WHEN THE MCO was first announced, I, like many other Malaysians, was taken by surprise. What began as a two-week affair has now extended to more than a month. “What would the MCO entail?” I thought. One thing was for certain, my weekday jogs and weekend hikes had to be cancelled. For a self-professed outdoor junkie, the very thought of being marooned at home and denied of my mandatory Saturday hikes seemed dreadful.
The stairs, part of my running “obstacle” course at home.
My first few days of the MCO lacked structure, it was a struggle disciplining myself to stay focused on what I was doing, while being overwhelmed by Covid-19 news updates. I’d wake up every morning to check on the skyrocketing infection rates and the mounting death toll on worldometers.info. This, of course, got me nowhere, it just added to more anxiety.
Working from home is a foreign-sounding concept, but 15 years of hiking the hills of Penang have taught me that it is the most difficult and trying situations that bring out the best in us. And the MCO was no exception. Between hours of juggling working from home, helping out with the chores and the ubiquitous writing assignments, the MCO provided an opportunity to reflect, learn and improve myself.
So, what did I do during Malaysia’s partial lockdown?
One of the first things I decided to do was to start a daily reading routine. MCO mornings are mellower in comparison to the blurred rush of the otherwise normal weekday mornings. After freshening up, I’d head into my garden, with a chair in one hand and several books in the other, and dedicate an hour to reading. In fact, the greenery and early morning birdsong provide a semblance of the lush forest, and the cold morning breeze, a reminiscence of the crisp air of Penang Hill. My chatty cat Baby snuggles beside my chair as I plough through book after book. My reading interests revolve around nature, history and environmentalism, and I would read three books from these three themes in a 20-minute interval of each, finishing just before my hour is up.
My collection of hiking books. If you can’t hike, then read about hiking and recreate the experience in your mind.
One of my go-to’s when I found myself missing my weekend hikes was to read old copies of Penang Monthly. I’d revisit the Peaks and Parks column to relive the nostalgia of hiking. During the first four weeks, I managed to finish 10 books, something that I suspect I would probably have struggled to achieve within the year, if not for the MCO. My top three reads were:
Wild Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia – An absolute botanical masterpiece that explores the diversity of orchids in Peninsular Malaysia through a mix of sex, crime, adventure and mystery. Reading this book made what is usually a very academic subject a literal thrill!
The 25 Best Day Walks in Hong Kong – With a hilly topography and a good network of nature trails, flipping through this compilation made me realise Penang and Hong Kong share not just similar cosmopolitan natures, but also a very active “hiking culture”.
The Plastic Atlas 2019 – This book is an eye-opener to the plastic crisis. From the birth of plastics, to its rapid rise fuelled by strong lobbyists and our “disposable” habits, this is one book every environmentalist should read in coming to grips with the plastic dilemma that we are facing today.
Keeping fit was a challenge during the MCO. As jogging and hiking were out of the question, exercising at home, stair-climbing included, became my new routine. Since running indoors had to be done barefoot, my feet became more susceptible to sores, not to mention the various household items I had to avoid bumping into or knocking over. These made staying alert and focused more of a priority than my average speed.
Tracking my mileage while running at home.
The global lockdown also resulted in the meteoric rise of webinars, video conferencing events and talks on various topics. Not wanting to be left out, I looked up on what was trending; and what caught my attention were the ones on the environment and personal development. I managed to follow a few webinars by Leaderonomics and an environmental group called Jaringan Ekologi dan Iklim (JEDI), where I learned about topics, ranging from disruptive technology to sustainable development and climate action.
A skill I have been wanting to pick up for the longest time was to learn how to cook. Staying with my parents meant that mum usually did most of the cooking and unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I had not “graduated” beyond the basic Maggi Mee or frying an egg. Now is the time to level up. While the world was busy making Dalgona Coffee, I decided that the only way I was really going to learn how to cook was by shadowing my mum in the kitchen.
Being a Malayali (a sub-ethnic group in the Indian community), this involved learning to cook with spices and a generous serving of coconut, a quintessential must in Malayali food. But I had to start with the basics first: identifying the spices by their names, before moving on to making the simple but flavourful rasam.
The third week of the MCO marked an important time of the year for my family as it coincided with the Holy Week which culminated in Easter. I belong to the Indian Orthodox Church, a faith rooted in my family since the mid-17th century. The Indian Orthodox Lent is a 50-day fast with many going vegetarian during the whole period, right up to Easter Day.
The Easter spread.
Easter is something I look forward to more than Christmas, as my family would drive down to KL over the weekend and have a big reunion with relatives. Alas, with the MCO in place, the trip had to be cancelled, but it did not dampen our hopes; rather it presented the opportunity for me to test out my newly acquired cooking skills!
The family tucked into a grand Easter spread of ghee rice, korma curry, beef fry, traditional egg roast and a sweet finishing of payasam. While it was just me and my parents at home, the whole experience of planning and preparing the feast was infused with a sense of excitement. More importantly, being able to learn and put the cooking skills into practice was indeed a very fulfilling experience.
As I reflect on the experience of staying at home, it does not seem as bleak as I initially thought it to be. In fact, it was the one time I had the chance to sit back, learn and improve myself. And the greatest takeaway? Knowing that I did my part as a responsible citizen by staying at home, and supporting our heroes on the frontline to keep humanity safe.
Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.