Friday, November 21, 2008

A Tropical Fruit Getaway

Day one in Malaysia I am immediately traumatized. Though it may be true that the dream of a tourist in Malaysia is to see "the real Malaysia," it may not always be what she wants. At a Chinese restaurant, a flaccid, scaly body housing a pair of alert eyes that seem to be saying something sinister through a soupy, sallow patina, "eat me! hahaha," is set on my table on a silver tray, spinning around and around the lazy Susan. Everyone but the professor grimaces and scans the faces of others, then wipes the horror off their faces and eats so as to be polite—to prove Americans can be receptive and respectful. And to our surprise, the fish is good.

After overcoming the next horror—the bill—we depart for the Thai style Wat Chaiyamangalaram temple, home of the sleeping Buddha. Guarding the doors are dragons and phoenixes, posted in the ground like the motorized children in It's a Small World. The creatures—after being caked with garish blues and yellows—are shelled in a thick, extra glossy lacquer that parades as it protects. As majestic as they are, (in their height alone), I cannot imagine these sentinels protecting the temple from anything stronger than a light breeze or a giant, (assuming the giant is too wide to fit between them). I can vouch for the statues' purpose in attracting tourists and locals alike, however, as I catch many a visitor snapping pictures of them, some posing as the animal next to which they stand, and they are a real hit with the kids who treat them as king-sized dolls or climbing posts.

I urge myself to keep an open mind and go inside where I am relieved to see that the glitter and glare humbles itself, now found in the form of aged bronze and brass and small squares of thin gold paper with which the effigies have been painted by believers. After removing our shoes, (which would have been better left on my feet, considering how filthy they are), we circumnavigate the temple—which way is right? perhaps we'll never know. It is in all ways modest, with simple décor, simple colors, devoid of much lavishness as the seventh bodhisattva precept peaches, and the lighting is just right, gently reflecting off the curves of a brass Buddha, the corners of the gold squares, the bends in candle flames.

Around the first corner, and we are walking clockwise now, the feet of the Buddha, complete with soiled, very human toenails, lie unapologetically before us. I cannot see his head yet, so I turn to the wall behind me, dressed from head to toe in color. The bottom half is tiled blue and green, framing an extensive number of shadow boxes housing urn after urn. On the glass covering each is a name and a description of the deceased person, some more personal than others, but all of them carrying an inexplicable heaviness, of the urn itself, the pithy eulogies, the money to reserve each box, the feeling that I'm surrounded by death, dry death, made to look polished and delicate. I wonder how devoted the family was when they burned their parents or siblings and left them in a vase, in a dark shelf, miles and sometimes seas away from home. I suppose it is possible for the deceased to have asked for this burial, but it seems too easy to me, too impersonal.

My grandfather was a bent old man who considered himself a devout Buddhist until his death, and though we never really spoke to each other—he spoke only Japanese, and I, only English—when I was but a wee nine-year-old watching him kneel before my grandma's enshrined ashes, I was amazed by his piety, to her and to the practice. I didn't understand what the stick and gourd were for, and found it especially odd how he made music with it, but I saw the loyalty in his drumming, how the steady rhythm was a sort of prayer, and every day I could count down to the minute he retired to that muggy chamber to pay alms to his deceased wife. How can a person show his love and respect if his family's ashes are on public display in impounding two by two inch boxes?

When jiji died, he was placed next to the rest of the family on a slope of a tall mountain, (the name of which I will not divulge, to keep it free of visitors), the privacy of which allows us to rightfully respect him and plant gifts at the family headstone. I can only imagine how much less sanctified those visits would have been were the path fringed with cartoon monuments and tourists snapping pictures of their children climbing over them. I will admit, though, that the Thai temple's "shrines" are pretty, and I understand that donating, in a way, a family member's ashes to a holy place ascertains the deceased's karmic merit, but it all seems a bit ostentatious to me. Perhaps there is a part of the process I am missing.

Above the showcase of urns are murals depicting the physical execution of Buddhist practices with captions—in English. These initially spark my interest, but I quickly move on given the hardly legible writing and awkward placement of the paintings. Besides, these will later be greatly outshone by the series of Buddha's life images in the Burmese temple across the street, so I will now move on to what I actually liked.

