Thursday, May 30, 2002
This site is run by Ska Chris. And will be quite kewl when he actually puts something on there.
I went to the somewhat threadbare Malaysian National Museum. They had a monkey on a chain. A cruel and barbaric thing to do you might say. What if I were to add that the monkey was in a glass case? And dead. And stuffed. How many cases of monkeys coming back from the dead have you encountered? A rather annoyed 10-ft crocodile also featured. As did an 8-ft long fish (which goes by the Clintonesque name of a Giant Groper).
There were also some tableux of traditional Malay scenes such as weddings and, er, circumcisions. The only slightly disconcerting thing was that the dummies used in these reconstructions seem to have come from Marks & Spencer circa 1978.
Also a fascinating little bit on the history of Shadow Play in South East Asia.
The Malaysian government has a bit of a tower complex (I wonder what Freud would make of that). Not only do they have the KL Telekom tower but also the Petronas Twin Towers. And they also have the world's biggest aviary. To an emerging nation, size obviously matters.
I am staying in a $2 hostel. I visited a friend in the 5-star Renaissance hotel. Looking out from his room I saw a tennis court and an enormous swimming pool populated by overweight Westerners. And just beyond that what appeared to be a sizeable shanty town. Don't wash your dirty laundry in public eh?
Malaysia's an interesting blend of people. About 60% of the population are Malay and Muslim. The women wear headscarves. They have been added to the traditional McDonalds uniform ("halal chicken, sir?"). And women policemen wear them as well. The next largest group is the Chinese (about 25%). Basically the Malays run the government and the Chinese run the economy. And both are happy with this situation provided the other delivers the goods (i.e. political stability and economic growth).
KL: Lots and lots of cats. Stacks of them. Mangy as hell most of them. Some guy I talked to had a theory that nations are either dog or cat countries (altho we shouldn't be so dualistic and so we could widen it out to fish countries or hamster countries maybe).
Some thoughts on the India-Pakistan conflict, which seems to be dominating CNN at the moment:
This is typical brinksmanship behaviour between India and Pakistan. It's been going on for years and the world has been ignoring it. Only now the two playground toughs are playing Russian Roulete with 6 loaded chambers. My gut feeling is that nobody wants a nuclear war but the screw-up potential is huge.
If people in the West begin to take a good long look at India and Pakistan and what's going on there then some good may come out of this horrible situation.
Now Showing on True Facts: I Can't Explain. Nuff said really.
Batu Caves. Spectacular. Great mothers of caves that some Hindus have plonked extremely colourful temples in.
Monday, May 27, 2002
1. Some taken by me at Pramod's school a few months ago
2. Some of Pramod's snaps - a few featuring someone you might know...
Chatting to Omar, a Malaysian microbiologist. We discussed divisions in Malaysian society between Malays, Indians and Chinese. They all go to different schools and do not intermarry. Who set up this system? Well, the British.
Omar went on to say altho there was mistrust between the races he had never experienced racism like he had in Britain - where people called him a 'Paki'. Which he found odd - because he comes from Malaysia not Pakistan.
Felt a small, smouldering moment of national shame.
Went up the KL Menara and saw... lots of cloud. And a few nice views.
Sunday, May 26, 2002
Left Malacca. Now in KL - which actually translates roughly as Muddy Waters, blues fans. First impressions? A bit rubbish actually. Grey, busy, dirty, homogenised. Things may improve when I hook up with Crafty Karl's family.
Admission of shame: I had a McDonalds. I felt so guilty and dirty afterwards. It reminded me of the time they caught me with the six geckos in the shower. Only worse.
Last night: talking to Tom (who goes around the world trying to unload Belgium's surplus manure on developing nations) and a rather nice Norwegian couple. All of a sudden, the quiet Korean girl pipes up:
Korean Girl: Hi, my name is xxxx and the Singaporean police are trying to kill me.
KG: Well, like, yeah. Why else would they be taking my blood and accusing me of taking drugs?
Us: Who's accusing you of taking drugs?
KG: Well, that's what I'd like to know right.
Us: And it was the Singaporean police doing this?
KG: Well I guess so. I mean, they didn't say that. But would you say that? Huh?
Now it's possible KG is being chased by the Singaporean police and God knows who else. It's also very possible she's suffering from paranoid delusions. But how do you tell someone that? I mean, you're obviously in on it too, right?
