Monday, October 31, 2005

some pictures

To go with my thousands and thousands of words. A disclaimer: These were taken with the 35mm point-and-shoot camera my parents bought me in fifth grade. Even then it was a hand-me-down from my friend Bonnie. It’s definitely feeling its age, but it’s a sturdy little thing, and it will have to do until B uploads the photos from her digital camera. For all you visual learners out there, my previous posts are now illustrated.

Here’s one of me trying the infamous durian in Singapore. Actually, I look like I’m getting high off it. It is a potent fruit.

Monday, October 24, 2005

10/22: valley girls and boys (and buddhas)

We began our last day in HK at Hong Kong Park, where we frolicked with black-necked swans and fake rocks covered with real turtles and ponds full of coy that were bigger than the turtles.

We took the steep, slightly scary tram to Victoria Peak, where we watched the crowd of tourists and guys selling postcards, one pushy fortune teller and one self-proclaimed “Thai superstar” who was there with a camera crew. And beyond that, HK’s big, curved skyline, pastel in the smog.

There was also a mall at the top, of course.

We took a boat and one or two types of trains—so much public transportation here—to Tsim Sha Tsui East, one of the New Territories, meaning it was founded around 1897-ish. We decided that the New Territories are the Valley of HK, where things are a little cheaper and a little less cool.

Lunched at a dim sum restaurant on the top floor of a mall. There was a complicated system where one of the staff handed you a slip of colored paper printed with a number and you had to watch a TV screen for your color and number to come up. The place was a huge, low-ceilinged banquet hall with stackable chairs and women pushing carts of round bamboo containers. Jon says all the best Chinese restaurants are big—which definitely doesn’t hold true in the U.S. Think Soup Plantation, Claim Jumper.

Jon claims his Mandarin is crap and that he doesn’t speak Cantonese at all, but he managed to order us one of the most delicious lunches I’ve ever had: fish balls, tofu with potato, big flappy fried rice puffs drenched in honey, turnip cakes with plum sauce, steamed mung bean buns, mango pudding for desert. We ate these oblong fish ball-esque things wrapped in seaweed and fried.

“Think how many of our friends would love this, but turn their noses up at fish sticks?” Ryan said.

I finally got my chance to eat fish head, too, and I’ve gotta say that fish eyes are overrated. The one I had, at least, tasted hard and chalky, like the dehydrated peas in Cup-O-Noodles.

Bellies full, we took an escalator up the hill to what we thought was the Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas. It was a contemporary temple and cemetery, lovely and colorful, but there seemed to be no more than 500 Buddhas at most. More fun than the Buddhas, though, were the monkeys who kept stealing apples and oranges from the shrines. The groundskeepers shoed them away, but Jon posited that maybe they were the ancestors, reincarnated and claiming their rightful fruit.

Next door we found the actual Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas. I love being in a country where such an error is even possible. This place had cement steps winding up a steep hill, bordered by life-sized Buddha disciples painted bright yellow-gold, all wearing red, red lipstick. Some had beaded necklaces, some looked serene or angry or worried, some were surfing on the backs of sea creatures.

But once again, my favorite part was the monkeys, who crashed through the branches overhead and pushed each other down a sandy embankment. They reminded me that we were really, really not in America.

We ate our last HK meal at a Thai restaurant not far from the hotel. We debated whether to order mango sticky rice for dessert. Ryan saw the picture and said, “Oh, it’s on black rice. I don’t like black rice.”

“Are you saying that you’re judging rice by its color?” I demanded.

“I guess I’m a rice-ist,” Ryan smiled. We agreed that that was definitely one for the blog.

Back at the hotel, Jon perused the many escort options in the phone book (from the zombie-like Kelly to the friendly-clerk-like BoBo) while Ryan quizzed me on which 19 world cities boasted a Conrad hotel. I got stumped on Istanbul, Turkey.

Now I’m on the plane, happy with my trip and happy to be heading home. I’m reading a copy of Singapore’s Female magazine, which is even worse than Cosmo. There’s a whole article devoted to horror stories about how Filipina maids have screwed over their employers. Almost every single anecdote ends with, “I wasn’t about to put up with that, so I sent her home.” “That” being things like “trying to raise my children” (hello, that’s what you hired her to do!) and “sleeping with a knife under her pillow” (the chick is scared of you, lady, and I would be too).


Whew.

10/20: the knock-off dynasty

Ryan was MIA this morning, so B and Jon and I hit Hollywood Road, where all the antiques are. Jon is the guy to go with, as he knows the difference between the Han and Tang and Qing and Ming dynasties, between real and fake. We saw fat ceramic pots dripping with emerald green glaze, little armless soldiers, asymmetrical shelves, slotted benches. A lot of it was gorgeous, but some of it—even some of the gorgeous pieces—looked a little bit like something you’d find in a model home. The big, pale stone horse was supposed to guard a tomb, but he looked like he’d be equally comfortable guarding a sectional sofa. That’s the trouble with being a pomo kid, you don’t appreciate the real thing.

