Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Pending Nuptials

It was 11:30 pm when my cellphone rang. I picked up the call, muttering an automatic salam while trying to shake off enough sleep for a coherent conversation. With whomever it was at the other end of the line.

“Kak Sofie… Along ni.”

Oh. Right. Along.

Our families are very close, Along’s and mine. Her mother was my mum’s older sister, and my favorite aunt. We grew up practically in each other’s homes; we were each other’s support system and lifeline when things were rough. And when we lost her mother to cancer three years ago, that lifeline became essential as my family struggled to keep a strong hold on Along, her siblings and their mu’alaf father.

Our familial relationship meant we were cousins. However, her growing up with me felt every bit like we were siblings.

My mind flew back briefly to the phone conversation between my mum and her dad earlier in the evening. He had invited—no, requested our family’s presence at a risik meeting for Along this weekend. My mother was to take the place of my late aunt in the upcoming discussions.

My mum accepted the task, as a devoted sister and stand-in mother would. But I thought she seemed a tad sad about it. And I think I know why.

Her first experience in marrying off a daughter will, unfortunately, not start with her own brood.

I know she feels a bit apprehensive. I am the eldest grandchild of the family, and although the phrase langkah bendul doesn’t immediately come to mind, that’s essentially what it is, isn’t it? I’d been beside my mother when she ended the conversation, and her eyes told me so much when she looked at me. I didn’t want her to pull me down that depressing road, so I cut her off by teasing her about what good practice it’ll be for when my time finally comes. If it ever.

My mother never pressured me into marriage. I was sure her silence on the subject was due to her respect for my feelings, and faith that I would find my own way to the altar someday, somehow. I’ve always been the independent one after all. And my father? well, he’s only too happy to see me remain unattached. Something about always being daddy’s little girl.

Honestly, the opposite sex – and all that that entails – was never my forte. Outside of friendship and camaraderie, I really didn’t understand guys. I was always their older sister, their friend, their confidant. Relationships beyond these perimeters were locked doors and off limits to me.

Oh, not that I’ve never tried gaining access. Believe me, I’d risked it enough to hurt.

I’ve watched the way my female colleagues deal with the men where we worked. All the silly banter and witty comebacks and subtle signals. I thought, what man in his right mind would be attracted to so much nonsense? And yet…

It drew them like moths to a flame. All of them.

I didn’t banter. I wasn’t sharp enough for witty comebacks. And according to reliable sources, I am completely oblivious to signals of any kind! I’d proven this true by observing the men whenever they were in my presence. At best, some were polite and conversational. At worst, I was ignored altogether. Guess it's nothing but business with Miss Shaaruddin...

Perhaps my grandmother was the one to put it most delicately. It had me and my mother laughing when we heard what she had to say. It also secretly made my mother an emotional wreck not long after that.

Anak kau sorang yang tak laku.

Truthful words. Short and effective. And my dear cousin’s pending nuptial is only one of so many chances my grandma has had to prove it.

What else can I do but laugh?

Haish, somebody gimme a big fat hug!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What A Girl Wants

Note: A close friend’s recent post encouraged this entry.

When you want something, the entire universe conspires to make it happen.

It was never my intention to give up UNIMAS. I could go so far as saying I was forced to give it up. FRIM was not willing to let me leave the peninsula for my MSc studies, citing communication difficulties and the possible ‘clash of interest’ between it and UNIMAS as some of the many foreseeable problems.

It also didn’t help that my FRIM supervisor kept looking like she was having a coronary whenever I mentioned a certain professor from the school. A professor I’d been in contact with for the past year and a half. A professor who humbly asked me to call him “Mr. T” instead of the formality he deserves.

A professor I would kill to have on my panel of advisors for Masters.

So I threw my fate to faith and went searching for a molecular ecology expert closer to home. I was really disappointed, mind you. My search was half-hearted. I was surfing some insignificant website (insignificant because I can’t remember what it was) when I stumbled upon a weblink to USM in Penang. Yeah, Penang is good. Very far from FRIM! I thought vindictively as I clicked on the link.

I love the USM website, by the way. Its straight-forwardness led me directly to what I was looking for. Scrolling through the academic staff list at the School of Biological Sciences website, my eyes fell upon a sweet looking lady with a title that made my smile stretch a mile wide.

Associate Professor Dr. Siti Azizah Mohd. Nor
(Molecular Ecology and Population Genetics)

Supervisor: FOUND!

She was no expert when it came to bats though. Not like Mr. T. Her profile stated that she worked mostly with marine fish, and dabbled a little with insect DNA before that. But I wasn’t about to be picky. I liked her, and that was a good start. In any case, my RAship scheme had already commenced and I was in no position to bicker about the choice of experts this late in the game. I needed a supervisor quick, and she was the best I could come up with on such short notice.

