27 January 2006

Snapshots of Vientiane

Was working too hard in Vientiane to look around or write this time :( Which was a shame because the weather was delightful (in the high teens and low twenties). It would have been nice to sip tea at a charming outdoor cafe and write...

Ms T: Yes, there are plenty of monks in Vientiane!

17 January 2006

The ring man of Jinah

ISLAMABAD - The young man had interesting jewellery on display. He spoke very little English and lapsed into Urdu at times, but we communicated with the help of gestures. I spotted an interesting ring and asked him for a price, and he kept saying, "Gift, gift". I thought he meant "Give, give" - as in "give a price" - but since I didn't know how to, I left it at that and continued looking at his jewellery.

When I saw another interesting ring, I asked for the price again. Again, the reply was "Gift, gift". I still assumed it was "Give, give", so this time, I decided to try my luck and plucked a number from the sky.

"One hundred."

Again, "Gift, gift."

I looked quizically at him and left it at that again. Meanwhile we chatted. I told him that I was from Singapore, was here for work, staying in hotel and leaving tomorrow. He told me his name was Izebel (sp?). He wanted to ask for my number and address, mentioning something about being friends. I smiled the most sincere I could manage, but shook my head. How do I convey that I am going away tomorrow, possibly never coming back, and just want this to remain a warm encounter between two human beings?

I was now prepared to buy one of the rings and asked once more for a price. I thought he would finally quote a price now that he didn't get my number. But he continued repeating, "Gift, gift." I insisted on paying.

Then he said firmly,

"No, not about pay. Friend."

At this point, to have continued insisting would be insulting to him and his kind gesture to a fellow human being. So I thanked him, many times over, and smiling the most grateful smile I could. He smiled back in return. I don't know if it was with disappointment, but if it was, I tried not to see it.

At this point, another customer came by and took his attention. With the ring on my right index finger, I said one last time of "thank you" and walked slowly away, bewilderedly touched by this act of kindness in a land as foreign as Islamabad.

Postscript: We had some time to go back to Jinah Supermarket on the last day. I had been feeling bad about taking a ring from someone who was probably trying to make ends meet, so I decided to buy something from Izebel. I picked out a pair of earrings and tried to pay him a customary Rp 100. At first, he refused and stuffed the money together with the earrings back into the paper bag, but I insisted. At long last he relented.

Impressions of Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - Being in Pakistan during this period of post-CIA-air-strike tension has been quite surreal. On the one hand, we are in this extravagant hotel with plush beds, clothes press machine (!) and complimentary mini-bar in our rooms, but on the other, scenes of protests and devastation loop on the 42" plasma TV and travel advisory alerts scream from my LAN-connected inbox:

"1. Travel to Pakistan should be for essential business reasons only."
-> Hmm... National interests at stake here, so I guess it must be "essential" enough.

"2. International SOS Members traveling to or currently in Pakistan at this time of heightened anti-US sentiment are advised to avoid American diplomatic missions and those of its allies, as well as US-brand commercial establishments. Minimize time spent in lobbies of buildings of multinational corporations or hotels. "
-> Okay, I agree. No McDonald's dinners for me while here, especially given that there was an attack on a McDonald's in Karachi a few months ago. But we are staying in Marriot and our meetings are held here all day long, so there is no chance of minimizing at all on the hotel front. On a sidenote, I must say that McDonald's does not seem to have a foothold here (thankfully). So far, I have only seen KFC and Pizza Hut and I am glad to announce that I have not had to resort to either yet.

On this last night of my stay in Islamabad, I can safely say that Pakistan in words or pictures have seemed much more dangerous, or exciting if you prefer, than my reality here. Of course, my reality is also a deceptively biased one. I shop at the biggest of the market areas, but not the market for the typical man on the streets. I see the clean lines of modern Islamic buildings (King Faisal Mosque below) but not the ghettos of the countryside.
Faisal backdrop Faisal afar Faisal close-up

That said, Islamabad is a well-planned and elegant city. Even with jet-lagged eyes and the darkness of night, I already like what I saw in my first hour while being whisked from the airport to the hotel. What is more impressive is that so far, I have seen no slums or beggars. Pakistanis are also quite mild by nature - they are not the pestering or aggressive sort - so it is quite a pleasant experience when bargaining. (I actually derive zero utility from bargaining, so I do it more as a formality to satisfy my Singaporean self.)

men wave woman waves
My biggest grouse is that the free-wandering soul in me is still not used to having to look for a male to accompany us when going out in the evening. (Post-script: Ms L, Ms O and I did progress to heading out as a trio on our last day - fun!) I usually poof at such advice, but here, I actually feel the need. 95% of the people out on the streets are men and some areas have no street lamps. The few women out are by far accompanied women. (This social norm is perhaps why the immigration counter at the airport has a special lane for 'Unaccompanied Women and Children'? We tried asking two of our Pakistani colleagues to confirm this but didn't get a proper reply.)