We rode the string of escalators that run up the steep mountainside toward Victoria Peak. They pushed us up past noisy apartment buildings with peeling paint and clothes hanging out the windows on poles. Then all of a sudden we stepped off for a minute and we were at the mossy gates of a white mosque surrounded by villa-style apartments and a brick courtyard, and everything felt quiet and ancient. Even though a plaque said the mosque was rebuilt in 1915, it still felt ancient.

I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how old China really is. Around what it would be like to be a farmer who stumbles across a tomb while plowing his fields. Jon says that happens all the time.

Jon is very chill with a low, lazy laugh. If you ask him a question, he’s fond of saying, “I have no idea.” He’s always up for “whatever.” He’s a good addition to our group, since there is not one square inch of Asia that Ryan and B do not have opinions about. Also, because he’s Chinese-American, people frequently think he’s our guide and offer to give him free stuff.

We met up with Ryan and took a cruise on an authentic junk (well, authentic if you ignored the hum of the motor) to Kowloon, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. The part of Hong Kong we’re staying in, called Center, I think, is all silver skyscrapers and air conditioned malls that sprawl across streets and underground. Kowloon is a little more Times Square, with tall and gritty buildings and neon signs trying to out-blink each other.

In a mall-like civic center, we stumbled onto a dance performance that was part of Hong Kong’s month-long Latin Passion Festival. The tap-salsa-ballroom-ish performance was immediately comforting to me. Something in my body just clicked, like my cells said, We get this. I don’t know if the Latin-ness reminded me of California or what. But I think it was more the Passion that spoke to me. It sounds cheesy, but I really feel like art is a universal language. Like the performer-audience relationship is a culture in itself.

After an overpriced happy hour and an underpriced noodle dinner, we hit the night market on Temple Street, where vendors set up booths in front of the closed storefronts and sell the same imported-from-China stuff you find in downtown LA, but for even less. I am a fan of cheap imported knock-offs and random goods—“silk” pajamas, “jade” jewelry, pig-shaped key chains with light-up noses, Che shirts, Mau shirts, and these gummy balls that flatten when you throw them against a wall—but I was feeling a little over-shopped at that point.

10/19: suzanne, jon, ben and conrad

B and I were feeling a bit bedraggled after getting off the bus at the wrong stop and trekking the long distance to Ryan’s flat. But when we got there, he’d turned the place festive with candles and music. His new coworker, an Atlantan/New Yorker named Suzanne who used to work for Rough Guides, was also there. She was friendly-goofy, and we all went to a vegetarian restaurant called Original Sin in Holland Village (basically White People Town of Singapore). Then we moved on to a lesbian bar called Club 95 in Chinatown. Small and mellow, with nothing so fussy as fruit punch or vanilla Stoli on hand to appease B’s and my not-so-butch drinking habits.

Now we’re in Hong Kong for the last leg of our trip. We’re staying at the Conrad Hilton, which is like a mammoth version of Tea Chapter in that I’m way too lowbrow for the uber-fluffy towels and too-attentive staff and delicate pears they leave on the desk with an orchid as garnish.


B’s friend Jon has joined us from Beijing, where he’s been living for the past couple of years. He’s a sweet, mellow guy who has been to Hong Kong a couple of times, mostly to help find items for his mom’s antique business in Texas. We had dinner with Jon’s ex-pat friend Ben, whom Jon described as a sort of international playboy. Ben was very nice, as charming as an international playboy should be, but I just couldn’t quite relate to his dilemma over whether to buy a Porsche or a speedboat.

10/18: i love the '80s and the 1890s

Right now B and I are sitting at Tea Chapter in Singapore’s Chinatown. We’ve had several pots of earthy red tea and one pot of slightly bitter green tea. Until about 20 minutes ago, 140 Chinese schoolgirls were taking tea lessons upstairs, so it wasn’t exactly tranquil. I don’t think I’d do very well in tea school. I feel big and oafish among the dainty porcelain cups (one for sniffing, one for drinking) and teapots (one for brewing, one for pouring). At Starbucks you get a venti whatever and you are kind of dwarfed by it. You don’t have to have refined tastes to enjoy a bunch of chocolate sprinkles and a triple shot of caffeine. This is stuff for people who like wine tasting and classical music. I like the idea of wine tasting and classical music.

Also, I just managed to acquire a tea injury when I seared my wrist on our boiling kettle.