So I sent her an email that afternoon. I was thinking it might take a while; I’ve written to several potential supervisors before, only to have my emails answered a few weeks later, if not at all. But I guess faith had a lot to teach me, for I received her reply the very next morning.

The email was short, but exhilarating! She was interested in what I was doing, and wanted to speak personally with me about them. She gave me a number to call and the suitable time, and thanked me for my interest.

If you don’t already know, I’m really big on physical relationships. I like meeting people and getting to know them up close and personal. It’s my way of understanding friends and what they want; what they need. I suppose that also explains my lack of interest in virtual community platforms such as friendster, twitter or facebook.

I know, I know.. it’s fun as hell to leave messages and play games and virtually poke, kidnap, buy or sell each other in the spirit of friendship. But it hardly tells me anything about a person, much less anything I could trust.

The fact that Dr. Azizah was asking to speak with me showed me she cared for my education, at least that much. Looking at her impressive academic background and list of publications, I felt I should be formal, courteous and straight to the point.

But she caught me off-guard. She was laughing the moment I called, asking me good-naturedly about my experiences and future goals. She was bright, friendly and infectious; the kind of people to put you at ease in any given situation. My kind of people.

Don’t get me wrong though. She was no slack, either. Her tone of voice, though merry, bid me to prove to her that I am worthy of her tutelage. So while I felt relaxed around her, it was never to the point where I forgot who she was, or the purpose of our conversation.

The highlight of our little chat came when I told her about my project involving bats. She was quiet throughout my explanation, and when I was done she asked me a question that nearly thwarted my spirit.

“Why are you asking me for a supervisor? I think a bright young lady like you should know by now that UNIMAS is the best place for you.”

Uh-huh. Tell me something I don’t know, lady.

“I have a contact there I can get you in touch with,” she went on. “His name is professor Tajuddin… People like to call him Mr. T?”

No shit.

My head hurt. I felt like I’d gone back to square one, which was not where I wanted to end up when I started this conversation. So I launched into a lengthy play-by-play of my situation with FRIM and my futile efforts of getting to UNIMAS, or the famed Mr.T. I figured if there was any time or anyone I could appeal to for help; now was the time, and this woman was it.

She laughed at my predicament, but set to solving my problems immediately.

“That’s alright then. You take me on as supervisor, and I’ll talk to Mr. T and see if we can’t elect him as your co.. deal?”

When you want something, the entire universe conspires to make it happen.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am now living proof of the above statement.

Friday, 3 July 2009

What my mother wants from my new job!

“Pi.. Nanti dapat gaji, belikan mama yang tu!”

Hn. This was becoming a regular request. Not good. Definitely not good.

Us girls - that includes me, my mum, my grandma and Pura - were at an electronic store in boisterous Tampin, looking for a new food processor to replace the one that went haywire in my grandma’s kitchen. Getting that one thing was easy enough. We pick, we pay, we leave.

The problem? The multiple decks of other, unnecessarily gleaming appliances. The kind that tends to glue the butts of housewives to the electronics aisle for that much longer.

My mother isn’t one. A housewife, I mean. Making a career out of practical spending, her perusal through these aisles was methodical. An economist at heart, she wasn’t into the window shopping, pay-on-credit lifestyle so shamelessly popular these days. She firmly believed in cold hard cash. It was either that or nothing.

I followed her to the back of the store, where the shelves were lined with microwaves and ovens. I saw her eyes glazed over as she fingered each and every one of them, no doubt reliving her golden baking days. She’d been trying to revive the era for some time now, what with the constant disposal of fresh recipes onto my lap every time she came home from work. I’d gotten to wondering what she really does at the office.

Her eyes settled on a particularly large piece, tastefully clad in black with cute dials and steel rungs and glass windows. It’s an impressive machine, and at the back of my mind I wished she would buy it. The price was worth about a third of my pay, but I know she would never settle for that. Haggling with the shop owner for ten minutes, she managed to move the price down to about a fifth of my pay.

I was marveling at her cool negotiating skills too, when she suddenly told me that it would actually come from my pay! (-_-)v


I am no stranger to household financial responsibility. Frankly, I’d taken the family’s bread winner #3 position more seriously when I began my job stint a little over a year ago. In those days I’d help out with bills, groceries and other household amenities – internet, postpaid – whenever I can. I wasn’t free to do as I please with what cash I have, but I wasn’t completely bound to these duties either.

These days though, they were becoming more and more routine. I could only symbolize it as a mother’s pride at seeing her eldest daughter settled in her career (either that or marriage *shivers*). And the fact that I am now working in the same organization as she is makes it seem all the more heaven-sent.

