A special gift of a note to the person who can correctly identify the place from these pictures (that means if you already know, and I know who you are, you may not make a guess).
There is so much I want to write to you guys now. I want to write about the feelings of travel, jet lag and the thoughts I have about doing this better next time. I want to write about how it feels to be back home. I want to write about how much you all improved my trip by commenting, emailing and checking in with me in the various ways that you did. But today, I am thinking about Japan and the poor, blind man I passed in the center of a street in Kuala Lumpur.
I passed many people in the streets in Malaysia who needed money. I gave it when I had it. I broke big bills so that it was easier to put something into the cups I passed. I did this without thinking really. People need our help. We should give it to them. People.
On my last evening in KL, as I was walking through the Indian street market, I bent down to put some ringgits into a man’s cup who was clearly blind. He was quite skinny, wearing dirty old clothing and his cup was tin and beaten up. He was not that different from others I had passed…or had seen in pictures from the comfort of my home in the United States. But something struck me that night that struck me again this morning as I was watching the news pouring out of Japan this morning…news about numbers confirmed dead, numbers in shelters and the impact on the stock market. Squeezed into the news stories are single line quotes about actual people in the shelters. For the most part, I note the tragedy and don’t really feel connected to it. It’s not human.
The news helps disconnect us from the tragedy. It reduces it to statistics and facts, peppered with single lines of human interest. We feel compassion, but not connection. As I watched the news it occurred to me that I have dropped money in Haiti’s cup and walked away. I have dropped money in New Zealand’s cup and walked away. As I plan to give to the Japan relief effort, I already know that I will be walking away from their tragedy too. Their tragedy continues…I move on.
Today, one of the single lines in one of the stories was about a woman in a shelter in Japan, one of 450,000 currently living in shelters. She cried because someone she barely knew gave her water and shelter. She cried because there was humanity in the middle of chaos.
This is what is missing in all of this for me…the humanity. The 450,000 in shelters have stories. They are human. For them, the devastation is far from over. The nuclear plants alone leave this country in horrific limbo. But even if this was not the case, what do they have to look forward to when they leave the shelter? And what are the stories of courage, hope and community. They are there and it is in those stories that we feel our connection to people we have never met.
The press is not charged with connecting us to each other, of course. They are delivering the news, in the most sensational way possible. They have a business to run, which is why they move on to the next tragedy. That is why the earthquake in New Zealand, tiny by comparison, but enormous to the people impacted, has fallen off the radar in all major news outlets. The news is not about people, it is about what is the most dramatic right now.
The man on the street in Kuala Lumpur has stayed with me. I don’t know his story, and for some reason that matters to me now. I think it is a mistake to allow the news agencies to hold the stories for us of these tragedies.
We need our storytellers.
I am sitting in the Moscow airport. Had no intention of blogging from here as I am really just in transit and am not really seeing Moscow. But…
I am not sure which is weirder…the fact that for the past week I have been immediately pegged as a tourist everywhere I am or the fact that every single person in this airport thinks I am russian. It is seriously strange. When I go into a shop, they address me in rapid russian. When I go through security, they speak to everyone else in english, and to me in russian. A russian woman stopped me to ask me a question, yep…in russian. An American woman apologetically asked if I spoke english so I could direct her to the business lounge. A child asked me a question in russian as we were waiting in line. And in the business lounge, where virtually everyone is in transit, the women at the front desk spoke to me in russian and handed me the russian version of the pamphlet describing how to connect to wifi. Seriously? I look that russian?
Interestingly, I am reluctanct to speak at all. A flight to Houston takes off from here very soon and there are literally men in here wearing UT baseball caps and talking loudly about oil fields. I can only hope that they also think I am russian and that keeps them from addressing me.
I wish I knew even two words in russian. I would totally work them here.
Just eight hours ago I was thinking how nice it would be to not stand out somewhere again. Maybe I am just enjoying the fact that I don’t stand out so much here and want to suspend the illusion.
I wonder how long it will be before I am, again, frustrated by my generic American look when I am back home. 🙂
К сожалению, я пока не говорю по-русски,
I am already thinking I need to write a follow up blog for the entire trip. I have lots of scattered thoughts I would love to process with you. But that will come once I have a few days to make sense of them. For now I have a few leftovers that have not fit neatly into any of the other blogs. I am just gonna stick them in here beause they are are worth mentioning, but I am truly too tired to write anything really interesting here.