Still, it’s all lovely and elaborate, and I think this might be one of my favorite days so far. Earlier this afternoon we visited the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a pretty impressive museum devoted to the Chinese immigrants who’ve come to Singapore since the 1800s. (It’s crazy that a city with a majority Chinese population even has a Chinatown, but that’s the colonial legacy for you.) I’ve always loved Jacob Riis’ photos of 19th century American immigrants. In high school I poured over floor plans of dumbbell-style tenements in my U.S. history textbook. B said, “I know how you love filth.” Maybe. There is something about the texture of that experience and the extremes people will go to for survival that I’m drawn to. So it was interesting to see a parallel immigrant experience that happened at the same time on the other side of the world.

Chinese shophouses—which had crowded workstations on the first two floors and crowded multi-family living quarters above—also had airshafts running down the middle, just like American dumbbell tenements. The museum had an almost full-size replica of a bunch of shophouse rooms, stocked with rickety furniture and retro posters and pots and pans and irons and sewing machines.

When I think of Klein family vacations, I think of wooden rooms with squeaky, old-fashioned beds and a rope across the doorway to keep you from going inside. So this museum made me nostalgic for both the 1980s and 1890s.

Yesterday was our last in Malaysia, a big surge of shopping. Visiting a poor country makes me want to live a simpler life on one hand, and buy while the buying’s cheap on the other.

Highlight from the scruffy, under-construction Kuching airport: a sign saying, “Emergency Procedure: In case of smoke or fire the person who spots it should shout, ‘Fire! Fire!’ in a loud voice.”

Almost as priceless as the instructional signs I’ve seen in a few of the bathrooms, explaining via detailed diagrams how to use a Western (as opposed to squat) toilet. We’ve all agreed that squat toilets are in fact much more sanitary than sit toilets. Still, there’s something inherently funny about reading instructions on how to do something you’ve been doing since you were two years old. Literal toilet humor. According to the pictures, if you squat on the rim of a Western toilet, you might fall in and get your leg stuck. Good to know.

10/16: cats and fish

If any city were to have a serious and comprehensive museum devoted to the cultural and biological history of cats, you’d think it would be Kuching (which, as I mentioned, means “cat” in Malay). The Cat Museum sat at the top of the hill in a big domed building, looking stately and promising. But after a quick look around, we decided it must be the pet project (no pun intended) of some government official’s wife. Someone the city couldn’t say no to.

Ever wondered what a giant plaster cat looks like wearing a hijab? Look no further! You can also find cartons of Whiskas behind glass, framed Garfield puzzles and water-stained prints of “cats in western art.” The inclusions were random, half-hearted and totally disorganized. The English portion of the info cards on the walls often started or stopped in the middle of sentences. Ryan was immediately bored and began scouring for little bits of actual Malaysian history, but I was fascinated.

There were not one but two collections of Hello Kitty zodiac key chains—displayed not with the other case of Hello Kitty stuff, but with posters of work by a Japanese photographer who liked to dress kittens as chefs and “street toughs.” One of the classier rooms was devoted to folk-style paintings of cats with captions like, “TODAY: Is always good to no look back, but some time you should look back.”

If a movie had a cat in it, even for a minute, the poster was on the wall of the Cat Museum. There was a bizarre diorama homage to a 1950s movie called Cat Burglar. The large glass case featured a masked mannequin dressed in black, suspended on ropes above a litter of, what else, big-eyed plaster kitties.

The orang-utan sanctuary, where we went later in the afternoon, was much more discreet. Not a single plaster orang-utan. Just the real thing, looping through the branches for their afternoon pineapples and oranges. B and I missed the alpha male, but we watched a beautiful red-brown mama orang-utan and her little orange gymnast baby. They’re much more graceful than their monkey cousins. They basically have four arms, and they just sort of peel from one branch to another.

We had dinner at the See Good Food Centre, a big outdoor seafood restaurant with no menus, just a middle-aged woman who recites the specials and a handful of bobtailed cats who meow loudly while you eat. We ate black pepper crab and sweet and sour fish and finger oysters and ferns and spinach.

B and Ryan are always good for State Of The World Conversations—what government should be and do. I love how smart they both are, how inspiring and honest. Even though sometimes I just want to burst out and start talking about the mall (which, actually, Ryan is pretty adept at as well, having been a passionate Banana Republic employee).

Ryan is pro-caning these days, ready to give up freedom of speech and religion for a clean, safe, egalitarian country. I’m not really sure how those sacrifices create that gain, but I agree that different systems work for different cultures (though maybe no one needs the caning system). I’m fascinated by Ryan’s ability to move about in the world, to hitch a ride on a mail truck in Uganda one day and buy mass quantities of his favorite Body Shop shampoo the next. To swing from the rough life to the high life like a smooth orang-utan.

At the Holiday Inn, there was a gazebo where you could get massages, and I was totally horrified to see white women sipping cocktails as Malay women rubbed their feet. I don’t like the idea of a poor person taking care of my personal grooming, and yet, a poor person undoubtedly sewed my clothes, and a poor person cooked my dinner. Which makes me think that maybe I’m one of those people who just doesn’t like to see “the help.” Like I want the perks without the guilt. Whereas I think Ryan understands the harsh realities and accepts the consequences.