Some would say that’s a good thing. Being my mother’s daughter certainly has its advantages. Besides, most of the senior officers at work knew me back when I was still in diapers (heck, my director has seen me naked!), so my joining the team was more a family affair than a new job. Of course, that didn’t mean I was free to do as I please. But it does make official procedures and other little administrative quirks go over much, much smoother.. *evil grin*

Despite that, my esteemed post came with heavy baggage in tow. I am my mother’s daughter after all, and that alone makes for juicy office scandal. I had filled one of only a handful of positions that were coveted by hundreds of other applicants – positions that were suspended pending a review – and of which, I was the only applicant to pass through. So, it’s only natural for people to assume I came into the post through my mother’s influences, seeing as she is a senior research officer.

For the record, this was not the case. In fact, my familial connection to the organization was only realized during the later stages of my application process. Ironically, it was my supervisor’s cunning influence that won me the job. She needed my help to start her DNA project, and couldn’t wait for the review board as her project deadline loomed near. Stating time as a crucial factor, she pushed for my immediate appointment to the post.

It would be three agonizing months before they would relent and give her what she wants. But they relented, which made me wonder of the kind of power and capabilities now presiding over my professional life. The power I deign to call my boss..

After my new job, my mum seemed visibly relaxed. She was a lot less worried about things, and I realized the kind of strain she must have endured since my father’s retirement two years ago. Since then she’d been the sole breadwinner with much to carry on her shoulders, and that burden was beginning to weigh her down considerably.

Still, she was never one to give up. In all that turmoil she remained patient of my father’s post-retirement ‘need to be free’ attitude, and of my siblings with their sometimes infantile behavior and gross academic roller-coasters and financial antics. For all that she has been through, my mum was definitely worthy of redemption.

I didn’t get to buy her the oven that day. But as the rest of the women file out towards the car, I leaned sideways over the payment counter, trying my best at a conspirational grin.

“Taukeh,” I whispered. “Lain kali wa datang mau angkat itu oven, lu kasi harga tadi la.. RM300, okeh?”

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


June was absolutely spectacular!

I know, saying that while lounging in the comforts of my room, clad in my favorite PJs and smelling faintly of Skin Food’s yummy Coffee & Sugar body scrub I love so much makes me feel like the biggest hypocrite. Truth is, June couldn’t have been more insane. I’m still suffering from bruises, blisters and sprains.

But I am unrepentant. If I had the chance – and I will, insyaAllah – I would do it all again.

For the most part, I have FRIM to thank for last month’s many exploits, both below and above sea level. My parents like to call it the perks of “working for the government”. Funny, I thought it was "bloody physiotherapy."

Pulau Redang, 5-8 June 2009

Everything started with a trip to Redang, organized and hosted by Kelab FRIM. Three days and two nights’ worth of snorkeling, island-hopping, barbecues, candat sotong and water adventures with Jogun & Bella the sea-diving monkeys left me feeling like I hadn’t a care in the world.

Redang had a convenient way of making me forget my troubles. All I could think of while on the island was getting off it, into the warm, clear blue that harbored corals and colorful fishes and sea cucumbers and monkeys. The nights were liquid and soothing. How could they not be when you’re lazily swinging in one of the many hammocks hung under the moonlight?

It was the kind of vacation I needed after two grueling months in FRIM, and it was a good chance for me to be with the family I’d been neglecting the past few months.

Gunung Angsi Research Expedition, 9-18 June 2009

My biggest nightmare which took place the day after my return from Redang, was a lot harder to swallow. I’d been forewarned by both supervisors and colleagues that this expedition wouldn’t be easy, but they insisted I should not be left behind.

Nor did I want to be. I’ve always wanted a life as an ecologist, and this would be the perfect opportunity to live one, even if only for a few short weeks.

We didn’t get to camp inside the Angsi reserve. Instead, we were stationed at an agriculture complex at the foothills and we would make our way up into our research plots everyday, shortly after dawn. The research transects were set at the slopes and ridges of the mountain about 300 to 500 meters up. Getting there was often an 80o climb. I was crawling on my hands and knees just to keep from sliding into the valley below.

Day 1 on the transects nearly left me crying. I was thankful to my teammate Joann for patiently keeping me company during the slow climb, and for teaching me to process live bats – species identification, tagging, weighing, forearm measurements and DNA sampling. I had spent some time with my supervisor learning the basics of bat identification the night before, so I was happy to be able to immediately apply them.

Oh, but I was exhausted! My less-than-competent body was fast showing signs of strain. My screaming nerves and burning muscles were keeping me from sleep. All I could think of was the rest of the week, when I would have to endure the climb over and over again. Lying on a mite-ridden mattress that night, I repeated a supplication my mum taught me in times of peril: La ilaha illa anta subhanaka inni kuntu min azzalimin.