Inside the temple is a man—much like my grandfather, but slightly larger around the waist—who takes me by the hand and leads me to a bronze statue of a rabbit for 1987 babies, which I am. Then he tells me to pray. Having no idea how to do so properly, I ask him for help, but he speaks little to no English, so I motion to him as I used to do with my Japanese grandpa and he eventually catches on. He picks up my left arm by the wrist and places my hand over my heart. For good measure, he presses it into my chest so it is firmly in place. Next, he takes my right hand and pulls it forward onto the hip of the coppery rabbit, and he leaves me there. I look at him hoping he will instruct me further, but he is talking to someone new. I look at the person standing before the dog and she is praying with her eyes closed, so I copy her, feeling foolish and false. I have never prayed before, at least not sincerely. I am only religious when I need to be; when I am in trouble, sick, or particularly worried, I put my hands together and say amen, but never have I prayed when I don't need anything. So this experience is very new for me, and slightly embarrassing, but it feels good to take the focus of myself and wish for the well-being of others who may not be so lucky, whose happiness will never be as tangible as my own.

Shortly after, my social barometer peaks and I feel the eyes of other judges burning the back of my head. Though it may be customary to pray in many countries, I, as an American, associate the practice more with religion than social custom; I thusly assume that my audience expects the same of me, thinking I am trying to assimilate by copying the people around me. The truth is, I do not mind being seen as a tourist as long as I am also seen as receptive and respectful, and I would never expect my mimicking of others to grant me full access to the secrets of Malaysian, or Thai, Buddhism. Maybe it is okay to just wish happiness upon everyone, regardless of race or faith. But the social pull is strong and draws my hand away anyway.

I then proceed to the head of the Buddha, the proud father of the caricatured figures outside—his face beams with plastic radiance, eyes lazy but still emitting the same glare, and he wears a subtle smirk like the sly adult jokes in Disney movies, missed by children but worth another look by their parents saying, "something's strange here…" Which of the three Buddha bodies is this? I determine that there must be a fourth, the kind for tourists, unconcerned with the other three—the real, the celestial, the body of teachings—and more focused on kitschy attractiveness.

We have almost completed the circle when a large group of restless schoolchildren pile in; they are not as focused as the older visitors, but it is obvious that they are at least familiar with the customs, know where to stop, how to bow, and when to pray. I recall my own primary school childhood and can admit that I hardly knew what God was, who Jesus was, and I wonder if my life would be any fuller had I at least been let in on the big secret, seen the inside of a church or a synagogue even if I don't choose to practice. My most religious experiences revolve around Hanukkah and Christmas, and I only recently learned what those are for. Shameful.

After leaving the main temple, I head left to another structure built, consciously or not, to look like a merry-go-round, which does not surprise me. But it is just a statue surrounded by plants, still matching the colors and design of a carousel without the music and movement. To the left is a small, odd plot of farmland ruled by chickens and hens, suitable for an animal-friendly Buddhist establishment, and they welcome us into the next section consisting of two buildings, a jagged U with a smaller building in the center, devoted to housing more urns. These buildings, separated from the main attraction, are without showy embellishment and seem more conducive to paying homage without distractions. I am blown away by how many cases there are, how many dead people must be in that one building alone, and I am intrigued.

Here, I see the attention allotted to family union, but I cannot find Buddhism, in practice or in spirit, anywhere.

The next stop is the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, stemming from a country right next door to Thailand, but without much else in common. It houses murals similar to those found in the Thai temple, but these are much more plentiful and specific, smaller, framed paintings which guide visitors through the major events of Buddha's life—a precocious baby, Asita's prophecy, enlightenment under the bodhi tree, etc. I am unconsciously led to a well-like fountain composed of natural materials, which is both refreshing and charming. Beyond the water is a large open room, organically lit, with classic furnishing that contributes to the mood of the whole room instead of demanding too much individual attention. The only figure that stands out is the Buddha, gold and gigantic, but still, monochromatic, and simple enough to let the eye choose if it will look or not.