When I started eating fish, I knew I had to fully own the consequences of my actions. I couldn’t stick with fish sticks and fillets, I had to look the fish head square in the eye.

10/15: lost in translation

The homesickness hit today. Right now drinking a pumpkin spice latte and reading a BHQ submission sounds really nice. I miss feeling competent and grown up. I miss knowing I could drive for hours in any direction and not get lost. I feel sort of silly feeling homesick after being gone only a week (with my girlfriend, no less), but that’s me.

We’re in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia now. Sarawak is a state on the island of Borneo. Borneo sounds so exotic. I recall hearing something about “The Wild Man of Borneo,” but B and Ryan have no idea what I’m talking about. I think maybe he was one of PT Barnum’s side show attractions, probably just a local guy with a tan and a lot of facial hair. (Not that Malays actually have a lot of facial hair, I’m just saying that side show attractions frequently did.)

We’ve cashed in B’s Hilton points—here’s to putting your grad school tuition on your credit card!—and gotten a ridiculously nice room overlooking the Sarawak River and all the brightly colored waterfront shops. “Kuching” means “cat” in Malay, and there are a couple of giant cat statues in the city. But they’re not classy bronze statues or modern art-style statues. They’re more like giant Precious Moments figurines, something you would give away if your grandma gave it to you.

Some other Malay words I’ve learned (my spelling is dubious):
  • Bukit = hill
  • Bahru = new
  • Ayam = chicken
  • Ais kirm = ice cream
  • Air = water (just to be confusing)
  • Surau = the place Muslims go to pray. This one was tricky. Ryan and I kept seeing signs saying “surau” at various places—the airport, the campground—and we thought it meant “staff” or “office,” but finally Ryan asked someone, another cab driver, I think.
  • Terima kasih = thank you. But if you say it to a Chinese Malaysian, she will laugh at your dorky attempt to speak the language she only speaks because she has to. Learned that the hard way.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

10/14: nature for the impatient

Tonight we’re staying at Bako National Park, a 30-minute ride from Kuching in a little boat with an outboard motor. It had a sign that said, “Wear life jacket at all times,” but at no point did anyone offer us a life jacket. The river (delta? little sliver of ocean?) ranged from narrow to wide—I know because I kept thinking about whether or not I could swim it, and the answer varied. I also thought a lot about crocodiles as I watched the mangrove forests and tiny houses on stilts roll by.

B was not so happy to learn that our hostel had no mosquito netting or air conditioning. Her doctor didn’t prescribe malaria pills, but to her credit, she’s sticking it out. There is a yellow-cliffed beach nearby and lots of wild (or wild-ish) animals. We were barely off the boat when we saw our first bearded pig, a huge boar with a scouring brush for a face (B’s description). There are dozens of what the campground brochure refers to as “naughty macaques,” pale, cat-sized monkeys. I think the brochure describes them that way because they like to steal visitors’ food, but we witnessed a short monkey orgy today that would suggest the naughtier connotation of “naughty” also applies.


B wasn’t feeling well, but Ryan and I decided to brave the Lintang Trail, a three hour loop that took us through all kinds of terrain, from root-covered hills that reminded Ryan of Lord of the Rings to lava-bed-looking flats to places where the rainwater flowed over pale sands like white chocolate. We saw blue and orange mushrooms, spiky rattan (“I think this is what they use to beat people with in Singapore,” Ryan worried. “I didn’t know it had spikes.”) and two kinds of pitcher plants.

I love the rainforest because you don’t have to appreciate subtlety to enjoy it. It has all the variety and spectacle of Disneyland.

We hiked in the rain, sweat and bug spray flowing in rivulets down our arms, and talked about camping and Wal-Mart and Mormons and screenplays. On the way back, we finally saw the elusive proboscis monkeys, big orange dudes with Gonzo noses and long white tails.

The three of us ate at the canteen, which is attached to a little store that sells Fumakilla brand mosquito coils. We laughed and made up stories about other park visitors and swatted mosquitoes as we ate noodles with greens cooked in some kind of fish paste. It seems to be a popular condiment here, and I have to admit that, while not unpleasant, whenever I eat it I always find myself thinking about Maria’s Pet Store in Hermosa Beach.

10/13: it takes a village

Spent most of yesterday by the pool. Everything I normally devote my time to seems so far away. Just being is such a good lesson. Of course it also makes me feel extremely untalented because I don’t have any skills that might be useful here. I can’t swim (well, just enough to not drown in a current-less, shark-less swimming pool), I can’t plan itineraries, I can’t make conversation with strangers. All I can do is eat whatever’s in front of me, which makes me more of a circus freak than a savvy traveler.