Saturday, May 25, 2002
The bike tour was cool - thanks to a charming guide and some up-for-it fellow tourists. Watching rubber getting tapped was kinda fun. And then I visited the TYT Museum - which is an object lesson in self-knowledge and the perils of its deficiency.
Malacca has a lot of museums - on Islam, beautification (basically all kinds of body modification - but this had been burnt down), the Dutch, anything really. The TYT Museum's area of specialisation is the State Government and Chief Minister (Tun) of Malacca. The visitor is treated to action-packed recreations of the Tun's Office, Dining Room, Inspiriation Room (which involves silver plates, a natty Koran and some indoor golfing equipment), and Family Area - where we are assured that"Despite his tight schedule, the Tun makes it a priority to spend some time with his family" ("Son, I can see you on August 25th at 3.46 - how does that work with your diary?"). In addition, lengthy profiles of each Tun is provided. To be a Tun, you require the following:
- a fez
- a lengthy name, the last one was called Tun Dutuk Utama Syed Ahmad Al-Haj bin Syed Mahmud Shahabuddin.
The tragedy is not only that this is all staggeringly dull but also that it is professionally arranged and quite a lot of money seems to have been 'invested' in this momument to executive ego - I mean, civic duty.
The Backpacker Existence
You're fated to have brief contact with other human beings. Nothing too deep, nothing too sustained. Nothing you can't walk away from in 30 seconds. A stone skipping across the surface of an immense lake.
Friday, May 24, 2002
Hindus go crazy!
I didn't get there early enough to see the blades going in. But there's a guy with a spear going into one cheek and coming out the other. And someone else has 40-odd limes hanging off his bare back on pins. And nevermind the guy who's pulling along a statue of Mariamman using a dozen vicious-looking hooks sticking into his spine. The Chetty are the descendents of Tamil traders from southern India and yesterday was a bit of party for the deity Mariamman (who combines peacock arraignment with a Freddie Mercury-style moustache). So they fasted and prayed for 7 days then paraded round town with various bits of cutlery sticking in them. All the guys have the same expression: "I am completely bonkers - approach with extreme caution". Accompanied by little musical combos (drums and snake-charmer trumpets) churning out infectious polyrhythms, we end up at a temple on the outskirts of town. Inside, everyone is going for it - dancing, praying, you name it. The slice-and-dice guys remove their bits of metal and are blessed by a priest. Some collapse in a dead faint. Others wander off for a fag and a chip-butty. One bloke decides to put on some flip-flops - with 3 inch nails sticking up through the soles. Well lads, it filled in a dull Wednesday.
It's 6.30am. I have a raging hangover and vague recollections of arguing with an Irishman about genocide. I think I was against it. That doesn't explain why the small Malaysian chap is sitting on my bed and slapping me awake. Oh yes, that's right - I signed up for a mountain bike tour of the locality. Damn. Nurse?
Thursday, May 23, 2002
Malaysia: Yeah, Alright then
Malaysia is fairly relaxed. Got an air-con bus to Malacca where I was greeted by 4 or 5 touts for the various guest houses. They were polite, orderly and offered the minimum of hassle. At no stage have I had to argue with anyone about prices or felt like I have been ripped off. I don't think the locals can arsed.
Back track to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore:
Another highly professional and informative museum. A recent one too, established in 1997. And a politically interesting one. Singapore is a multicultural society (all signs are in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil) with components of Sinic, Malay and Indic origin. Moreover, its economic success has made it a leading voice for Asia as a whole. The museum is a cultural accompaniment to Singapore's formation of self-identity and regional foreign policy.
Both the Singapore History Museum and Asian Civilisations Museum have exhibits on Peranakan material culture. Now part of this reflects the Singaporean love of material possessions (and this kit is tasty), but the Peranakans are important to Singapore - Chinese traders who married Malay women and created their own hybrid culture. They are a historical model for a distinctive Singaporean identity.
Wednesday, May 22, 2002
In Malayasia, in Malacca, currently in a cybercafe full of fat kids playing Doom-style shoot-em-ups and soft rock at simultaneously nerveshredding volumes. Apart from that, life is cool. Looking forward to doing some hardcore lazing for a week.
Tuesday, May 21, 2002
As you might expect, Singapore's Botanic Gardens are both beautiful and extremely neat. Almost every tree has a plaque at its base giving Linnaean name, Family (which as we know is very important here), and geographical origin. There are orchid gardens, a sundial garden, a ginger garden and even a bonzai garden.
