Thursday, July 25, 2013

Visiting Kelantan: A Wild Night in Kota Bharu

My first evening in Kelantan, Malaysia, was starting slow.

After a quiet dinner with Abe, I went back to my hotel to wait for my friend, Juwe, and his friend to come pick me up. 

Nine thirty p.m. found me still lying on my bed. I'll admit it. I was a little disappointed.

Soon after, I got a message. The boys were downstairs waiting for me.

I jumped up and ran off to meet them.

Ten minutes later, I was riding around town in the back seat of Juwe's friend's car, listening to some blaring metal, while the guys talked mostly to each other in the front.

In Kelate. I couldn't understand a word. 

Well. This was a little weird.

The guys then decided that we should go to a particular street in Kota Bharu where there may be some people gathering to celebrate the upcoming elections, which were going to be held the next day.

* * * * *

A short footnote on Malaysian politics: 

Elections are held only once every five years. Therefore, they are a cause of great excitement. 

The 2013 elections were particularly thrilling because there seemed to be a strong possibility that the opposition party, PAS, might finally break the stranglehold that the legendarily corrupt BN has held over the country since its independence, fifty-some-odd years ago.

And to put the icing on the cake, Kelantan has been the stronghold of the PAS for decades. So the people of Kota Bharu were particularly hopeful that the political tides were finally about to turn, and their beloved PAS leaders might gain majority status in the Malaysian government.

* * * * *

So. When we arrived on the scene, this is what we found.

A wide street - three or four lanes in each direction - was jammed up with an endless parade of cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes.

Crowds of people on foot lined both sides of the streets.

Everyone was hooting, hollering, cheering, honking, jumping up and down, and waving the iconic green and white PAS flags.

It was complete, joyful bedlam.

As I stood on the curb, struggling to make sense of this happy chaos, a man approached me, shoved a PAS flag into my hands, and asked in perfect English, "May I please take a picture with you?"

I said yes. 

This became the first of at least 300 photos that were taken of me that night.

For the next three hours, I stood on the side of that street, waving my PAS flag, yelling and cheering at the never-ending stream of cars and trucks and motorbikes that were slowly creeping by.

Endlessly delighted, I watched those travelers' faces as they came toward me on the street. At first, they would be generally interested in the scene, looking here and there at the untamed celebration. Then their eyes would land upon me, the only pale American celebrating in a sea of coffee-colored Kelantanese. 

Every single person who saw me broke into a wide smile of amazement and joy, and they called to me, cheered for me, told me they loved me. Literally hundreds of people jumped out of their vehicles and ran over for a photo with me. They brought me snacks and drinks; they gave me political buttons, more flags, and a PAS scarf; they added me on Facebook, right there on the side of the street. They absolutely went nuts over me.

And while I normally hate being the center of attention, this night was different. This was me showing the people of Kelantan that I care about them; this was me joining into their political struggles and encouraging them to hope for justice. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of Kelantan, and I never dreamed that such a perfect set of circumstances would come to me.

I loved every single moment of my wild evening in Kota Bharu, and I can honestly say that it was probably the most thrilling night of my life. 

And the evening still wasn't over yet.

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