Last night at dinner (fish, spring rolls, two kinds of eggplant and the best desserts I’ve ever had—an array of bright green, chewy, ricey things), I confessed my travel-related insecurities to Ryan, who said that not complaining and not being afraid to try new things are genuine accomplishments. As always, I am accomplished in the negative. I’m good at not taking up too much space, not being too annoying or demanding. My therapist would not be surprised. Nevertheless, I took it as a compliment, and the three of us had one of those long, good, getting-to-know-you-even-better conversations.

Today we visited the Sarawak Cultural Village, a “living museum” not far from our hotel. It’s definitely geared toward tourists, with all the longhouses and tallhouses of different indigenous tribes clustered unnaturally together. At the same time, I was annoyed by the American guy at our hotel who said, “Yeah the dances they do there are cool, but if you’ve already seen a real longhouse, it’s like, whatever.”

There’s this anti-tourist snobbery among some “real” travelers that bugs me. Of course people who want their picture taken with the natives and always need to stay at five-star hotels are irritating. But the search for authenticity can be futile, and can manifest as one-upmanship. And for people who are less educated or have less money, touristy things can be a way in. I hate it when people romanticize the underprivileged of other countries while condemning our own—like if you work in a rice paddy you’re cool, but if you’re an American who doesn’t know the difference between an Iban longhouse and a Bidayuh longhouse, you’re not.

Anyway, the dancing was cool (see previous post). And we got to wander through the traditional houses, climb notched logs, taste palm-flour crackers, dance a little to some violin music, befriend a couple of bobtailed cats. B and Ryan played the Malay version of Mancala, a game played with rocks and what looks like a long wooden muffin tin. We listened to the Iban woman stationed at the Chinese farmhouse talk about how much she disliked Chinese people because they are always sour-faced even when they’re on holiday. She had something to say about everything and everyone. Later Ryan read us a passage from his guidebook: “Be sure to see the Sarawak Cultural Village. The comments of the effusive Cecilia at the Chinese farmhouse are worth the price of admission alone.”

10/12: the land of bikinis and hijabs

Yesterday we arrived at the Damai Beach Holiday Inn 45 minutes outside Kuching. Malaysia is technically a developing country, but it seems to be a mixture of living conditions, more along the lines of Mexico than, say, Sub-Saharan Africa. We drove past shacks in the middle of lush green fields, tile-roofed duplexes and a few really opulent mansions. The signs featured lots of cognates: motosikil, insurans, teksi. We passed a school full of very small girls in hijabs. Our cab driver said when they start wearing it depends. A lot seems to be optional for Muslims in this part of the world. Some of the girls wear short sleeves. Ryan said that his Muslim friends told him that if you break your Ramadan fast you can do a make-up day afterward.

There’s a sort of modern-Muslim style I’ve observed on some of the trains in Singapore. One young woman had on this brightly printed turquoise dress over jeans (a style I always dig, no matter what B says), with a brown plaid hijab. They wear them pinned at the chin with a big lump of ponytail in the back. A kind of sexy mix of contemporary and traditional styles. I know some of the point of Muslim girl style is to not be sexy, but unexpected blends—like femmey dresses with combat boots—are always sexy to me. And I think that young people of any culture search for a way to make what’s been passed down to them new and cool.

We watched a little of the Malaysian news on TV last night, then fell asleep at 7:30 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 7:30 this morning. It was nice sleeping somewhere other than Ryan’s couch, which is at least six inches shorter than I am.

At the resort, I don’t even feel like I’m in a foreign country. It’s all very neat, self-contained and packaged. Which is both a nice break and somewhat unsettling. We’re staying in multi-unit, bungalow-style buildings with low-slung, green tile roofs. There’s a pool shaped like a goldfish cracker, a lightning rod on the roof, waves lapping the sand a few feet away, misty green mountains on the other side. And lots of Germans in very small swimsuits. I feel weird wearing my two-piece swimsuit in front of the Malays, even though I’m still doing it. I feel like, of course we are rich, decadent Westerners, of course we are hate-able. But maybe people here understand about those delicate cultural balances. Those tensions that are not quite harmonic, not quite hostile. Maybe they like having a steady job more than they dislike Westerners. Who knows.

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.

10/10: opening the cupboard

Our first stop yesterday was the Tiong Bahru bird area, where older Chinese men bring their birds to sing to each other on Sunday mornings. The morning was rainy-misty, sort of like Seattle in July. The birds were these little green and yellow guys in wooden cages decked out with carvings and ivory ornaments. I thought they all looked like the “after” pictures from Pimp My Cage. Ryan said he would remember that when he taught parody to his class.

We stopped at a hawker center for breakfast, sort of like Grand Central Market but cleaner and Chinese. Lots of food booths and little tables beneath a tall tin roof. I ate fish congee (porridge) and drank a venti-esque cup of grass jelly juice.

