INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for September, 2011

Pieces: Singapore

Crisp, starched plastic Singapore Dollars in hand, we looked for food past Temple Street and Mosque Street, not far from Church Street and right around the corner from Synagogue Street. Chinatown, they told me, feels a lot like parts of China, and street signs in Chinese marked places of cultural/gastronomic heritage. Everywhere else, plaques read in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English. We snagged some pork buns and a juice made from pressed chestnuts and pounds of sugar and kept walking.

I have never been anywhere that looks like Singapore. As an American traveler, I am guilty of a (common?) perversion: grungy, impoverished, chaotic — these kinds of superficies (outward appearance, not extraordinary fishes) connect most immediately to my internal GPS. Moonscapes and tuk-tuk laden dirt roads, I admit, make the quickest work of readjusting my perspective, and forcing me to realize I am somewhere else. (It was more than 100 days in the Emirates before something clicked and I thought, hey wait, I am not living in America anymore.) But Singapore has all this power for recalibration without so simple a contrast: Red lanterns hanging from cables shout China; building facades with white balconies like the Carolinas line straight streets in pastel colors like Nicaragua; laws and public workers keep the roads cleaner than in Germany. And from all that, I didn’t imagine that I was in those countries, I knew that I was somewhere else, and I was hit, two minutes out of the cab, with the sense of a new place.

In 1819, The East India Company decided it would be nice to set up shop in Singapore. The local Orang Laut (“Sea People”) — still present living the traditional nomadic life in islands off of Indonesia — began to be boxed out. In 1867, the island became the latest of British Colonies in Southeast Asia and assumed the role of a naval base and a formidable financial hub for the entire region. In terms of sheer tonnage handled, Singapore’s harbor is now the busiest in the world.

It can hardly be contested that Singapore’s success in acquiring international investment is among the fastest and most complete — spanning markets of fashion, architecture, banking, and, and, and… — in modern history. Today’s citizens have done well. The capital certainly feels more comfortable in this glossy skin than do those of the UAE’s emirates. Some of the culture spans the Southeast-Middle East divide: unending patronage of malls, tinted gold in the light of haute profile retail; two Vertu stores within 500 feet, both selling sixty-thousand dollar BlackBerrys caked in white diamonds. (“The network isn’t very good,” said the attendant Jean-Charles. “You’ll want to keep your iPhone.”)

Only mints.

In this commercial milieu, where old five-star hotels guard the river like stalwarts of delicious colonialism (no hard feelings here), the 48-hour western traveler does not expect (aside from the pungent, inescapable smell of durian) bursts of enormous multicultural richness. In a country famous for its law and order — at the top of the list: no gum chewing — surprises seem unlikely. But they abound. As opposed to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where financial centers watered with oil revenue have sprung from nothing in the desert, Singapore’s explosion pushed many things out. The growth, however, like in the Emirates, has brought many other things in. As reflected in the tetralingual metro signs, Singapore doesn’t interact with different pieces of the world — it is different pieces of the world.

Durian, durian, and more durian.

In 1827, Naraina Pillai founded the first Hindu Temple in Singapore, built impressively in the Dravidian style . Aside from the constant tourists (take off your shoes outside), the Sri Mariamman Temple (Tamil:ஸ்ரீ மாரியம்மன் கோவில்; Chinese: 马里安曼兴都庙; Malay: Kuil Sri Mariamman) is mainly visited by South Indian Tamils. Just down South Bridge Road from our Chinatown hostel, we could hear music bursting from the door in rhythms and scales I felt have had little to no interaction with western musical consciousness. The gopuram tower rose in a six-tiered pyramid above the entrance, a heavy wooden door studded with golden bells. Each tier was crowded with painted, brighter-than-life statuettes of dieties.

Inside, three musicians listened to each other — improvised, maybe — while candles were lit. Strong flavors of incense. A huge drum hung from one man’s neck, to be hit with a thin stick that curved at the end; another struck tubular bells; the last wove melodies through percussive pa! kattak! on a reeded instrument a little like an oboe. I slumped down against a pillar. Other tourists milled about the temple courtyard. The musicians didn’t seem to know that we were there.

Listen below:

Later that night, after picking dishes from several of the Chinese street stands (everything from oysters to spicy beef to pigs’ feet) before hitting the clubs of Clark Quay, we went to drunkly press our luck at the Marina Bay Sands casino (no free drinks, disastrously un-Atlantic City-like). Wikipedia has this to say about the place:

The resort features a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000-square-foot (121,000 m2) convention-exhibition centre, the 800,000-square-foot (74,000 m2) The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, an iconic ArtScience museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 1,115-foot-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 500 foot infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 220 feet.