Around to the back wall is a series of international Buddhas representing other Buddhist countries, China, Japan and Thailand among others. They are black and simple, almost like a curtain over the white background which, I have just now noticed, is composed of countless white Buddhas, small and aligned to fill up every wall in the room. Amazing how this temple basically follows the same formula as its Thai counterpart, taking contributions from paying visitors, but displays the donations in such a classy way. And the austerity of this place is probably what allows for practice to actually occur, as I spot a monk, robed in orange, shaking a water-dipped, long-stemmed flower over a genuflector's head in blessing. I want to approach the two and ask what exactly is happening, but feel as if I may be disturbing something important.

As we leave, I see the flashy plastic idols guarding their theme park across Burma Lane. I look back at the man being blessed, his gaze transfixed in veneration and prayer, and I am thankful to be witnessing something genuine, or at least less fake than the show across the street. Though it is probably ignorant to think that tourism can be shaken from one building to the next, or to think I know what I am looking for when I ask to see real Buddhism, I like to think that the Burmese temple knows or has at least held on to a more sincere notion of Buddhist beliefs and practice, as I saw in the eyes of the blessed man that Buddhism, in some form, is still alive for some people.

After these temple visits, our taxi van driver carted us to the Khoo Kongsi Clan Hall, which was exciting for all of us seeing as how our professor had shown us pictures of it in class, introducing it as some great historical monument, a treasure. Ultimately, I have to admit that after seeing so many temples within such a short time span, they all begin to look the same. One can only get so excited by the fifth and sixth shiny, red, pagoda-roofed edifice. But I will say this: if this clan hall were my clan hall, I would be damn excited. And so, for the purpose of class, I was forced to elaborate a bit in the essay, pretend that I actually had an impassioned opinion, and because the only opinion I had was based around my wanting the place for myself, I basically projected this attitude upon the Khoo family. Not one of my most shining pieces, but an essay on boredom surely would have been worse.

The forefathers of the Khoo family deserve to be honored for their attention to kinship, though they seem to have already taken the liberty of rewarding themselves with a sumptuous clan hall in Penang, Malaysia. It is impossible to ignore the more recent demotion of family values which have been greatly sacrificed for the rising individual—though I will admit, I haven’t been around quite long enough to prove these judgments and am basing my knowledge on what I have been told every time an elder begins: "when I was young…"—but the Khoo Kongsi Clan Hall, standing majestically amid rows of humbled wooden houses, concretizes that aforementioned intimacy in such a way that societal shifts cannot shake its foundation.

As we approach, passing hordes of men riding solo on their motorbikes, or single women strolling along sidewalks in the rain, the gold trimmings along the curves of the clan hall's roof flame up behind the woven wooden mass of houses and grow exponentially up and sideways like wildfire. The building itself remains hidden until we round a narrow corner, and then it emerges all at once: its broad base; heavy plinths for sturdy pillars holding a looming, dramatic marquee; and a brilliant façade adorned with wall carvings and lanterns and gold. Unquestionably a building for which anyone—even Hearst—would trade his own house. Its stability intimates the sort of security one seeks within his own family and seems to suggest, "family is still here; we, at least, will never be alone like those drifters outside."

I will give the Khoo family further credit for its creativity, as most temples I have seen basically mimic the décor of the outside, slightly inverted to suit the inside of a building. But this zealous clan hall adopted entirely new furnishing for its interior: striking metal bird sculptures; intricate sketches of men riding lions, dragons, elephants; and full color scene paintings on every joist, beam and rafter. This family must have been very proud, and even somewhat self-righteous, to build such an imposing edifice for itself; but again, I say that family pride is greatly overlooked, and despite the vanity inherent in the clan house, it is nice to see a bloodline so rich and hearty that a family devoted so much time to constructing this lasting monument.

