INGULFED

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New Sense

“I can’t talk Arabic when I’m drunk,” said Yasser, a Bahraini born and bred. Alcohol and the official language of a religion that forbids it, I thought — something about this dissonance was too much. Plus, he told me with a light flick of his cigarette, we think everything western is better.

It felt honest, that Bahrain was a country that had handed over the reigns to someone else. On the weekends, SUV-loads of shop-and-drink-deprived Saudis drive the 16 mile-long bridge from Dammam to use the tiny island nation as their playground — the kind of playground teachers let the older kids supervise while they have their cigarette break somewhere far away.

I had spent the night on the sofa of a friendly local host who answered my CouchSurfing request. When I woke up, he was making banana pancakes.

Perfetto!” Taher was pleased. His other guest, a young Swiss woman looking for work in town, seemed used to the treatment. Taher, 36, had started a contracting business to become his own boss and to leave more time for travel — a month earlier, he was touring Southeast Asia; before that, Europe. “No one even knows anyone that has done what I’ve done,” he said, unaffected. For a country that pulls so much in, it seems to send very little out.

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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

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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أفضل نزهة في آسيا الوسطى — The Best Picnic in Central Asia

Afghanistan: Part Four

[The following are adapted excerpts from an article that has been submitted elsewhere. To read the full story with a blow-by-blow of the drive from the central Afghan hub of Bamiyan to the perhaps the most beautiful lakes in the whole Caucasus, send an email to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM with a sentence including the words “picnic”, “caucasus”, and “dragon”.]

If you’re not doing anything later, you might like to check out Band-e Amir, Afghanistan’s one and only national park. Six sapphire-blue lakes 10,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush Mountains provide what may be Central Asia’s Number One picnic spot. Entry costs fifty afghanis (one dollar).

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Lentil Paste — معجون العدس

Late on Saturday Nights, Bağlama bars come alive in side streets off İstiklâl Caddesi (“Independence Avenue”) in the pedestrian heart of Istanbul. On a sound recommendation and with a small printed map with an X, we sought and found Havar, the liveliest in a string of bars and cafes in the Beyoğlu neighborhood that advertise with posters of studio shots of upcoming performers and a man calling from the door.

The solo instrument is the bağlama (or saz, as it’s often known — the broader name for its family), oud-like but with a long, thin neck. Drummers and wind instruments support the frontman, who belts out tunes everyone knows. Everyone. Tunes seemed to hit different demographics in the bar — younger guys and their dates or married couples or gray-haired veterans bent at the waist only probably as part of the dance. Some seemed to dip from shared memories as old as Turkish history — if you weren’t singing, you weren’t from there.


Except maybe that wasn’t true. A few tables of men next to us stayed quiet, just listening, hardly ever smiling or talking, but certainly not looking for quiet. A pair of old men danced in deliberate steps, bent and looking at their feet, with one hand clasping the other’s held high in the air. If I’d have guessed, I’d have guessed they were really, really happy. Either way, silent or singing or dancing with fingers entwined — even watching and knowing nothing – it looked easy to get lost gladly in the dark.
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Snowy Balls — كرات ثلجية


Harness some Jungle Energy and put a few Snowy Balls in your mouth. Happy Christmas!

أنشوجة — Anchovies


In the waning minutes of Hanukkah, the orchestra bearing the name of its Muslim host country set out to play Christmas music. If there exists an appropriate adage, I don’t know it.

Many citizens of the Jewnited Arab Emirates (as no one calls it) might have noticed local observances of the Festival of Lights — namely the decking out of most of the city’s tall buildings with bright neon, flags, and the number 39. Of course, it was just pre- and post-national day decorations — not an attempt 5732 years off the correct Jewish year. Still, a bit suspicious National Day fell on the first day of Hanukkah, isn’t it? Okay, sure, Emirati National Day is always on the second of December, and Hanukkah is determined by the lunar calendar, but… but — okay. Good point.

At the Emirates Palace Christmas tree lighting, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians (ok fine! and Jews, too) stood around the joyous alter of the Christmas tree as a children’s brass band heralded not the anniversary of the birth of someone’s lord, but the beginning of a season of fun and shopping for everyone.  In the world of Internet and Connectivity and the Global Village, it’s getting too goddam hard to stereotype people.  That people still try is my only regret — for their own sakes.  Time-saving stereotypes had some basis back when West was West and wild, and East was just East. But now, reality is disorienting – there aren’t any shortcuts.  Racism is just racism… and it’s awkward.

The world's most expensive Christmas tree. Ever.

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