The view from the top, 656 feet above the Singapore Strait, is stunning in the dark. Everything looks crisp, the lights from the Marina are bright and clear, and house beats pulse from the speakers of the rooftop bar KU DÉ TA. Drinks were far too expensive, so I went down to the casino floor, and promptly lost 150 crisp dollars at $25 minimum blackjack.


More pictures from Singapore here: Singapore — சிங்கப்பூர் — 新加坡 — سنغافورة

Mermaids in the Temple — حوريات البحر في معبد

After midnight in Selat, the temple filled with well groomed men all dressed in white. Women and children sat mostly along the sides of the stone courtyard and towards the front, where the entranced Barong and Rangda dancers would contest the great battle of good and evil. Little musicians sat on their fathers’ laps to learn the ropes while the gamelan boomed and rang, brilliant against the cloudy night sky. Others in masks and bedecked in recognizable costumes retold stories through dance and song in classical Balinese. It seemed like everyone was waiting for something.

Upacara, Balinese temple festivals, are inescapable all across the island. Every village has its temple, complete with several courtyards and heavy pagodas often springing up from the rice paddies as if from nowhere. The traditional calendar weaves together weeks of three days, five days, seven days, and ten days, and at some blistering number of important intersections, they party. For example, the common first day of the three day and five day week — every fifteen days — is considered very powerful for evil spirits. (A fallen tree blocked a road and prevented us from reaching a friend in the hospital on one of these days. For Jerry, our friend — relatively superstitious by his own standards — there was no need for explanation.) After 210 days, the full year starts over with a bang.

In the fields of Payangan, things were more casual. The procession strolled by in the morning with cymbals and drums and at night everyone relaxed. At night in the temple’s central courtyard, girls all in yellow danced the Legong, a dance reserved for the young and marked by darting of the eyes and fingers and faces; the village watched. People hang out until two or three in the morning or later, until the series of dances has ended, or the complete drama has been performed. Outside, men stood and sat and played kochok or mokochok or koprok, a betting game with easy rules: a board has six painted pictures of three colors — a red lobster and a red mermaid; a green eagle and a green mermaid; a black elephant and a black crab. Betters toss rolled up rupiah notes onto their choice. The dealer in a Daytona Beach sweatshirt took two homemade die, each with the faces of the creatures on the board, closed them in a tub, flipped it over, and shook once firmly. Sometimes, I watched him knock the chin of a tiny cat on the tub three times for luck (I’m not sure whose.) The bottom is lifted off and the men groan in despair or gloat victory — Red, I knew it would be red! I lost three times in a row. I knew it would be red, too, but I went for the mermaid.

In Selat, the village of our nightwatchman Agung, the mood turned with a swift change of the music. A gong. Instantly, women flocked towards the altar with hundreds of woven baskets of offerings piled high with fruit. They take it home afterwards, but the essence has been consumed by the gods. Some say they can taste the difference. The gong boomed again. Palms pressed together were raised to foreheads in prayer.

Under the rising smoke of the incense, the Barong and Rangda —the good and the evil, — stood watch under heavy costumes and masks topped with long, flowing horse hair. Two men emerged from the shadows to make careful preparations at their feet, one in a black t-shirts and sarong, the other wearing a short-sleeved white jacket, white headdress and white sarong. One held a black crow. The other carried an adorable, well groomed piglet in formal porcine attire: floral garlands and paint, and the shimmering of something precious.

These animals were also for the gods’ consumption, and from behind the shoulders of the man in black, we watched the foot-long blade fall. “He will be reincarnated as something very good,” said Agung. “A person.”


More pictures from Bali here and here.

Videos coming soonish.

Recovery — انتعاش

A little boy skewered a pair of green and pink plastic bags to make a kite. Down past the navel of the island to Kerambitan, a girl with her hair folded in a scrunchie backed up deliberately to make the string taut while some geese watched. She wore a crisp checkered and dotted orange and white dress that jumped as she jumped to launch the kite — other times, she just one or other of the two boys standing forty feet away pull it from her hands with the cord. One wore jeans and a yellow polo with pictures of bears in hats. The other stood barefoot in green shorts and a colorful shirt bedecked with blue Hindu deities and the word “KRISHNA” printed on the bottom. After a few seconds — the boys would backpedal holding the string to keep it afloat — the kite would fall, and they would run grinning to recover it.