That prayer was my salvation. By the third day I was no longer thinking about going home. I found it easier to stop thinking altogether. Whenever we had to go into the forest, I’d tune out the journey by just looking down and focusing on my climb, reading that prayer whenever I could. Besides, I was getting the hang of bat identification, which I found immensely interesting. Joann was even confident enough to leave me alone to it by day 5 while she moved on to check on the other transects.

There was also geng burung, geng sungai, geng pokok, geng kelulut and geng kumbang with us. We were all using the same transects, all the easier for me to gain knowledge of other ecology research methods. I especially liked geng burung – whose colorful birds really make my day – and geng kelulut, who kept me in high spirits with their easy-going manner and positive outlook.

It was even more enjoyable on the last day, when the transects were soaked by heavy rain, and we were forced to climb up and down a muddy mountain. Every inch of my khaki pants were caked with mud and soil and tree saps from kneeling and sliding, and I had splinters in my hands from accidentally holding on to thorny rattans and sharp twigs. Not to mention the many unfortunate run-ins with kelingkiak, cengkenik, kutu babi and pacat ... Haish!

But you know what satisfied me most? We were waiting for our 4WD to take us back to base camp at the end of the day, when I noticed Dzamir from geng kelulut grinning wickedly at me. I had assumed, from my mud-ridden, sweat-soaked attire that he was laughing at my predicament. The following conversation ensues:

Dzamir: *grin* You're looking great, Sof!

Sofie: Sampai hati ko gelak..

Dzamir: *sober* I’m not laughing at you..

Sofie: Dah tu?

Dzamir: *grins again* Aku paling suka tengok orang berusaha. Ko banyak berusaha..

Joann: Kan? dan dia tak pernah cakap “tak nak.”

Sofie: ... Sebab aku tak nak menyesal..

Fauzan's Wedding, 20 June 2009

I hurt myself getting there.

We'd managed to complete the Angsi expedition and make it back to KL two days before the wedding. But the physical trauma from my exertions were showing one by one. I had sprained both knees, as well as my right ankle. I was bed-ridden for the better part of the next day and the simptoms were getting worse.

It was time to whip out my miracle drug.

By the time I made my way to the wedding that Saturday, my bloodstream was saturated with Ibuprofen, without which I couldn't even stand, let alone drive the three-hour stretch from KL to Ipoh. It was marvelous. I couldn't feel a thing.

Looking back though, I guess the drug had affected me in more ways than one. I wasn't only physically numb; my emotions also took a backseat. I had pictured it to be a rather somber, reflective drive. Instead, I was animatedly chatting with Ann the entire way there. Many times I saw Safura looking at me funny, but I thought nothing of it.

Fauzan's married. I should feel something, but I don't. So what?

We'd arrived late at the wedding hall. The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, but I'd remembered Fauzan saying something about a costume change for the cake-cutting ceremony. The food was almost catered off the buffet tables by the time we got there, so we took whatever was available. Don't ask me what I had at the wedding though; to this day I could not remember...

We were done with food by the time the bride and groom graced the hall. Ann and I stayed put, hoping Fauzan would look for us in the crowds somehow. But alas, he and Hidayah were drowned out by professional photographers snapping pose after pose. Fauzan was oblivious, so immersed in apparent bliss that he didn't see us inching closer and closer to the stage, my camera poised to capture his moment of realization.

But when he did realize our presence, I couldn't take the picture.

He had this utterly shocked look on his face. I smiled, and the shock mellowed into something else. It was like seeing relief, mixed with warmth and gratitude and sadness and.. something else I couldn't explain. Suddenly it was painful, so I immediately tried lightening things up by asking the couple to pose.

Ah, the darn painkiller was starting to wear off. I was starting to feel again..

Fauzan was being dragged everywhere for pictures, which left him very little time for us. I wish I had the chance to talk to him, but since that wasn't possible, I settled on seeing him happy. He seemed to be having the time of his life, and his happiness heaved a great boulder off my chest. I wished the rest of BTB were there for the occasion. Having just me and Ann present really made it a strange excursion.

We somehow left the wedding in an indescribable mood. I was starting to ache all over; a sign that my painkillers were waning. By the time I'd reach home, I was limping off my right ankle and feeling very grumpy for reasons unknown. I was disappointed I wasn't able to get many pictures with the Couple of the Hour. Even more disappointed when I couldn't load it onto the computer..

But, I will always hold on to that expression Fauzan had when he saw us. It wasn't completely readable, but it was clear enough to let me know that everything will be alright.