Singapore calls itself the Garden City. What is garden? A man-made attempt to control a chaotic, unstable environment - beauty through order. And this is one vision of what Singapore is. It is surrounded by far larger, potentially hostile states. Its notoriously strict laws and autocratic government can be seen as attempt to maintain order in this garden - pruning, grafting and sometimes weeding. ANy greenthumb will tell you that a garden can be a fragile place.
In my head at the moment:
The Clash of Civilizations
Last one is short, pithy and surprising revealing. Other two are must-reads.
Sunday, May 19, 2002
One of the most interesting things about travelling is to overturn not only your own prejudices but those of your hosts. Indians were surprised to hear that we actually have problems in the West and that these are the same problems they have (access to education, lack of interest by political institutions to people's needs) in nature if not in scale.
Many Singaporeans view Westerners as decadent and anti-family. And yet we have kids killing themselves over their exam results too and (on the upside) many of us are very close to our families and expect to contribute to the support of our parents later in life (there Mum and Dad, you've got it in writing).
The differences are just what you tend to see first.
This play of sameness (that makes communication possible) with difference (that makes it worthwhile) is what it's all about.
Noticed for sale in one of Singapore's interminable malls/markets: a slab of exam papers from a local private school. Apparently on sale for $15 to state school pupils who want to up the ante. Comes in three sizes:
- Family Pack
- Attempted Suicide
7. Mixed Meat Soup (***)
Contains spine meat, internal organ meat, stomach meat, liver meat and meatballs. Sounds like something dreamed up by Jhonen Vasquez. Again quite tasty. Not for vegetarians.
8. Grass Jelly (***)
Made with bits of the creeping fig. A refreshing drink - with lots of jelly in. Hald expect the Creature from the Black Lagoon to pop out and grab you.
"I don't think he'll like it."
"Hmmm, he did turn up his nose at the ice cream version. And that was only mild."
"But he has eaten everything put in front of him so far."
"Nah, it'll just be a waste."
Right. A challenge. The Durian is the Rolls Royce of Fruit. It comes in different gradings. A D24 grading is one of the best and a single Durian will set you back about S$15. After the seafood (which P and D generously sorted out), it was decided that I should be exposed to this delicacy - which P described as being reminiscient of old socks. We went out and got a top notch one. And...
It was very tasty. Result. You are supposed to drink salt water from the discarded casing of the fruit and then wash your hands in a similar manner - it's said to get rid of the smell.
At this point I had to cry off the offer of Laksah from D. In fact, after some ice cream and ice tea I had to pass out for a couple of hours. Dylan awoke me just in time to pick up Michelle from church and go to what passes for the beach in a Singapore. And an expectionally fine seafood restaurant. We were joined by Patrick, Dolly and their daughter Jade. We'll skip over the:
- fried squid
- braised vegetables
- pepper crab
- chilli crab
- fish liver pate
We'll briefly pause over the steamed fish: many years ago Patrick worked in London. He used to go to Portabello market and get the fish heads for free. "I used to tell them it was for my cat", he chuckled, "I thought everybody knew the best part of the fish is the cheek!"
The sharks fin soup was a new one on me - and very tasty. But the final dish was
6. Drunken Prawns (*****)
The prawns were brought live to the table to display their freshness and vigour. They returned about half an hour later less active but pinker in a brandy sauce. One of our party voiced a concern.
"How do we know if the prawns they brought the first time are the ones we are eating now? They could be sending sending round the same live prawns to each table."
Indeed, maybe the prawns were professional actors.
Yesterday Dylan decided to give increase my gastronomic knowledge of Singaporean cuisine:
We kicked off with some Prawn Mee (***) then had some fiddly bits including:
4. The Century Egg (****)
A hen's egg without a shell that's the colour of a submarine hull. Eaten with copious amounts of preserved ginger. I asked D why the ginger was necessary.
"Oh the ammonia smell can get a much for some people."
"Yeah, it's prepared using horse urine."
Then we went to a separate location for some:
5. Chicken Rice (****)
This is chicken. And rice. Nothing could be simplier you may think. But you would be wrong. Good chicken rice is an art. The chicken must of the highest quality. It is boiled for 10 minutes then dropped in cold water. Then boiled again and then cooled a final time. Fat from the chicken is removed prior to boiling and used in the preparation of the rice. Under no circumstances should the chicken be allowed to go dry. The only thing more succulent than the chicken will be you in the humidity here.