In the afternoon we visited the Changi Prison Museum. At first I thought we were going to get to visit a real Singapore prison. I’d just read an article in other magazine by a person who’d toured a Bolivian prison, apparently a regular occurrence. But while the current real prison is called Changi Prison, this was a replica of a chapel built at the old Changi, which Japan turned into a POW camp for soldiers, British colonials and locals during World War II. Turns out the Japanese treated everyone there pretty shittily, as runners of prison camps are known to do.

The letters and photos and artifacts made me realize how much my education focused on the Western front of WWII and the West in general. That’s happening over and over this trip. It’s not as if I really thought I knew much about Asia beforehand, but, well, say you had a cupboard in your house that you’d never opened. You would admit that you had no idea what was inside and that you were sort of curious. But say you were able to open it just a crack one day, and out fell, for example, a football, a peach and a glass eye. All of a sudden you’d be really curious. You’d want to know how these things fit together and fit with the rest of the known objects in your house.

Ryan says Singapore is unusual because it’s proud of its colonial past, not like Africa, where he also lived. I said maybe the difference is how the particular colonists treated the particular locals. “You mean like because they didn’t export them as slaves?” he said. “Yeah,” I said. Still, according to the Changi Prison Museum, the Japanese invasion was a wake-up call that the paternalistic British were pretty pathetic parents, surrendering almost immediately. The Japanese claimed that “Asia should be run by Asians.” Of course, you have to question this seemingly noble statement when you look at the torture of thousands of Chinese people, but still, it would have been nice in school if someone had mentioned that Japanese aggression was on some level a reaction to years of colonial rule in Asia. That it wasn’t just a Pinky and The Brain plot, where one day they woke up and said, “Let’s take over the world.”

We tagged along to Ryan’s Kundalini yoga class, taught by a French woman named Christine. Stretched and breathed the tropical breeze in her living room, un-crunched my muscles after a day of walking.

After dinner we visited a gay bar called, I think, Tantric. I thought it would be more underground, but it was pretty much like West Hollywood, maybe mellower and more ethnically diverse. Even the gay bar we went to in Prague a few years ago felt kind of dangerous, the bouncer locking the door after we slipped inside. We met up with a handful of Ryan’s friends and acquaintances, two Singaporeans, a white American guy and a Chinese British girl. This whole ex-pat life is new and glamorous and intimidating. I am such a local girl. I can’t go five minutes without talking about LA.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

10/8: fine city

If you live in a country with all sorts of theoretical rights, but never get around to practicing them, is your country really different from one without rights? Ryan’s example: So we have freedom of the press, but all we read is Us Weekly. Going about town in Singapore today, I didn’t feel like I was in a police state. There were lots of signs reminding me not to litter and a number of cameras, but I got the feeling that I could live more or less the same life here that I do at home. Ryan claims to be a fan of dictatorships these days. I can’t tell how much of that is sincere, how much is an ideology he’s sort of trying on.

A lot of America’s rugged individualism is just stupid. Like, “Ain’t no government gonna tell me where to throw my trash. Ain’t no government gonna tell me to carpool.” But I wonder if I’d been raised in a country that didn’t even have a pretense of nonconformity if I’d be an even bigger wuss than I am now. And I hate the idea of not being able to choose my college or my job, and not being able to be openly gay. So ultimately I’m going to have to go with the U.S., even if it’s just the devil-I-know.

Okay, enough politics. Here’s what we did today:
  • Wet market near Ryan’s flat. Loaded up on dragon fruit (bright pink with curvy petal-arms), mangosteens (which look like a cross between an eggplant and a persimmon but taste lychee-esque) and these little things that taste like grapefruit-flavored lychees.
  • The Esplanade, nicknamed The Durian because of its round, prickly shape. Looked at an exhibit of gorgeous, explosively colored artwork by school kids.
  • Hammed it up at the big merlion statue, just like a good Singaporean couple should. At one of the gift stands nearby you can buy T-shirts that say, “Singapore: It’s a Fine City” above a list of all the semi-crimes you can get fined for. Kind of like the “You are now entering the Soviet Zone” T-shirts we saw for sale in Berlin. Even oppressive government is marketable.
  • Took a riverboat from the merlion to Clarke Quay. We inhaled gasoline fumes and looked out onto rows of yuppie bars and restaurants that occupy the old waterfront warehouses.

Then onto Little India. There are lots of Tamil men in Singapore, mostly doing manual labor jobs and sending money home to their families. Sound familiar, California? B had heard this was a good area to get an inexpensive, hand-tailored suit, but all the tailors were busy sewing for the Deepvali Festival. Plus they specialized in Punjabi suits, basically an embroidered tunic and Hammer pants. B is more businesswoman-chic. The guy who sold us rosewater ice cream explained that Deepvali celebrates the triumph of good over evil. We tried to think of a holiday celebrating the reverse, and Halloween was the closest we got.

