Monday, April 17, 2006

Tropical Iceland

Beijing is interesting because, despite its general widespread apathy of most of its residents for internationalism, learning English, et cetera, and also despite the in general communist suppression of the totally free expression of dissidence, religion and certain other dangerous ideas and art-forms, it remains a relatively remarkably cosmopolitan city. Currently two of my former teammates from UPS rowing are here in Beijing, one working as a resident assistant and an administrative coordinator for International Exchange Studies (a small, low paid position in a large inefficient study abroad corporation), the other teaching English professionally at a night university. Among the educated elite, English is common and European friends or knowledge of international culture can mean status. I had not really expected this, until I went to an opera for which one of my ex-teammates was singing in the chorus. The tickets said Forbidden City concert hall and indeed, the concert hall was within the ancillary park adjacent to the old imperial palace, the symbolic center of the power of imperial china. Naturally, the hall was quite nice. There was an interesting mixture of Chinese and foreigners in formal wear, suits, dresses and such. Not to make us felt left out, there were also a number of students of cultural universities who had heard of the performance or where friends of one of the performers who were slightly more modestly (read slovenly) dressed. The opera was co-sponsored by the Italian embassy, which had flown in several professional singers from a local opera company in Italy, and attracted a wide range of Europhiles.

Being friends of one of the singers, we were also invited to an after-dinner for the singers and ensemble members, which was also interesting. We meet the incredibly drunk and flamingly British conductor, who spent a good portion of the later half of the dinner conducting a mixture of incredibly drunk chorus members and the almost as drunk women friends of the chorus members in a range of songs which are likely to be ruined forever for all present. The dinner was amazing also for the fact that, while costing $12.50 for cast members and the general public, it only cost us students $3.75 and included all you can it sushi, steak, seafood pasta along with a variety of other dishes. In short, economics is quickly making Beijing one of my favorite places to visit. We also met a few people who are quickly becoming the premiere generation of the Chinese version of the Japanese business man – incessantly and drunkenly climbing social ladders.

The next morning I managed – through friends – to locate an ex-pat church in order to go to Easter services. The church itself is rather idiosyncratic which is to be assumed considering our location. It was located in the basement conference room of Tower C of the Raycom Commercial Complex; one of the scores of clusters of modern skyscrapers that dominate Beijing. We were asked to bring a passport which would be checked at the door. “We need a passport to go to church? Where the heck are we, communist China?” …well, yes, actually… oh, well then, here you go. The church was based on the ex-pat community in China, so the services were in English and attracted an awesome diversity of people from a range of churches, including just about any American church you can think of, including Mormon and Mennonite and Quaker, along with a significant amount of people from Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines. But, just how everything about Asia attracts a sizable amount of people who were not considered “normal” in their home countries, the congregation was streaked with some less than desirable trends that might preclude any more visits to that church in particular. All the same, the tradition that the church did maintain was most comforting on a Easter Sunday away from home.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A is for Action

