INGULFED

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The Temple on Lane 253: Bahrain’s Synagogue

As rumor had it, the one synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula was in Bahrain. It seemed like an easy find — a sore thumb somewhere in two mile-wide downtown Manama. Earlier in the day the address I had plucked from an online forum, “Sasa’ah street,” seemed to get vague grunts of recognition from taxi drivers: near the souq, maybe. I decided not to make the trip to the desert to see the “Tree of Life”, a large mesquite that seems to spring miraculously from arid ground; instead, buzzing and sleepy from a long, bacony brunch, I went in search of the country’s Jewish roots.

A friend dropped me at the arched gate of the Manama Souq, a mostly pedestrian criss-cross of simple stands and boutiques. I forgot my phone (GPS and all, though unlikely to be helpful) — this quest would depend entirely upon the knowledge and forthrightness of passersby and standers around.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had no idea where I was walking. After a few blocks, the bustling lights of the central shopping district gave way to construction and inauspicious quiet. I figured I’d ask around. I didn’t know how people would feel about any past or present Jewish structures, but I was leaving the country in a few hours and I had a better shot playing honest than sneaky. I greeted two older men chatting in the street beneath the pointed dome of a beautifully ornate blue and green Shia mosque. “Do you know where the Jewish synagogue is?”

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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

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.


Mixed Blessings — كراتشي

The town of Karachi is made of many things. For three days, I was one of them — a rare Jew in a the world’s third largest city where almost everyone can style themselves a minority in some way. There are those that seek to destroy everything “different” from themselves — the sadly frequent bombings and killings. Except for them, everyone is awesome, every corner of the city has its own new secrets.

There are Catholic churches, Sikh shrines, Hindu temples, the memory of a synagogue, and Zoroastrian fire temples, not far from the Towers of Silence where the dead are left to decompose naturally in focused sunlight.

[Annoyingly, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot be published here in good conscience. Until we can give up on “conscientiousness”, I offer only a poor abridgment below. In order to read the full story with everything you ever wanted to know about Karachi but didn’t know to ask (unless you know things to ask): send an email to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM with a sentence including the words “fondue”, “Pakistan”, and “Sammy Davis, Jr.”.]


Hindu Temple

Tower of Silence

Old Tower of Silence, 1849

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Sikh Shrine, Abudullah Shah Ghazi Mazar

The Lunar Eclipse

— with USA, — rush Israel?

More pictures from pakistan here.

Entran¢e Fees


Sri Lanka Part Nine

Sri Lanka Part Eight

Kandy revealed itself in the morning, pressed against a wide sunny lake invisible the night before. We left our hotel — the cheapest of a certain class in Kandy, with dark gray carpet and heavy curtains and clearly designed for vampires — for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The entrance fee: more than 10 US dollars — a shock after driving through towns where so much could buy dinner for a week. “We’ve come from America,” we suggested, readjusting our sarongs. Half price. Is it okay to get a deal at a temple?

The temple is stunning, not for its size or for the goldenness of its Buddha statue, but for the smells of floral offerings on the second floor, and the beautiful devotion with which they are laid. Common practice is to touch the flowers with flat hands and fingers outstretched, to lean forward to touch them again further along the table, then to pray with palms pressed together above the heart, and lift them to the forehead. I stayed bent over to smell the flowers. “Wow, this American is very devoted,” they might have thought. “Mmmmmm,” I was thinking.


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