We walked through a Hindu temple where a different, non-Deepvali festival was going on. The outside of the building was covered with many-armed gods in a rainbow of colors, and the inside was packed with worshippers and gawkers. A stream of shoes led to the door, to a cloud of incense. It was a sweaty, happy, open place. And yet because I knew so little about the religion and the festival, it was hard for me to experience it as more than just color and music. It was hard not to commodify.

Same with the outdoor market in Little India. It was buzzing and bright, with bins of tin bangle bracelets, flower wreaths, clay incense pots, Bollywood CDs, inlaid jewelry. But one of the problems (and one of the joys) of living in a place like LA is that so much is already available to me. I can get durian at 99 Ranch and Indian jewelry at Venice Beach. In a way, being here is a reminder that a culture is not the sum of its souvenirs. A good thing to be reminded of. If I want to take something home, I have to look deeper—except I don’t think I’ll be staying long enough to truly do that.

10/6: asian education

On the plane: So far in my guidebook I’ve read about Malaysia’s history and culture. I could tell you that the early Chinese settlers were generally wealthier than the ones who came at the turn of the century. I could tell you that Malaysia is now roughly 65% Malay, 25% Chinese and 9% Indian. I could tell you that Singapore was forced to be its own country mainly because it had a lot of Chinese people, which made Malaysia nervous. But I couldn’t tell you where we should eat dinner. Oh well, 13 hours to go. A toddler is screaming on one side of me, and, on the other, B is talking about how when we have kids, we’ll be able to keep them quiet.

The official mascot of Singapore is the merlion—half lion, half fish. What’s not to love about that? But the guidebook is kind of dismissive, like, “Merlions—whatever, Singapore.”

At Ryan’s flat: Ryan, B’s former roommate-turned-professional-nomad, calls it a flat. He’s teaching here for a couple of years and will be our host and travel buddy for the next two weeks. He totally speaks Singlish now. On our cab ride from the airport, he would say things to the driver like, “You take elevator, not?” He sounds a little like someone imitating someone who can’t speak English well, but it seems to work. The dropped articles are just part of the dialect, I guess. I can feel my ears working to adapt. I love it.

I’m still trying to learn the rules of this whole dictatorship thing. Ryan had no problem talking about the government in the cab, so I guess Big Brother is not listening, just watching to make sure we don’t litter or jaywalk. Ryan has been visiting a local gay website, but he can’t put his picture on it because he’s a teacher, and there are (even stricter) rules about what teachers can and can’t do. And at any minute inspectors might visit the flat in search of standing water, because there’s an outbreak of dengue fever.

My favorite Singaporean item so far is a government-issued pamphlet titled “You Can’t Hurry Love: Choose Your Moment With The Ultimate 36 Hour Date Guide.” It has info about erectile dysfunction and menopause, but mostly just lots of Singapore-specific tips for romance, including all the lyrics to the title song, which they attribute to Phil Collins.

Some love lessons, courtesy of Singapore:
  • “In the 1970s, Paul Simon sang about 50 ways to leave your lover. Today, try 36 ways to leave your lover—gasping for more.”
  • “Book the in-laws into a hotel in Sentosa.”
  • “Think slow boil. Simmering. Think naughty.”
  • “Music, they say, can soothe the savage beast. In this case, what you want to do is bring out the savage beast in him—in the nicest primal way possible.”
  • “Get someone to take a picture of the two of you hamming it up in front of the merlion like two young lovers.”
  • “No one can see you if you let the curtains down before you play spin the banana (you need a big firm one—like a Pisang Rajah).”

home stinky home

My second Saturday is going well. The first one was spent trudging through train and airport lines, lugging our gluttonous suitcases, then inching across the Pacific, lower back pinching, skin continuing to erupt—it has protested each new climate I’ve plunged it into over the last two weeks. I knew it had been a good trip—the memories were already taking shape—but I also had that exhausted-nervous-weird feeling I always get when coming home after a long trip. As if I might have forgotten how to go about my old life.

I needn’t have worried. The cats didn’t forget who we were, and B and I managed to hunt down some bean burritos quickly, and my face was thrilled to be reunited with its apricot scrub. I’m happy to be back in LA, in my apartment that smells like cat pee (it doesn’t normally, for the record, but someone got a little bored in our absence) and the new shoes I bought in Singapore’s Little India. They smell like spices and something else I can’t quite place, something a little more troubling. I’m letting them air out.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to transcribe my journals from the past two weeks, noting the dates and editing to make them more blog-worthy. In other words, more wit and less about my spats with B. I’ll add pictures later.