I had dinner at Porn’s tonight.
I am not sure the thai food was really sexy, but it was seriously the very best pad thai I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I did not know Pad Thai was meant to be spicy. It is so much better that way. Oh, and I had Thai tea with I think is iced tea with sweetened condensed milk in it. Yum.
Someone want to tell me what an elephant’s rear has to do with the name of the restaurant or with anything at all actually?
I love the badge they gave me at BP.
I wanted to bring it home and wear it to work every day, but it ripped when I took it off the wall.
I love you guys. Can’t wait to get home.
I’m out. See you in H Town.
I am in the Changi airport in Singapore waiting for my flight. That John Denver song about “You fill up my senses…like a something something something” (my brain is dead) is playing on the speakers…well, at least the Muzak version. Something about that feels a little surreal to me. Particularly when I factor in the music I have been hearing my entire time in Singapore.
Singapore has a definite soundtrack. This did not occur to me until I heard the John Denver Muzak track. I have heard the same music everywhere I go. In every cab…blasting out of every store (except in China Town)…through all the markets. It is the same music, everywhere.
Pop music. Not American Top 40 music, this music that I have been hearing all around me is along those same lines, but not good enough to have made it into the Top 40 somehow. It makes me think of that “we are really big in Asia” joke. I wonder if anything I heard was a David Hasselhoff hit.
This ubiquitous night-club dance beat is what hastened my departure from the walk along the river in Clark’s Quay in fact. It did not break my heart though. Clark’s Quay is really nice in a Disney World kind of way. But I have been to Disney World.
I did see this:
Now THAT is cool. From an advertising/branding perspective, this makes me giggle. We just don’t cross concepts like this in the states. They are playing loose and fast with their brand here and I kinda dig their moxie. I like how cheeky The Burger King is turning out to be. But that is another story for another day.
Today, once we had finished the video shoot, I took off for Haji Lane near Arab Street. I keep reading everywhere about how this little street is the funky side of Singapore. The second hand shops and alternative styles are supposed to be here. It’s also in a funky district…worth the trip to check it out. And here’s the deal, I am spoiled.
I live in a city with some serious funk in it. Not that Houston is known for its funky edge, but if you walk the curve in Montrose, you know you are on the edge. If you stroll down 19th street in the Heights, the funky vibe, while not as funky as Montrose, has enough going on in their second hand shops alone to qualify the street as a funktion.
We’ve got shops and restaurants in the museum district, the theater district and Washington Avenue that bring a little somethin somethin to Houston, and totally PWN Haji Lane. All this to say that Haji Lane is cute, but I could make a fortune there by just copying a single store along the Westheimer curve and dropping it down right there on Haji Street. If anyone wants to do this, I am willing to sell you my idea for 25% of the profits. I will even help you scout which store in Montrose to steal the concept from.
I don’t like how I think, frankly. Too many years of marketing and advertising. This city is actually quite young as cities go and I can see that in its advertising. I can read their age by their marketing skills like you can read the age of a tree by the circles in the trunk.
But there is plenty they kick our butts in. Plenty. I decided to go into KL right away because I had assumed from what I read and saw that Singapore was going to be antiseptic and boring…or at least, just like Houston. I was wrong.
My favorite thing about this city is its love affair with aesthetic. Our cities look so incredibly utilitarian compared to theirs. Beautiful, dramatic and well cared for trees line the streets. Vines crawl all over the overpasses that are clearly cared for lovingly. So many of the buildings could have easily been constructed in a MUCH more rudimentary way, saving money, but losing the heart of Singapore in the process.
I hope western culture does not overtake this child of a city. Wouldn’t it be cool if this city was allowed to grow up with its imagination and sense of wonder in design intact?
In about four hours, I will be getting on a plane, leaving Singapore for home. I am tired and ready to be some place again where people ask me all the time if maybe they know me because I blend so much. That does not happen here.
The past two days have been work heavy, so my whirlwind tour hit the wall. Which is ok, because I crammed as much into the few hours I had in order to be able to say I saw a lot of this country. I wanted to have a good sense of it. I think I do.