According to Wikipedia—shamefully, my only resource—a new Khoo clan temple was constructed in 1844, but was so grandiose, (or so it is believed), that it burned to the ground after being struck by lightning fifty years later. Though it may be a foolish mistake to liken this belief to African religion, I cannot help but be reminded of the strategy behind naming a child so as to not draw the gods' attention to it; Chinese believed that the new clan temple's resemblance to the Emperor's palace provoked the gods and ultimately led to its expeditious destruction, and so it seems that baseless ostentation is an inter-cultural taboo. The ambition behind this project is obvious, as even after that temple was cremated, so to speak, the Khoo family persisted in building a new clan hall, as if the family will perpetually thrive as long as a building still stands in its name.

As a person in the world, I can vouch for the importance of "home," an unyielding domicile that houses people, or collective ideas, or memories. It is a sanctuary, be it a frequently visited church, bar, or a private home, and with the destruction of such an adored shelter comes the subsequent destruction of all it contains—physical, mental or imaginary. And knowing that the Khoo family emigrated from South China—again, to steal from Wikipedia—makes the clan hall all the more powerful in its potential to unify, and even though the building is somewhat extravagant, it is easy to envision the family settling into Malaysia more comfortably with this Chinese style refuge to return to.

As a tourist, I can still appreciate the hall for its pride-suffused ornamentation, far surpassing any private house—save for palaces, which I am not including in this contest—I have ever seen. The Khoos nobly commemorated family precedence in building the clan hall but didn't stop there; it then embalmed it with gold.

Were it not for the too dim lighting inside (probably used to preserve the art) and the distant location, I would surely have chosen this building as my personal palace. As if I will ever have my own palace.

That evening—if memory serves me correctly—I retired to bed early in preparation for a flight the next morning to Kuala Lumpur, a city boasted to have a night life akin to the most happening cities in the world—Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, etc. This plan was devised only shortly before arriving in Malaysia, after my friends and I realized how cheap the flights were, and after two of us agreed to take the risk of being secret guests in an ultra chic and fancy five-star called the Swiss Garden Hotel.

After a very hectic and confused transfer from the boat to the airport, all of us (Kristin, Eilis, Kelsey and I) were accounted for and boarded the short flight to Kuala Lumpur. The taxi drive to our hotel was significantly longer than the flight, which I don't think should ever happen, but we played a number of childish and wildly entertaining word and I Spy games to the driver's annoyance until we reached our very impressive fountain-fronted hotel. The first KL meal greatly outshone the first Malaysian meal, this one involving soy meat (my most relished of foods), though it will never taste as good as it did prior to Kristin's announcing that it tasted like throw-up. She never lets me be happy.

Our dear Benson's birthday happened to be that day, so we headed to a bar he recommended we "hit up," Luna, which turned out to be worth the short trip there. It was located on the top level of a skyscraper (though I cannot recall the exact number of flights) which offered a panoramic view of the dazzling city below, and all with open windows and an open roof that seemed to thrust you into the sky. And who could forget the pool at the center of it all, lit up by the moon above and the flaming cocktails on the bar to the side.

We ended our evening there and returned home at a reasonable hour—don't worry, Mom and Dad!—only after a brief stop at KFC, the motherland, which has been surprisingly but dependably locatable in every country we've visited. So we had a few chicken nuggets then went back to the hotel where I promptly fell asleep while everyone else took advantage of the free internet, sacrificing sleep for the holy facebook.

Day three was reserved for China Town and delicious food. A perfect day. I found what I had thought to be a hopeless Halloween costume, which, to my surprise, turned out to receive a hefty number of comments at the masquerade ball on the ship, (though it could hardly have been called a ball; it was more of a deflated balloon). And I could go so far as to say that this was my best food day, consisting of a very peanut-y tofu salad for lunch and sashimi for dinner. The perk of hitting only the most coastal cities of every country is that the fish is always reliable. Note: that is in port only, never on the ship. The fish on the ship is deadly.

It was also on this day, this very historic day, that Kristin made the embarrassing purchase of Gossip Girl, Season One. Now those of you who know me at all know I would never stoop so low as to watch trashy high school dramas (i.e.: The OC, Laguna Beach, The Hills, etc.) In fact, I would generally prefer to spend the hours required to watch one season of any such show verbally expressing how much I detest them. But Kristin, that persuasive girl, managed to get me hooked, and we zipped through the whole season in twenty hours or so. And I even found myself fawning over one of the lead characters (Dan, for any fellow fans out there), something I always hear other dumb girls gossiping about, which is most despicable.