The other thing I have been left perplexed was the fact that at the Taxila museum, the staff approached us for pens. How unusual - pens! Unfortunately, I didn't have any spare ones with me then. Ms O mentioned that children approached her for the same thing too in Syria. We checked the prices of pens later on when we passed by a bookstore; they were not expensive. Did they want them as souvenirs or something? I am still perplexed, but will make a mental note to bring along pens along next time.
Food-wise, Pakistan has rather late dinners (9 pm) and its cuisine is quite meat-based. But we must give them the credit - they do their meats very well. Very tenderly roasted, and when coupled the indulgently fragrant US$1 briyani... Simply sedap!

Other memorable tidbits about Pakistan:
  • Vehicles have different honks from one another. And instead of rude monotonal beeps, Pakistani honks are usually short quick melodies, making it quite fun to listen out for them. Imagine - a symphony of honks in a traffic jam :) (But Islamabad is so sparsely populated for its land area that there is really no serious traffic jam.)
  • The knowledgeable bookshop attendants would recommend you books on their own initiative. What a delight! I was particularly impressed because the shop we were at looked like a nondescript neighbourhood bookstore from the outside. Upon their recommendation, I bought my first book of Urdu poetry. (Is Singapore going on the GEMS campaign? Bookstores should really take a leaf out of the Pakistan book.)
  • The very thorough body search at the airport is done by hand. I must confess that at the end of it, I felt like telling them, "Must pay money one leh...". But I will also say that poor the males in our team had a tougher time dealing with being frisked so thoroughly ;)
  • They use textbooks from Singapore. We saw them in a bookshop and my counterpart also attested to this.
  • Pakistan has very close ties with China. I thought this was anecdotal until I saw a Zhou Enlai Avenue... Alright, I get the point.
  • "Okay-maybe". I am still trying to understand what this phrase means. Is that a yes or a no...?
My impression of Islamabad would have remained rather dreary (mainly due to the weather) if not for the car ride in the beautiful weather of the last day which really set things right. The Himalayas in the horizon, the Margallah national park just minutes away, the silent yet impressive architecture of the Supreme Court and Parliament...

It has been a good initiation into South Asia.

14 January 2006

Of Greek gods alongside Asian Buddhas

TAXILA - A very interesting day at the ancient city of Taxila despite the slightly chilly weather. We visited 3 archaelogical sites - Dharmarajika (stupa / monastic buildings), Sirkap (city) and Jaulian (university-monastery).

I had no time at all to read up on Islamabad before this trip, so I didn't know that there was a World Heritage site - Taxila - right at the doorstep of the capital city until my colleagues told me. At the crossroads of three great trade routes linking the West with India and China, Taxila predated even Borobodur and had an illustrious history of being ruled by Persia, Alexander the Great, King Asoka, the Bactrian Greeks, before it was eventually destroyed by the Huns.

The Taxila museum contained an excellent collection of exacuvated archaelogical remains - beautiful Buddha statues, burnt birch bark manuscripts in Sanskrit, and artifacts like ladles, candle holders, toys etc. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the museum. I was really intrigued by the fact that European-looking Buddha statues were being found alongside with Greek gods such as Aphrodite. And when I saw the stupas, I was awed:

Holding up the Buddhist stupas at the bottom are... Atlases. What extraordinary intersection of cultures indeed!

10 January 2006

Hari Raya scrabble

How about a pat on the back for my first scrabble game in possibly 10 years, and against a hardcore Scrabble opponent at that? :)

One-Man Campaigns

Since coming back to Singapore some 30 months ago, I have been embarking on a few one-man campaigns. My generally libertarian stance means that I don’t go around persuading people to join my campaigns, so my one-man campaigns has remained just that – one man. But perhaps with the power of blogging and the internet, I may be able to swing you over as well.

My oldest campaign is the I-Don’t-Need-a-Bag campaign. Now, those who know me will know that my mum is the queen of plastic / paper bags. From supermarket to mooncake to shopping mall bags, we have it all at home. Did you say you need different sizes as well? We have each design in XS, S, M, ML, L, XL, XXL. Please take your pick. And oh, please don’t tell my mum or else she will make it her personal crusade to replenish those you took…

As you may expect, growing up in a small apartment amidst this vicious cycle and pile of bags has given me a phobia of them. Coupled with the knowledge that many of these will take decades to decompose in the landfills and/or emit toxic fumes when incinerated, I began my I-Don’t-Need-a-Bag campaign while I was in Madison. It was in Madison that I first saw people take the trouble to bring their own cloth grocery bags to supermarkets. I never quite got to that stage since my shopping are often spur-of-the-moment affairs, but it did make me start a personal campaign to tell cashiers whenever possible, “I don’t need a bag.”

I was heartened to see that NTUC has recently started a similar campaign as mine, but it appeared that the corporate message has not quite filtered down to the ground level - plastic bags are still liberally given out. I guess there is little incentive for the cashiers here to do otherwise, in a culture that still considers plastic bags an entitlement the supermarket owes to shoppers.