Friday, May 17, 2002
Visited the Singapore History Museum - which is absolutely as professional as the web site implies. The 3D film is quite odd. They kick off with a 5 min advert for the firepower of the Singaporean Navy. Now there is an exhibition on to celebrate 35 years of the Singaporean Navy - and I asked a sergeant hanging around if they had ever fired a shot in anger. He said they practiced a lot with foreign navies but they weren't really into firing stuff. They also had an interactive, illuminated map of countries and port they had diocked at. I asked him why China didn't have any lights by it - but he said he wasn't qualified to answer that.
The traffic lights have a 10 second countdown for the green man. It makes you want to get to the otherside of the road before Mel Gibson and Danny Glover jump out and the street explodes.
2. Vietnamese Dragonfruit.
A bit of dandy this. It has a vivid purple and green exterior. But the inside is white flesh and tiny black seeds. Kinda like a kiwi fruit but blander. It's a bit like putting a forensic accountant in a Vivienne Westwood suit.
3. Bubble tea
V.v. popular this. Basically tasty ice tea with, er, bubbles. Also has 'pearls' of fruit jelly in it. V. nice. Dylan and myself discussed selling it in the UK. If anybody fancies getting in on a little import / export then let me know.
Singaporeans like to work. Its the only explanation as to why a city of 4 million people can seem so empty. In fact the only things that Singaporeans like more than working are shopping and eating. So anything that's not an office will probably be food or retail related. So they'll be some brief reviews of various food stuffs over the next few days.
1. Pork Floss.
This is not to clean the teeth of pigs. It is served on toast. It had the texture and look of candy floss. But it tastes of pork. Go figure. Not one for the UK.
My first shock in Singapore was at the airport. I had just got thru immigration when I saw the sign for customs. Singapore applies the death penalty for the importation of drugs. I didn't have 3 kilos of smack nestling in my boxers but I was still alittle nervous. Strip searches? Rubber gloves? 3 hour interregations from a shadowy, chain-smoking figure hidden behind an angle poise lamp. Actually what I got was an old buffer who put my bags thru an X-ray machine and asked me if it was my time in Singapore. We were just discussing whether I should take the train or businto town when Dylan and Michelle arrived. D&M are a sweet couple that I met in Kolkata. Bursting with enthusiasm they piled my kit into their car and we headed into the Garden City. They didn't have a lot of spare time because they were launching their first business in a few weeks but they'd make what time they could. As we were cruising down the 6 lane East Coast Parkway, Dylan pointed out the sights:
"...And you see those barriers in the middle of the road..?"
"The nice floral ones?"
"...Yes. They are removable. In the event of a warthis raod can be turned into an airstrip. Neat huh?"
"Er, is a war likely?"
"Oh yes. Our water supply is controlled by Malaysia. Or Indonesia could decide to attack us."
Dylan then asked me what my budget was. I mumbled something about S$40 a day (S$1 = 2.5 UKP). He then regretdully informed that a swift internet search has indicated the cheapest hotel room in town was S$50. I replied that the Lonely Planetsaid you could get a dorm bed for S$15 a night on Bencoolen St. Dylan brightly suggested we drive there immediately.
Singapore is very tidy place. Chewing gum is illegible here because of the mess it causes. The budget/backpacker-type accomodation had been tidied out of sight. Eventually we found a hostel four flights of stairs above a veg cafe. The room was spartan but clean and inhabited by 2 British women with long vowels.
"I never knew places like this existed in Singapore", said Dylan, eyes alight with mild digust and entreprenurial opportunity. After I had booked in, D&M suggested we get a bite to eat and plan my itinery for the next few days. Over a delicious plate of noodles, they broke down the possibilities into daytime and nighttime activities and fixed various appointments. Singaporean efficiency should never be underestimated. Neither should Dan-style incompetence - I left the itinery in their car by mistake.
Left Mumbai. My final encounter was pretty strange. Met this Bengali guy called Eric on the train to the airport. He's a super-confident hot shot in the hospitality industry. Telling me all about his penthouse appartment and his career plans, yadda yadda.
When we reached our stop, we got off the train together and he ehlped me with my bags. Then he got into the autorickshaw with me to the airport. It seems after he finishes a 16 hour day, he has nothing else to do - he's done this before with tourists apparently. Hey ho.
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
The last fortnight has been overloaded with work - that's why I have been oddly silent.
Just completed a 33 hour train journey in luxurious 3-tier A/C. Despite being 40 degrees celsius plus, it was so cold in the carriage at night I had to use my sleeping bag.
Currently in Mumbai.