After going to Buddha’s Tooth temple on Monday, I walked around China Town. But Frankly, I don’t remember much of it. I was in something of a daze. OK, so that isn’t really true. I remember it. It just doesn’t realize stand out. Sweet vendors selling pretty much the same thing you can buy at the other markets. The music was different.
As I was walking down one small street I stopped at a really small restaurant squashed between two shops. Most of the little restaurants in the places I walked were completely open to the street, so it was easy to see what people were eating. And in this place a woman was eating a mountain of beautiful ice cream like I had never seen. It was quite beautiful. I was hanging back a bit, trying to figure out how to get a picture of it without looking like a total idiot (I have been trying to figure that one out for the past week) when an older asian woman, clearly a regular customer of the restaurant, asked me where I was from. I hadn’t uttered a word, but it’s pretty clear that I am a tourist…of course. After exchanging some pleasantries, she asked what I was looking at. I pointed to the towers of ice cream and she said “Oh, No. You eat the walnut paste! It is hot. You will like. We eat it all the time. That is why we are so sexy.” The women she had been chatting with laughed wildly. So, duh, I ordered the walnut paste immediately, of course. I actually ended up ordering both that and the “Snow Ice.” Ridiculously too much food, but it was too fun to not have both. I considered it dinner.
The soup was actually quite good. I was expecting it to taste a little like soupy peanut butter…so I was understandably nervous. It was quite a large bowl and very rich and very sweet, that and the fact that the taste was unfamiliar to me meant that I could only actually eat a little bit of it. Same for the Snow Ice, which was strange and delicious. The Snow Ice was actually not as sweet as regular ice cream, which I liked oddly. But I think what I enjoyed most about it was the texture. You know those places on ice cream sometimes where it is very icy from the difference between the freezer and the bowl? Or that crunchy texture of the edges of the ice cream in a really cold root beer float? It was like that, all the way through. I enjoyed that immensely.
Tuesday, after work, I headed over to Little India here. I had a mission in mind. I wanted to try Khulfi. I had never heard of Khulfi before this trip. It is a “traditional Indian ice cream” and it seriously rocks. I had no idea ice cream had so many variations.
There is a Khulfi bar in Little India, called, um, Khulfi Bar. And it got rave reviews in a magazine I read in the airplane. I headed straight for it.
Little India is a little, um, more dicey than the other places I had been in Singapore. Streets feel a little rougher…attitude is a little more aggressive…the alleys are a little narrower. There is an edge here. Which was a bit nerve-wracking in moments, but I have to say I was THRILLED to see that there was an edge somewhere in Singapore.
The Khulfi Bar was on one of these little streets. I passed some restaurants with serious character as I made my way to the ice cream shop, wondering all the time how a place like this could make money, tucked away as it is. I am so American.
Many of the shops in this part of Singapore have decorative things hanging from the ceiling and things to sell stuffed into every corner. The saris I passed along the way here were so beautiful that it was very hard not to buy one. Every time I stopped, I imagined how ridiculous I would look in a sari and kept walking. I don’t wanna be that girl. The one who thinks she looks cool in ethnic clothes, but really looks like some completely out of touch tourist character in a National Lampoon movie. I kept walking past.
So, I ordered mango Khulfi with Lychee (I LOVE lychee nuts) and a lemongrass frizz. Still not clear on what a frizz is, but it was so fun to just order something like that.
I love Khulfi. It is much more dense than American ice cream and the kind I had was in little discs, about an inch in diameter. It was truly incredible. The lemongrass frizz was interesting, tasting good, had some interesting seed like stuff floating around in it that was cool. I felt very cool and adventury here, the sole diner in what was reviewed as the most exciting thing to happen in Little India in a very long time. Maybe it was the time of day.
The rest of my trip to Little India was really challenging. Nothing bad happened. I was just tired and so were the people who were working there and shopping there. The place is supposed to be really hopping on Sundays, when the laborers have the day off.
I accidently ended up finding the subway station and decided to hop on and try and navigate my own way back to the hotel. I had never really explored Clarks Quay, where I was staying, but it was early and I had plenty of daylight to get lost in. I actually really enjoyed this little journey back to my room. I will write some about that next.
