’s just … different.  Prior to moving abroad, I lived in an entirely homogeneous corner of the UK.  Now I’m in a true melting pot.  I worry about the simplified portrait often painted in the Western media of the Muslim faith and how quickly people who’ve never experienced anything beyond the terrible news headlines swallow it as the sole representation of a billion people.  I can’t help comparing the pupils I taught in the UK to the international school students I taught for nine years in Tokyo and KL, to the refugee children I voluntarily teach now – and their frankly incomparable lifestyles.  I marvel at the way I can walk down the street here and be surrounded by people from every creed, color and religion.  In Malaysia, just about every religion is given credence, meaning there are a gazillion public holidays (I’m not complaining!).

Of course, not every experience is deep or thought-provoking.  I was almost giddy with excitement at coming across a multi-pack of Monster Munch last week in the supermarket.  In Tokyo, beans on toast was considered about the most wonderful meal and a serious cause for celebration.  You can take the girl out of Scotland but…

In any case, it is the people who really make the experience worthwhile.  I’m truly sad every year to see friends leave but I know we’ll keep in touch and that they’ll have fabulous new experiences in their new lives.  Bon voyage, sayonara, auf wiedhersen, farewell.  I’ll be in touch xxx

Photo by puddy_uk

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