Kristin, if you're reading this, I apologize for ridiculing you for your poor taste in television shows. It may still be true that the shows you watch are entirely devoid of substance, but I am now no better than you.

Back to the substance of this thing. Night three, everyone save for me went out and had a lovely time while I went to bed, but not before wasting away on the internet for a couple hours first. It was glorious. This would be my last night in Kuala Lumpur.

The last day in Malaysia, back in Penang, Kelsey and I went on a very romantic date to the Botanic Gardens. It was one of my most carefree, mirthful days, spent eating tropical fruit and soya milk out of coconuts and capering about the jungle with exotic monkeys and Malaysians who treated us like celebrities. I hadn't experienced such fame in my whole life—strangers encroaching from afar, hiking out of their way to come hug and take pictures with us. It was bizarre, and I don't think I liked it. After leaving the gardens, Kelsey and I went on an expedition for lunch food, which apparently was a mistake as it was a Sunday and nothing is open on Sundays. That is, except for Little India, but no one should ever go there after having come from India. I warn you, you will be disappointed.

The final hours in Malaysia were shamefully devoted to that which I have already touched upon, four paragraphs above. I needn't bring it up again.

So, in conclusion, there wasn't much to be done in Malaysia. The food was delectable, but could have be found elsewhere after a bit of searching. In fact, when trying to recall the ports I needed to revisit in this blog, I completely forgot about Malaysia until I realized a void in my mental itinerary. It's may be that I didn't see the right things, but judging from my own experiences, the country made a very little impact on my memory outside of the sweet hotel (to be outdone in Beijing) and the exotic fruit (which was easily trumped by Japanese Fuji apples). Sorry, Malaysia.

So that brings us to Viet Nam. I have no previously composed essays on the place so it may take me a while longer to weave my yarn. Please be patient.

Finally Coming Up for Air

To begin with a very obvious statement: I have not updated since India, which is now very far behind in mind and proximity. For that, I apologize. However, I did predict this tardiness happening even before I was trampled by the rapid acceleration of time in the brief stops in several other countries, and even briefer stops back on the boat between these destinations during which hours were lost every night. Even I am surprised by how long it has taken me to find a free moment to write again. I must also confess that the earlier blogs were written at the expense school work, which was more or less neglected so I could continue to entertain you all out there in world wide web land. But something had to be done, as my time here is quickly vanishing and the list of work to be done is swelling. To your relief, I have very little work left to do now, which means more time devoted to you, dear readers, all of those outside of the hours spent sleeping (an unhealthy number) and eating (often sacrificed for more sleeping hours).

So where are we now. Today is Friday, November 21st. I have doubled my list of visited countries since I last spoke with you, and in half the time. That should give you a good idea of how the momentum has surged. Until now, I have had very little time to sleep—five days to try seeing everything there is to see in Malaysia, two days to catch up on work on the ship while battling unruly bowels, five days in Viet Nam for six-am wake up calls and twenty temple visits, then two days on the ship to relearn how to sit and type papers on a computer, five days in port dragging my sick, fatigued body around four Chinese airports and up and down the Great Wall, two days on the ship trying to recover from China's noxious air condition and a great loss incurred by everyone, five family-filled days in Japan to show everyone everything I used to love in every city I'd ever visited, all while translating in a language I hadn't spoken in months, which brings me here, to November 21st, the first time I have sat in bed with nothing to do, or at least nothing to be done immediately.

It may take me a while to provide you with sufficient entries of all five countries, but I will work as fast as I can, and as with the last India entry, I will probably be pulling some content from papers written from school. Yes, I have more time now, but I still think it unrealistic to carry myself back to where I left off. It's much too much.

So I will begin with Malaysia in the next entry, separating each country thereafter to give this blog a little structure—just to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed with everything at once.