China, the old saying goes, is crazy. After two months in India, China appears to run like a swiss clock, or really, for that matter, any part of Switzerland. Beijing is gearing up like mad-person in order to meet impress the world with its success at the Beijing 2008 summer Olympic Games. The streets have been doubled in width in the last three years, almost all the poorer neighborhoods have been bulldozed in order to build cleaner looking highrises to house the slums and almost all the signs are now written both in Chinese Characters and “pinyin:” the Romanized Chinese phonetic alphabet which is easier for westerners to use. A score of modern museums have sprung up in the last five years and the old standby tourist attractions are receiving major overhauls. When we went to the forbidden city, the traditional two square mile completely self contained imperial city of the last two dynasties, the main exterior temple/throne room was receiving a major renovation and most of the auxiliary houses and offices for the old imperial civil service were being revamped into mini-museums displaying Qing dynasty vases, jewelry or military regalia. At the summer palace that we went to yesterday, every sign was receiving a English translation and every little cluster of buildings was being converted to something to enhance the tourist experience. Renovations seems so prevalent I will probably, before too long, learn the Chinese for “Excuse our mess” simply by osmosis.
This, you might now, is a dramatic change from the insular china of the last five decades. Of any country we’ve been too, China seems to be the least concerned with tourism. Tourist don’t come here, almost no one knows a lick of English and English menus are almost unheard of outside of the extremely isolated and well delineated tourist districts. Even “Putonghua,” the common dialect of mandarin that is supposed to be a standard Chinese is not well spoken or understood by many Chinese people in Beijing. And as a westerner, having only learned Putonghua, this is most distressing.
For example, all the taxi drivers are supposed to learn survival English in time for the Olympic Games or lose their license. This being more than 18 months away and china being china, this has yet to happen and, at least a little bit, my survival Chinese comes in handy when trying to get to where we want to go. But, when I try on rely on my spoken Chinese and not written directions, most drivers, who have a hard time understanding putonghua and can only speak Beijinghua, or the Beijing dialect of mandarin, there is almost no understanding. Occasionally I run into a driver who speaks clear, slow and common dialect and it’s almost like he’s speaking English.
China, or at least Beijing, is astoundingly like America. A democratic spirit has infused many aspects of Chinese society after years of communist ideology. The girls on the trip have noticed it the most. As opposed to feeling like objects, women here fell relatively independent and safe. Hierarchies are more subtle in China, much the same as in America. And everyone says hello to everyone. There’s still a lot of racism, at least in Beijing, directed at the new immigrants from rural china, who have been arriving in mass in the last decades. Also, strangely, most Beijing people seem to genuinely like America or at least Americans. I don’t know if this is a result of several public campaigns to induce a spirit of western-style courtesy in time for the Olympic Games, or the result of growing economic ties and greater common interest (China is seeking to become an Eastern hegemony in similar manner to America’s western hegemony). People like talking to me in either English or in Chinese, just to see where I’m from or what I think about various topics.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Well, Here’s my version of a quick update. Since mid january we’ve been in India, and when we’re in India it means that, on average, half of us are sick. So I don’t remember much of Mysore, but I did get a good look in to the ugly belly of the beast that is Bangalore. Don’t get me wrong, while I’ve been here in India I have absolutely loved how fascinating and engaging India is. But everything in India is a love-hate relationship, as, I suppose, many of the most intense relationships are. But it’s all really too much to go into here – India is its own world. If every country of the world was absolutely, fully and completely examined, save for India, by sociologist and anthropologist, the textbooks would still only be half-filled at best. And what was written, half of it that pertained to Asia wouldn’t make any sense without first understanding India.

What makes the nation all the more perplexing is the fact that, really, no one knows how to describe adequetly the subcontinent. Just about every guidebook leaves out most of what will stay in your mind after you leave India. For example, they don’t tell you about the monkeys. Maybe that’s because, in India, monkeys fill the same roll as squirrels do back home. They’re pretty much everywhere, and if you really want to see them, all you need is to be around food,or garbage, for that matter… or just leave you’re window open for an afternoon and you’ll have a simian visitor, for a least the few seconds it takes them to bolt in from the outside ledge, grab whatever cookies or fruit you have lying around and swing back out. Exactly none of us still think monkeys are still fun. Also, monekys are just one of themany variety of animals that chill daily with you in the city and act as an informal garbage disposal service. In Dharmasala, the tibetans, seem to have brought a fondness for dogs that have led to a mass of strays all along the spectrum of health. The cows are also present here in Dharmasala, and they’re slightly more healthy and well fed than their compatriots that we saw in Karnataka province.

Perhaps this is because, due to the wealth of tourist and tibetans in the area, the garbage is slightly more fattening and nutritious than in the south. Also, maybe, here in the Tibetan refugee enclave, the cows have patrons who take better care of them, perhaps hoping for better tasting meat, as the Tibetans have no qualms about eating beef. Waterbuffalo, donkeys and some horses also inhabit the streets.

The guidebooks also do not mention the Metalhead bar in Bangalore, where it’s cool to be pale because megadeath and metallica were pale. The beers were exspensive, but the cliental were among the most friendly we’ve encountered. Once we picked up the choruses of whatever scandinavian death-metal anthem they were playing, and started singing along and thrashing our heads, we fit in more than we’ve fit in anywhere since the trip started. Of course they thought we were scandinavian ourselves, but when we told them were from seattle they gave us high fives and played nirvana. Awesome. Conversation was akward, but if you ever hit a slow spot you could always look at the giant projection screen that showed the video for the song they were playing and make the “rock-on” hand gesture and they’d go along with it and go back to the music. In fact, mostly what anyone did in the bar was just sit and stare at the video on the projection screen, the music was just too rocking to allow any sort of conversation beyond exclamations of how hard this or that rocked.

Guidebooks also do not mention the hippies. I don’t understand this one. In a land where 400 million live on less than a dollar a day and probably over twice that don’t have running water – the people who most desperately need new clothes and a shower are the dreadlocked european tourist in dharamsala and goa.