In October of 2002, religious extremism struck the island for the first time in modern memory, killing 202 and injuring hundreds more. Three years later, three suicide bombers detonated near Kuta, killing twenty. In 2006, Indonesia endured the highest avian flu death toll, but in 2008, the United States lifted its travel warning: two-thirds of a million more tourists found their way to Bali in oh-nine than the year before. Still, from the grumblings of business owners and drivers in Ubud and farther out of town, it seems like those enterprises relying on tourism have continued to suffer. The rebounding years have seen a thickening of the tourist habitat, but in the big money areas, the foreign-owned big capital affairs are the ones that survive. The serene cook and owner of Satri’s, a restaurant hidden down a narrow corridor off Monkey Forest Road, shuffled smilingly when customers came in for cooking classes advertised by word of mouth. But in the tourist’s Bali, there are far too many words, and too few mouths — and the quieter finds are often swallowed in the din. Satri’s Banana Chicken, usually cooked by her husband Susila, must be ordered a day in advance. “Too many restaurants,” said Satri. Too much competition.

Most westerners surfing, partying, or eatingdrinkingsmoking in Bali don’t appear the slightest bit uneasy. The palm trees and reefy beaches and temple roofs don’t jive well with the image of politically unstable deserts as seen on the news or behind Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. A colleague from Beirut swapped summer stories on my return — “Isn’t it dangerous?” She asked. I didn’t know how to answer — I had never even thought to think that it might be unsafe (and so my Spidey senses wouldn’t have tingled even if there was something worth tingling over), but she did. I showed her some pictures.

Certainly Bali’s sunny disposition has not transformed and it remains much safer than many places built on the shifting sands of deep ethnic or political tension, but it’s hard to wonder whether less appealing scenery would have made the cautious less readily willing to forgive. But for piña coladas with local arak for less than three dollars? Even Beirut can’t top that.

Back in Kerambitan, two soccer teams played for the local championship in jerseys bought online — it was Chelsea, the English Premier League frontrunner, against Greece. I asked if I could play and several guys set off to look for shoes my size. The best fit had my toes curled back to the knuckle, but I couldn’t say no — not when the priest blessed us all with holy water and grains of rice pressed to the forehead — even though I handled the ball like Captain Hook juggling. For the first few minutes, I basked in their drastic overestimate of my abilities and took to the field with an obvious nickname to fight for the Greeks. “America,” a fierce-looking Chelsean eyeballed me at the opening handshake. “Wazzzaaaaap!”


More pictures from Bali here and here.

Baturnalia

Attention! The following post may be shit.

We arrived in the blue dark of night at the foot of the volcano. At 3:30, a few dozen tourists were already milling about the parking lot, while guides smoked and peeled the plastic wrappers of little chocolate cakes at a convenience stand made of bamboo. We set off in layers of sweatshirts up a trail marked with a sign: “Attention! For all climbers are warned to keep the secret and the holiness of mountain Batur”.

After a short stretch of dirt, the track tips up and turns into chunks of black and gray lava. Near the bottom, too far from the path to reach with our flashlights, is the presence of an old temple with tiered, thatched roofs nestled into the mountainside. It got steep — with every meter gained was a foot lost to the volcanic gravel, and as the night moved closer to dawn, double-sweatering started to seem like a bad idea. Up above: wisps of the Milky Way and the patterns of unknown stars of the southern hemisphere. Far away: tiny yellow lights from the villages on the caldera rim.

After an hour and half, sometimes scrambling up natural steps hands first, some hikers call it a day and crowd around to wait for sunset at the first available cafe. There are little restaurants, warung, sprinkled near the top and around the crater. The three of us, my dad Jerry and I, and our Balinese friend and driver Jerry (named after the husband of the woman who aided in his delivery — my mother) were on a longer climb. Half an hour further up a steep channel straight through the clouds, our guide Komang lead us to the summit.

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Next of Soul — أقارب الروح

His house was out past the rice fields and the cocks crowing in the late afternoon. Through the narrow stone entrance, small stone houses gathered together with roofs like the bristles of a broom. In an open hut on stilts, Jero the tapakan sat on a white tile stage at his guests’ shoulder height, dressed ceremonially in white sarong, white shirt, and white headdress.

