‘It’s called Fferam Bailey, Benny, you can’t miss it’, said my uncle who was trying to give me directions as I drove northwest from London. Poring through the excellent Ordnance Survey (OS) maps, (which I think are the bestest maps in the world, bar none) I grumbled at the Malaysian-ness of my uncle’s instructions – my Malaysian relatives always did that – give incomplete driving instructions like, ‘ah, you coming up to visit? so remember to turn off the highway then go down the main road and then turn up the side road ah?’
There are never standard directions like north or south or even left or right. Just off and down and up. And that makes it very difficult to navigate because down and up are dependent on how that relative is visualising and orienting his mental map. If his or her brain is holding their maps upside down or even sideways, you’re basically a goner. Lost for good.
But all I knew was that my uncle lived somewhere in Wales, and he did mention that North Wales was more beautiful than the south, where the capital Cardiff was located. So I drove myself and my then girlfriend all the way up, stopping in Oxford for lunch, then getting lost trying to get back on the highway, then making our way across the border from England into Wales, and I knew we were deep in North Wales when we stopped to refuel, and the other people at the petrol station were speaking the strangest language I had ever heard. I know it would be rude to describe it as a mix of hacking, gurgling and clearing of throats, so I won’t.
After driving for more than six hours, my uncle got worried and called, telling me that his farmhouse was on an island, but no worry, there was a bridge across from the mainland.
I managed to make my way across the Menai Strait, and was happy enough knowing that I was on Anglesey, and all I had to do was find this place called Trefdraeth, not Malltraeth or Glantraeth, and near this village called Llangefni. Of course I got lost and drove all the way up to Holyhead instead, calling my uncle from a public phone (you have to remember that in those dark days a decade ago, mobile phone coverage was quite limited, and in remote North Wales, even more limited), and telling him that I was seeing signs telling me I could drive all the way to a ferry to take me to Ireland, and that that meant I was definitely lost, and that he had to give me more definite directions.
Of course, all I had to do was to really look at my OS map, and find that Fferam Bailey – the structure – was indicated on the very detailed map of North Wales and Anglesey. And even though it was getting dark and we saw an ambulance by the side of the B-road with the ambulance driver consulting a similar OS map, I wasn’t too worried because my uncle also said, ‘don’t worry, you’ll recognise it as the only Chinese farm house you’ll find in North Wales, because it’s the only one whose driveway is lit’.
We did get there eventually, to this pretty farmhouse built in the 18th century, to be put up in a cottage named Pineapple Cottage next to the main house, and eat an equally incongruent dinner of Cantonese roast duck and rice which I had brought up from London’s Queensway.
I think we stayed there for three days or so, in the cottage with my grandmother who was also vacationing there at my Malaysian uncle’s 18th century Welsh farmhouse, and I remember waking up really early (and got spooked by a cow in the dark) and watching the sun rise, walking through the field in front of the main house, picking up a coupla pieces of what I suspected to be ancient Celtic metal thingies, which my uncle dismissed as ‘common’, so I threw them back.
One morning, my Welsh aunt caught me in the field watching the sunrise, and asked me squarely what I was doing reading law and accountancy at university when it was clear I was never cut out for either. She also said I had to find out what it was that I wanted to do. In life. And all that.
I think I’m just about getting there.