India, I suppose, just seems to be home for those who really don’t have a home. Dharmasala is just one of many enclaves for Tibetan refugees who’ve fled the country since the onset of maoist religious suurpession in their homeland in 1959. The hippie-tourist culture have blended into the mix, though, and along with scores of outdoor enthusiasts who make the town a first stop on a Himalyana tour to give this Indo-Tibetan town a flavor similar to aspen of crested butte or anyother liberal colorado ski town, except you can live on about two dollars a day here.

I did get a chance, though, to experience the truly tibetan tradition of Losar, or new year. Since we’ve been in Dharmasala we’ve been staying with tibetan families. My pala (host-father) works for the Tibetan government in exile

exile as a driver for the Department of Information and International Relations. He’s told me he thinks there are way to many westerners in his town, which is slightly paradoxical since he appears to be contributing to the cause by giving me a cheap bed to sleep on every night, but I believe he might have ulterior motives. Since I’ve been here he’s shown me two videos describing Tibet’s oppression and two rather political works urgently pleaing for aide for the tibetan cause. I suppose it IS the job of the Dept. of International Relations to get people from the west on their side. My Amilya (host mother) works in the Tibetan Handicrafts collective, another industry monetarily supporting the tibetan cause by pandering to the tourist. She seems to be a pretty traditional tibetan host and in keeping with this has made it her mission to see that I am as caffeinated as humanly possible. In my first 24 hours staying with them, I downed about 10-11 cups of tibetan tea, which, guessing from her offers, was about 30-40 cups too few. Tibetan courtesy seems to hold it polite to feed your guest until he or she is literrally ill, or literally hides his her plate. We were implored by our director that it is absolutely imperitive that we do not waste food, as most of these families are dramatically poor. I, in keeping with this, have quickly seen to it that my plate is devoid even a few grains of rice and hidden away in the kitchen before amilya inevitably places another 2 helpings on my plate despite my firm and repeated protest. I guess Americans have a reputation of being fat, and my host family would hate to see me defy our nation’s expectations.

This came to haunt me last night, as I was fed the traditional tibetan new year’s eve meal of Takla. This meal is a soup, or stew, that contains scrumptious dumplings, good spinach, fair potatoes, strange himalayan apricots and a variety of cow parts that fell below the above categories. Beef is exspensive though, and I wanted to impress, so I got to eating all of it the best I could, fearing the gastronomical consequences of what was to come. I soon saw, however, I had jumped my guns. We sat along side two small figures made out of raw dough on a plate right next to the stew pot.These figures, I learned, symbolize what we wanted to leave behind with the old year and we were oblidged to give it any of the various tendons and organs, not only I, but my tibetan family also found nausiating. It seems like its okay to waste a little food on new years, it’s a traditional tibetan offering. My stomach only wishes, however, that I had maybe found this important fact in a guide book so that I could’ve known earlier that I didn’t Have to eat that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Merry Christmas

Hello Friends and Family,

This is just a quick note to all to let everyone know my mom got in okay and we are currently traveling safely from Asia's favorite police state (Singapore) to Thailand. We have had a good Christmas and wish everyone the best.

Monday, December 19, 2005

I'm only sleeping

Another test on cosmology and its relation to architecture, and an afternoon off. Julia had the Idea of going to the bantu caves just north of the city of Kuala Lumpur. As all outings in a new setting are, it was somewhat of an adventure. Firstly, cabs in KL are quite unlike all the cabs in other countries. Namely, open predation on tourist and foreigners is more accepted as fair amongst cabbies, perhaps a manifestation of big city mentality. If you try and negotiate a flat price for a journey with a cabbie, it seems to almost always be twice to three times the meter price of the trip. A couple groups went to a Selangor soccer game a couple nights ago, with the flat rates negotiated at around 30 Ringits one way. When one group got on a cab going on the meter, the trip was only 13 ringits. Going on the meter, however, always holds the danger that the cabbie will simply go out of the way to charge up the price, then you time is wasted as well. Then there are special request such as our case, where we had 5 people trying to fit into a 4 person cab. A couple cabbies refused outright to accomadate us or asked near double a fair rate. Finally we got one guy down to about 80 ringit round trip for what maybe should have been a 50-60 ringit trip. It's only 21.50 American, but still there's the principle of the matter.

Our driver, however, won us over.

