Young Buddhist ESL pupils who live in Jeju keep my nights from Monday to Sunday busy. Not all my online pupils are Buddhists, though. There’s a Christian, a Catholic, and an atheist, too. But this year’s Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, the end of Ramadan, reminds me of my memorable interaction with Muslims in Bandar Seri Begawan in August 19-22 last year.
Before I engaged in online English tutorials ten months ago, I haven’t known any Buddhist up close like this. I saw them only in the movies as shaven monks who live in monasteries wearing their calm faces while doing some amazing, animal-inspired, cool stunts, like standing on one leg with eyes closed for hours. My Korean pupils have since changed the Buddhist image I have in my mind. With the Muslims, though, I see them in commercial centers in my country, unlike the Catholics and Christians who are everywhere. The atheists I cannot tell apart, but I guess there are a few close by. Anyway, the Muslims are the new Chinese whom you will find doing business by selling China-made merchandise on the streets, in the markets and the malls. They sell Korean DVD movies, too.
However, the Muslims that my travel buddies – Irene, Ofel, Jojo and Arleen – and I got to first meet in Brunei were, well, kinda different breed. They are royals. But they are royalty whose hands you can shake. They mingle with guests. They act like normal people do, but with an unusual blend of being both ostentatious and unpretentious at the same time.
Our travel agent-hosts, Tipid Deals‘ couple Jojo and Sani were more than accommodating and generous for tagging us along in one of the royal palaces for luncheon with foreign dignitaries in attendance. We sensed the strict air of security at the gate where the coming and going of luxury vehicles bearing those VIP plates was an awesome sight.
All crowded in Jojo’s van, we pretended to look like one extended family with him, being the royal grandchildren’s esteemed piano teacher, as our ticket to a once-in-a-lifetime VIP royal luncheon. We did not mind being labelled as his aunts from the Philippines for as long as he could justify with the palace guards why women outnumbered the men in his family back home. The security protocol at the gate was brief and uneventful, but the tension having to wait for clearance filled us with suspense (like we were a group of undercover lady agents in some Bond movie, who masqueraded as matrons being slipped into the palace) that the Brunei sun became too much to bear inside a jam-packed van, wiping out traces of little make-up that we had put on our faces. Anyway, we got inside the huge modern property all right. The array of luxury cars and the high visibility of the Royal “Polis” Force continued to faze us. The feeling of not belonging there was overwhelming. Our host-companions signaled for us to follow them inside as we fumbled for the scarves that Sani thoughtfully lent us to have a touch of Malay in our get-ups. I couldn’t wait to get inside for some cooler air. The scarf around my neck was suffocating me that I wanted to get rid of it immediately.
The double door opened to admit us to the foyer where huge glass panels stood, giving us a peek of the Who’s Who in Bandar Seri Begawan at that time. It was a huge imposing hall that awaited us, filled with ornate and not-so-ornate tables and chairs, but with many well-heeled guests already standing and exchanging pleasantries. The elaborate banquet was both inviting and intimidating. Anyway, we came to celebrate Hari Raya in style, so we had to blend with the A-list crowd as fast as we could summon ourselves to do so. The lilting music coming from the orchestra pit at the far end of the hall served as our invisibility cloak as we moved towards the banquet tables to the rhythm of the small gongs, drums and other traditional Malay musical instruments that played the “Selamat Hari Raya” festive songs.
I managed to put food on my plate whilst another hand held the smartphone that captured the first photos of my friends inside the first royal residence that we had the good fortune to visit in this rich land whose lifeblood is oil. We were scared to use our DSLRs at first even as I already took some paparazzi shots the moment we entered the compound while still in the van. Only when we deemed it proper and safe to bring our cameras out that we did so. And the shooting spree began!
I lost my appetite for food as I could not digest all the pomp and pageantry that my eyes feasted in that hall – from the gold-trimmed ceilings adorned with a mix of recessed lighting fixtures and fabulous chandeliers to floors and a winding staircase cushioned inch by inch by thick, Persian-looking carpets, also the stately curtains and golden accents everywhere fit only for royalty – not to mention all that food and sweets flooding the banquet like we were in a strange, strange land where everything was aplenty. Fairy tale material, indeed.
We had no inkling that this hall was just a harbinger of greater pomp to come when we would join the multitude in filing in for the main feast and an audience (for the women) with Pengiran Anak Saleha, the Queen Consort, and her royal entourage on the following day in the Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s official palatial residence.
To our surprise, special servings of assorted sweets and imported chocolates were served our table, each of us receiving small envelopes with BND20 to boot! What luck! We found out it was the Filipina nanny of the royal grandchildren who was behind all that bounty. It was also she who told us there were many of them employed in the royal palaces and elsewhere in Brunei. A surge of joy and a squeeze tugged at our hearts at the same time having heard this from her. It would be a pleasant experience to meet our ‘kababayans’ working in the sultanate, but we wondered if they were allowed to make small talk, nay eye contact, with others. Quite memorable, too, was the chat we had with a young male reporter from the “Brunei Times,” who was interested in getting our impressions during this visit.
I recalled having told him we were absorbing and enjoying the whole experience.
To cap it all, the moment came when the royal family reappeared that momentarily put us all in tenterhooks. We were quite confident that a curtsy was not in vogue here, but still we did not know what to expect in an audience like this. To our amazement, the Pengiran Muda (Prince) Abdul Malik and his royal family walked by without fanfare, went around to greet guests and even stopped by our table to ask why Jojo and Sani’s little boy was having a tantrum on the floor. The couple had just pulled their son away from the royal family photo op earlier. The boy was stealing the show even as the rest of the royal family didn’t mind, his playful antics captivating the royal kids. But the couple-visitors knew only too well that it was not a common household for their son to play in. A crying fit ensued, which amused the Prince, who looked down with concern in perhaps wanting to appease the boy wiggling on the floor.
It was a charming scene that had been etched in our memory in this ‘fairy tale’ trip to the Abode of Peace.
New King James Version (NKJV)
Seeing the Invisible
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.