I sat on one of thirty or so hard gray plastic stools at the back of the temple meant to catch the overflow of the faithful. I knew the minute I stood on the outside of the door to this sanctuary that I would join them, though no westerner appeared to be among the worshipping. I still do not know where this bravery is coming from. I keep wondering if it has something to do with all the times when I was little and chickened out when dared to do something…like I am making up for all those dares now. Brian McElroy, if you are reading this, I would totally swing on that rope swing over that mean old man’s backyard ditch if you dared me today. No way would I let you tease me about chickening out for an entire two years that followed that little incident.
But this does not feel like something I am daring myself to do. Not like the zip lining in Belize. Not like the drive to get on the White House Staff during the Economic Summit when it came to Houston. Not like buying a bus ticket in Singapore to go into Kuala Lumpur all by myself. I felt pulled into this place. This place on Waterloo street, in Singapore that houses the holy relic of one of Buddha’s teeth.
This place is considered one of the holiest places in the world, let alone Singapore. Tourists pace around the courtyard, not daring to go in, but wanting to take pictures of getting close to it…of the colorful and ornate interior that is easy enough to capture without actually entering. They will let you take pictures anywhere in here, but I store my camera as I light a joss stick, pray for peace and place it reverently in the sand outside the temple door…I know how to do this now.
Inside there is a sign indicating that it is proper, but certainly not required, to make an offering of a candle and/or flowers to the Buddha. I make my way to the stand at the side where a gentle lady takes my money and hands me a candle wrapped in flowers…assuming I know what to do with it. I do actually, but only because I just saw someone else make her offering before taking her seat amongst the faithful.
This building has five stories, the top four house museums, a gift shop, gardens, a tea shop and the golden protected sanctuary where the sacred relic is kept. But for now, the chanting draws me to the wildly ornate inner chamber…to the chanting of the monks.
Todays’ recitation comes from the Sutra, verses 33-36. I don’t know this at the time, of course. It is only later, when I wonder what it was that moved me so much, that I decided to look it up. The appropriateness of this message to me right now, in this moment is not lost on me. The universe is divine and there are many paths to God. Here are the verses, translated:
33. If you want to completely liberate yourself from fear and end all internal formations and doubts, You must know that if you haven’t pulled out the arrow of desire, then you haven’t understood yet that this body is suffering.
34. Among the highest things that people call the most divine Nirvana is the highest. You must cut off all ideas and attachments and do not be deceived by words.
35. Knowing how to refrain or not to refrain that is the highest practice of letting go. If in our heart there are thoughts of practice the shell will be cracked.
36. Of all offerings, that of the Dharma is the most precious. Of all kinds of happiness, that happiness based on the Dharma is the greatest. Of all strengths, patience is the most powerful because it can put an end to attachment and bring the happiness of Nirvana.
Pulling out the arrow of desire…patience putting an end to attachment…my western mind struggles with these concepts, even though I feel the truth of it in my heart. But I don’t know any of this message as I sit in the middle of people who, like me, are sitting on small gray overflow stools. But who, unlike me, are following along in their own book of the Sutra (at least that I what I am guessing they were as it was all in Chinese characters) and sing-songing along with the orange robed monks who floated through the room at intervals delivering critical components to the service that I did not understand, as they chanted. I bowed when everyone else did. I turned to face another direction when everyone else did. But mostly, I closed my eyes and let the sounds of the hour and a half service pour over me and then through me. My heart understood something my mind could not.
And after twenty minutes or so, my mind rested and stopped trying to figure out if I was in the right place. I stopped worrying that I did not really belong there. I stopped wondering if the people there judged me for intruding on their sacred service. I know so little about Buddha, but what I felt in there was acceptance. I was creating my own separation, my own doubt, my own judgment. And I stopped.
And when I did, I could hear the chanting differently. What had frankly always felt sleep inducing and a little like droning to me, suddenly held passion and fire. What had felt cold and emotionless, now had life, warmth, intensity. How had I missed this? How is it possible that I had shut myself off from the experience of this with my own restrictive perspective?
The entire temple was stunning. In total, I spent more than three hours there, yet it felt like almost no time had passed. I walked through the gardens. I explored the museum. I turned the prayer wheel and I meditated before the Buddha’s tooth. But nothing could touch the experience of just being part of a flow I have been a part of that evening. Once again, my experience of a temple in Singapore defies my expectations and opens space in me that I didn’t know was there.