Sunday, October 23, 2005

10/11: purses, from production to consumption

Two buses, one walk and one cab ride, and we’re on a plane to Malaysia, where we’ll spend the next week. By crossing the Singapore/ Malaysia border on foot, we can take a domestic flight from Johor Bahru to Kuching and save like $US 100. Ryan knows all the tricks. He chatted with our cab driver about different Malaysian cities, the Johor Bahru flag, his family, Ramadan, etc. He’s open talking about his own travels, where I would be nervous that I was just making myself sound really rich. But I’m always nervous talking about things, and so I never talk to anyone and never learn anything. B and I sat in the back of the cab, quietly, soaking it in. Ryan often leads the way and he’ll make jokes like, “I love how my two wives walk five paces behind me.” There’s this whole choreography of the uber-well-traveled (Ryan), the well-traveled (B) and the girl who says, “So in LA….”

Our last day (for a while) in Singapore, Ryan worked and B and I explored on our own. Meaning she figured out the bus and MRT schedule and I carried our stuff and tried to act like I knew which direction we were headed. Our first stop was the Singapore Crocodile Farm on Upper Serangoon Road. The guidebook warned it was not a zoo but a working farm where the crocs would end up as handbags and belts. I wanted to go because I have this notion that my next novel will involve animal activism in some form.

I prepared myself to be disturbed, but it wasn’t that bad, maybe because I’m a mammal-ist and don’t find crocodiles all that loveable. I also don’t know enough about them to know if they’re being treated badly—to tell if they have enough water and space to roam. They were in brick enclosures in groups of two to five. They didn’t move much, but when they did it was lightening-fast. Mostly they looked bored. B learned in Australia that they have a 100% catch rate—if they want to eat you, they will. But she saw one go after a leaf floating in his pool of water and miss, so she revised the statistic to 99.9%.

To kill the crocodiles, the farmers snare them by the neck and strangle them against a wooden pole, then skin them, and salt and polish the skin. A three-year-old croc makes about one purse.

We shopped in Little India and on Arab Street. The latter was definitely populated by a lot of Muslims, but there seemed to be more Malays than Arabs. Shopping gets exhausting, and I hate bargaining, though luckily B enjoys it. More and more I’m enjoying the freedom that not-consuming brings. So much of what we saw—the batik wall hangings and carved wood and elephant-adorned purses—look nicer in the stores in their color and abundance than they would in our crowded apartment. But of course this enlightened realization didn’t stop me from buying a pair of sandals and a bunch of gifts for my relatives.

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