My family and I were seated below him on a wooden bench, introduced by Bagus, the son of the high priest of Ubud, who spoke in a mixture of High Balinese and vernacular Indonesian. Bagus had suggested we pay this visit in the spirit of openness and curiosity — the business of the tapakan (literally, “foundation”), his role in the community, was to communicate with the dead, with spirits, with the pasts and futures we had no access to on our own.

[Listen along here:]

He sat flanked by offerings of flowers and fruit, and the basket my mother had presented to him from her head, as custom demands. From atop the bananas of our basket, a wrinkled woman plucked a 50,000 rupiah note and left the tapakan to his work. He lit three sticks of incense and pressed his head to the plastic wrapped, wooden post of the hut.

There were few other formalities of introduction. To Bagus, whose name is conferred on all members of the priestly class and may translate to “good” or “posh” or “beautiful” or “dandy”, our host confirmed that we were Christians. (We weren’t — still aren’t — but dared not interrupt.)

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People and Fish and Colors and Stuff

The island of Bali is the face of a duck with great volcanoes for eyes, with the Bukit Peninsula, where surfers make year-round pilgrimage, dangling by a narrow isthmus like the giant testicles of a holy bull. Bali is an expanse of unspeakable beauty. It is the land of the gamelan — the orchestral ensemble of bronze-keyed percussion instruments — and temple dances, and theatrical ritual. For centuries, the Balinese have waylaid the forces of cultural change on its jagged reefs that bite into the Bali Sea. Big cities teem with tour-driven tourists, Kuta more than any other, and parts of the southern coast are caked thick with resorts and thousands of turis all getting away.

On Bukit, near the cliffs of Uluwatu, is a beachy surf spot called Padang-Padang (“fields”), hidden but popular in a crescent-shaped dip in the coast. Minutes north are Impossibles and Bingin and Dreamland and Balangan. A little shack on the beach serves up nasi goreng (fried rice) and the traveler’s staple: Indonesian Bintang beer in half-liter bottles. The Peninsula lives by the tourist pulse — Mexican restaurants, happy hours, an Italian trattoria, burger joints in a culture where cows are sacred. (Bali is a Hindu enclave in the largely Muslim Indonesia.)

Travelers here are rarely sweet to the random traveler. There is no surprise in seeing western faces, in Spaniards meeting Spaniards, in Australians finding Australians, in Manhattanites finding Manhattanites. Though for more than a hundred years Westerners have lamented Bali’s lost mystery at the hands of all-them-that-have-been-here-too, recent decades have increasingly watched parts of Bali paved and primped for the world’s pleasure-seeking onslaught on its southeast. Some of us that travel there may never let go of the idealized “untouched”. Some of us doing the touching will continue to look for the “untraveled”. Along the coast of the Bukit Peninsula, at least, this is not the healthiest expectation.

The duck’s bill is almost entirely uninhabited. West Bali is gorgeous and ravenous (as in, having lots of gorges and ravines) and as seen from above is nothing but pointy green hills rolling towards Java. At the very northwestern tip of the island is a tiny, separate island easily reachable by boat: the steeps walls around Menjangen are a diver’s paradise, with rays, sharks, fish dressed like it’s the 1970s, and ones like the Scorpion Fish, with rocklike skin that changes color almost instantly to match its surroundings. The extremely lucky (not I) may see a massive ocean sunfish, a mola mola, rising to the surface mouth agape to have its teeth cleaned by a swarm of tiny fishes.

By the volcanic black sand beaches in the far east of Bali, resorts and bungalows are easy to find but not overwhelming. There is little to do but snorkel and relax, or buy blowguns from Komang on the beach and shoot them into trees. Life is relaxed. Predawn Balinese prayer may waft from loudspeakers into open bedrooms if it is a holy day. It’s often a holy day.

I spent the largest part of my summer month just outside the town of Payangan high in the hills of central Bali. From Ubud, a major destination for temples and monkeys and restaurants and big city life à la Balinese, we drove an hour and a half towards away. Small, square floral offerings plated in banana leaves are common, set down in the road to protect against evil and accidents. Up here in sight of the great mountains was yet another side of Bali, more rural but perhaps more complex in its balance of tradition and tourist desires.

"Official Bananas."

Ducks padded around in the rice paddies, picking out bad stuff and leaving the good. Just opposite on the semi-paved road that wound around to the local temple was the understated entrance to a huge villa, anyone’s for the renting.


Lots and lots of pictures from Bali if you click here.

Selamat Datang Ke Bali

A preview of things to come:

Welcome to Bali.

(The pictures from Bali are here: here.)

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