B and Temecula are catching up on the news online: runaway rats and wacky car-jackings gone wrong. I’ve missed America.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

malaysia truly asia

My journal is overflowing with notes (and one sketch of a merlion--I'll explain later), and I plan to transcribe all of the reasonably interesting parts when I get back. But I do want to say I blogged from abroad, so here I am, typing from the lobby of the Holiday Inn at Damai Beach in Malaysia.

Today's highlights:

1) At the Sarawak Cultural Village, a "living museum" of tribal longhouses condensed for tourist purposes, we saw gorgeous traditional dances...followed by a live song and dance number to "Malaysia Truly Asia," the song the Malaysian tourism board uses in all its TV commercials. Maybe the dancers were just tired, since it was the end of the show, but it seemed like the their moves were a little lackluster. Like they weren't truly into lyrics like, "Mal-aayy-sia, it will steal your heart away...."

2) More dried fish on rice at breakfast. My travel skills are not many, but I will eat pretty much anything and love it. The national question--a la "how's the weather?"--seems to be, "Have you tried durian?" Durian is a stringy, stinky fruit that looks like a Frank Gehry building on the outside. And I am surprising the locals by answering, "Yep, and I love it." So yeah, durian, dried fish, all sorts of gooey rice-based desserts. I haven't had fish head curry yet, which is big in Singapore, but I'll let you know.

3) We saw a monkey! A light yellow little guy swinging through the real trees above the fake waterfall outside our hotel. It was one of those moments when you realize you're really not at home. At home I have neither a fake waterfall nor a real monkey.

More to follow.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

out of blog-office reply

Nothing like packing to go to a Muslim country (Malaysia) to make you realize what a high percentage of your wardrobe consists of tank tops. Besides tank tops-plus-deslutifying-cover-ups, my suitcase contains:

  • Nearly stamp-free passport
  • Nearly unread guidebooks
  • Yummy-delicious malaria pills
  • My favorite Save the Turtles T-shirt
  • Cara’s novel manuscript, which I hope is PG-13 enough for Singapore censors
  • Two friendly cats

At least a couple of these items will have to be unpacked. Maybe if I’d read my guidebooks, I would know whether I’m a paranoid dork for thinking that Singapore might actually care about my reading material. So far the guidebooks say things like, “Remember, sodomy is a crime in Singapore. But the main gay district is at such and such street….” Confusing, but exciting. I love worlds-inside-worlds, I love the lengths people go to in order to have fun. Of course by “people,” I don’t mean me. I suspect I wouldn’t be so good at leading a cultural resistance inside a totalitarian regime, but who knows, I’ve never tried.

Anyway, I’m off. I don't know if I'll be able to travelblog. According to B, who is definitely a paranoid dork, if a cute one, all Internet cafes these days put some kind of password-stealing software on their computers. So when my entries start getting crazy, you'll know why: Some cafe owner has stolen my password and is blogging as Bread and Bread.

See you in two and a half weeks!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

heaven on wheels

It had been years since I’d gone to Venice Beach, but unlike pretty much every other part of the LA, it’s oddly resistant to change. Same trendy-to-freaky ratio, same Scientologists offering Free Stress Tests, same incense and garlic rolls and ladies with pink hair.

It had been even more years since I’d roller-skated, but that too was pretty much the same, except this time I rented beach-girl brown leather skates. The last pair I owned looked like those Reebok aerobic shoes from the ’80s, with pink wheels attached. It was foggy, and that kept a lot of people off the beach and out of my way as I flailed. Soon I was clammy with cold-day sweat, but moving along smoothly, up the coast and through the cool, creepy wooden tunnels beneath the Santa Monica pier. I’d never seen them before. Beautiful. Like rickety old circus days.

All of this happened a few roller-paces behind my friend Sara, who used to be a figure skater, and can do that back-crossover thing on her rollerblades, and would have speed-glided up to Malibu if I hadn’t been cramping her style. She was nice about it, though, and caught me a couple of times when I started to fall.

In addition to figure skating, Sara knows how to do flower arranging and physics and archery. Each time I hang out with her, I learn something new and random about her. She’s like 30, but she’s lived at least 50 years worth of life. The new and random things come up casually, usually when she’s making a point about something fairly mundane. And I’ll just do a double take and go, “Wait, when did you train with the Hungarian Olympic fencing coach?”

Today, while on wheels, I learned that Sara has done search and rescue, and once sanded off the tip of her finger while working in a woodshop.

Mostly what I do with my friends is eat, drink coffee, talk and see movies. I like all of those activities. A lot. But it was also fun to take the Blind Date approach and do something. Like on Blind Date, I even changed clothes between activities. From shorts and a tank top on the beach to cargo pants and a T-shirt after lunch. ‘Cause I’m classy like that.

It felt so good, zooming through the fog low-impact style. Shopping for art supplies at The Art Store on Santa Monica and suddenly longing to sculpt (Sara paints and makes collages out of broken CDs). If I had taken the Free Stress Test, I think I would have fared pretty well.