He tried to joke around with us, which did not go over well considering we just got out of a significant university examination. He asked us where we were from, and when I said America, he didn't frown. That's always refreshing.

Then we get to Bantu Caves, which are rather amazing. The first cave, which you only get to after passing through the large and significant Hindu gates, choked with delerious technocolour ornamintation and statuary, is a massive cavarn in limestone, framed by enourmous rows of stalagtite teeth. It's impressive, and our cab driver was excited. Infact, he followed us to the stairs ledding to the cave, continuously telling us how much he liked the cave. He also offered to take our photograph as a group, and we accepted, four times before even getting to the stairs ledding to the cave in the hillside. He asked my name and, failing the ability to pronounce "Rob" stuck to calling me John or Bob. He warned me that the monkeys might attack the girls I was with. Monkeys? He then followed us to another cave, again taking our picture twice. He proceeded to follow us around the cave and explain the various Hindu myths and figures in each grotto. This is the cab ride that keeps on giving. In the end, when taking us back to our hotel, he was happy to explain his take on Hindu theology and state his sorrow that our student life was largely secular. I later asked him about his radio/cd players, which apparently cost 3000 ringits (800 American??) but he says he really enjoys his classical indian music, so i suppose it's worth it to him.

He also gave me a tip on a good Indian resteraunt that Mom will be going to. If he didn't overcharge us and stop at a gas station while we were cramped into the cab, I would say this guy was total aces.

But more importantly, let me breifly cover the caves we toured.


If anyone back in America is seriously questioning their faith, is tired of traditional conceptions of monotheism, let me suggest Hinduism. You will hardly find a religion that is a better time. It's one thing to gawk at pictures of multiheaded, thousand armed dieties in the pages of National Geographic or an encyclopedia. But experiencing the faith of the Indian subcontinent first hand, the whole sensory inundation and overwhealming force of thousands of deistic figures and millions of stories imbues in you something the simple devotion of the west lacks. You experience not spiritual transcendence of your true faith and devotion, you expereince the fantastic.

Now, if you cannot part with the protestant or puritan love of the plain, subtle, sober and subdued, Hindu caves might not appeal to you. If however, the prospect of being enveloped into a sacred space where the ceilings and walls are painted with a full pallate combineing rainbow sherbert and amusement park neon - where the fantastic figures and divinities, the heros and the saints, the allegories and myths all exhibit what the 1960's would call a psychodelic exurberence - if this prospect doesn;t tottally repulse you, than you might find these caves appealing.

You might find my abundant adjectives suplerfluous, but if you've seen a Hindu temple, a full scale hindu monument, you would know that nothing, absolutely not a thing that relates to that temple cares for the concept of suplurfluous. Suplurfluous isn't AN aspect of Hindu iconography, it's THE aspect of hindu iconography. THESE are buildings that, like Arethra Franklin's singing and Itallian family cooking, contain what we might consider a lively and abundant amount of SOUL.

Oh, and did I mention the Hindus shared the cave with about 200 Monkeys?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Malaysia - The Essence of Asia

So its time for a story. But first some back ground. Malaysia is a diverse product of the East-West spice trade and British colonial labor schemes. Chinese and Indian populations have imigrated to the penninsula to take part of the trade here in Melaka (brit. Malacca) since the town was founded in 1400 A.D., and during periods of social discontent in China (espicially during the decline of the Qing dynasty) droves of Cantonese Chinese migrated to Pinang, Singapore and Melaka. The native malay culture developted out of a certain sect of semi-agrarian indiginous tribal culture of the southern penninsula and adopted Islam during the period when Moslem traders ruled the Indian ocean, though this dominent ethnic group constittues less than 60 percent of the population, and in parts of pinang and melaka, they are less than 50 percent.

But still Malaysia is most assuredly an Islamic country. Most provinces are rules by Sultans, not governers, and the Sultans rotate taking on the position of a national Islamic president every five years, (giving Malaysia not one, but 9 royal families). Even though young chinese women might wear shorts and tank tops and other articles of clothing of a revealing nature - the dominent custom is clearly that of conservatism and modesty.

Which brings me to public swimming pools.

Malaysia is hot, an equatorial climate that doesn't expereince the mild seasons and monsoons of the tropics, it experience constant steady state humidity and hotness january to july. Swimming on the other hand, is fun. Hotel pools are usually the bare minimum of what an american would expect from a tropical resort. I do not know if we are staying in the slightly more budget end of the spectrem, or if swimming as a popular recreation never really caught on in Malaysia, or if its because until recently the infrastructure of the land was unable to support the maintenence of large, fun pools, but - for whatever reason - we havn't had a good pool in the places we've been staying. Trust me that this is not our first concern. We're world warey travelers, we've stayed in felt gers in the near Siberian forest of northern Mongolia, we've cramped into the Japanese filing cabinet apartments, we've spent a month with ten people sleeping in one 14 x 25 foot room. We enjoy it. We feel more authentic and more rustic. We feel like we've conquered the country incliment weather and all. The point is, despite the relative luxery we're living in, we could use a good chance to cool down.

I tried the ocean a week ago on the north coast of Pinang, there was only about 4-6 inches of visability in the water, due to (as I've heard) lingering affects of the tsunami, dredging and land recalimation on the western coast near george town, or stired up water coming in from the fall monsoons. Combined with the fact that waste water drains into the ocean in various locations around pinang, I was not tottally enthraled with swimming in the sea. So, yesterday, when we finished a tour of historic and colonial Melaka near a public park and pool, I was ready to be the first off the high dive.

Only I forgot to bring my victorian one whole body swimsuit.

I had my own swimsuit with me, and considering it conforms to the young American prohibition on male's showing any part of their body between their knees and waist, I thought I would be fine with that. After all, I often seen Malay men wearing speedo styles in the small and shallow hotel pools. I was, in my mind, good to go.

So it make it five steps towards the pool before I hear the shrill squeal of a the wistle of the first life guard; he's point at my shorts. I walk over thinking that he might have mistaken my trunks for street shorts, and hope to obtain a quick and easy permission. I talk to him and life guard number two and they togther tell me that my shorts are too lose, I need something closed. Okay, their culture, their rules, a simple request to rent my their style of shorts from the store next to the pool is hassle, but doable. I change into what they have deemed to be my size of swim suit, and notice it's a lot smaller than what I am used to wearing even for rowing crew. I decide to wear my swimming shorts over it just to fully embrace whatever culture's modesty I could possibly offend. I walk over to life guard number one and two, 'am I wearing the shorts, yeah, awesome' - they give me the okay. On the way to the pool I pass lifequards number three and number four, they point at my shorts and ask me if I'm wearing a swimsuit. I pull up a pant leg and ask if it's okay that I wear both shorts, he says okay and I give him a thumbs up and a smile, he responds with a thumbs up, and what might be a smile.

I dip my legs in the pool and talk to Nicole and Jess, who are with me and are wondering why it is taking me 20 minutes to get into the pool when lifeguard Number Five whistles at me and starts making weird gestures. I'm not sure he's talking to me, didn't he see me already talking to lifeguards one through four? And what's one single pool doing with five lifeguards? He points directly at me and starts rubbing his belly. I do not understand all of this gesture, maybe he finds white bellies offensive, but I do get the point he's talking to me. Maybe I should've put on a shirt as well. I go over the same process with him as I did with the previous four life guards, am I wearing the tight shorts? Is this a swimsuit? Can I were both? Lifeguard number five's english, however, isn't as great as some of the others, however, and we run into some snags, He keeps pointing at my waist and saying open. Open my swimsuit? This is getting akward. Does he want me to take off the outer suit and wear only the rent-a-suit? I ask him this, and he says "open" and then points to my leg and says "closed." He likes the closed or tight swimsuit, and I get the picture that I'm only allowed to wear one swimsuit at a time. So to confrim this I ask him if I can wear both? He says yes. Thankfully, lifeguard number six makes it over and translates for lifeguard number five. What on earth is one pool doing with 6, lifeguards? I am compelled to wear only the tight swimsuit, which, in absolutely no way, is more conservative than the larger swimsuit I was wearing earlier, something I found out after my first dive into the pool.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Numa Numa

Welcome to Malaysia.

Welcome to first true former colony. Welcome to equatorial climate and a mix of people where the dominate ethnicity, Malay Muslims, constitute less than 60% of the population. A country with full infrastructure on the western coast, electricity, internet, gas and plumbing, and little development in other areas, Malaysia is only recently been able to lift itself far along the path of development. It might have one of the tallest structures in the world and a significant high tech sector, but the sewers are still open and chickens still roam free in some areas.

I've almost got acclimated to the heat, which is nice since it never, ever stops. Currently its 88 degrees, which isn't at all bad. Sometimes it gets to the mid nineties, which felt absolutely draining the first days here.