To extend the impact of my campaign, I took a bigger step a couple of months ago. I decided to keep a nicely-folded plastic bag in my work handbag since I usually buy toiletries and odd-and-ends after work. For this purpose, I have found Watson’s bag to be a good size.

My next step in expanding this campaign would be to find a viable alternative to disposable take-out containers when I want to eat in during lunchtime. Tiffin carriers come up as the most natural answers, but there are issues such as portion size and cool factor. Akan datang on this point.

On to my second campaign – the Have-a-Good-Day campaign. Again, this has its roots in my US days where it was common to hear cashiers wish you this cheerfully when you are done with your purchase. In the hope of hearing it one day as the common greeting of Singaporean cashiers, I decided to take the initiative and proactively wish it to cashiers first.

The results of this campaign are quite interesting. Most are caught by surprise but manage to break into a smile and return a “Same to you”. A few don’t say anything (I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t know what to reply), and even fewer manage to say “Have a good day” or similar before I say it. The latest one I remember was at Tao’s Cuisine at Paradiz Centre. Big kudos for that. I also have the impression that Robinson cashiers also have a greater knack of saying / responding to this greeting…

Finally, the third campaign - this one is not as feel-good as the other two and is going to be controversial. It is the I-Refuse-to-Support-Stunt-Based-Charity-Shows campaign.

I support charity work in my own small ways and I have absolutely nothing against fund-raising per se. But I do have opinions about how fund-raising should be done and I feel strongly that (1) making people risk life and limb and (2) using that to emotional blackmail the audience, is not the right way.

I know, supporters of such shows would say that no one can “make” anyone do anything, whether to risk life and limb or to donate. But we know that is not the case in reality. Peer / social pressure and externally imposed guilt trips are very much at play. Cf Foong Woei Wan’s article in ST Life today.

But my biggest problem with stunt-based charity shows is that it is a downward spiral. It is a method that encourages man’s weakness for the sensational, and worse, blatantly milks it, leading to ever wilder stunts in future charity shows.

The other ST reporter says that since man loves drama, loves the sensational anyway (his example was to why people slow down to look at car accidents), we should accept this as a fact of life, milk it and live with it.

Sure, man is prone to gawking. But does it mean that as a society, we should encourage it and cash in on it, especially when we know that it is a human weakness? Should we really be appealing to the dark undersides of human nature? Why not have Jerry Springer charity shows then?

I am all for creative methods of fund-raising. But sometimes, the means cannot justify its end, however noble the end is. If flag days, educating and more subtle means of fund-raising cannot raise enough funds (whatever enough means), then we just have to accept that this is the charitable limit of our society currently. To forcibly feed fodder to the unfortunate sensationalist side of society is not acceptable.

09 January 2006

Heart of Hardness

At last, some time to myself on this rainy day of leave for an overdue entry on King Kong and Conrad.

Before I watched King Kong, I had been told to bring Kleenex, and sunglasses too if I weren't watching the movie at night. Apparently, even big men sitting beside Ms T were sniffling away.

So when I did not cry at the movie, I was a little disturbed. Yes, my lachrymal gland worked some during the show, but those tears that welled up eventually did not fall. My frowning brow muscles were working much harder than my lachrymal gland. Is that a sign of cold-bloodedness? (The word that Ms T had incredulously blurted when I first told her Ms Y did not cry at the movie.)
»
I want to say it is stoicity instead. You know how when something whams you so hard and leaves a crater so deep that no more signal can be sent to the lachrymal gland? Stocity is the day-to-day version of this. Doesn't mean you don't feel anything, but some things in life have to be borne.

In this case, the truth is that King Kong was not a crying movie for me. I liked it (save for the Jurassic Park deja vu and utterly GROTESQUE scenes of giant cockroaches and slugs!), but the movie evoked in me much more frustration and despair, compared to sadness.

Many thoughts and ideas came up when watching it. Some were less frown-inducing. E.g. Is Ms Blond suffering from Stockholm syndrome? 人与兽之间的恋情是否终究注定失败的?(以此类推:难道就真的竹门对竹门,木门对木门不成?)But most of them brought about despair. What on earth have we done to this world - especially nature and natives? Why are we so fascinated with extermination rather than merciful co-existence? Why the determination to transplant a being that clearly does not belong to New York City? Just how much damage will we do for the sake of fame and wealth?

One of the most direct consequences of watching King Kong was that it got me to finally read Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I knew its anthropological significance and it has been on my KIV list for more than 5 years, but funnily enough, it took an ape movie to get me reading.

It was a much thinner book than I expected, which was a saving grace given this past crazy week at work. It was also expectedly politically incorrect, with references to improved specimens, white men appearing to natives like God... in short, the white man's burden.

Even so, there are admissions that perhaps the white men were not so different from those that they attempted to bring light to after all:

...They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others... The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

...We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

I also liked the discussion of death towards the end:

...I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be... Perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.

The book is strangely introspective and inclusive, so much so that you are willing to forgive it for its politically incorrectness. Reading it reminded me of the solitude that one feels when travelling alone. I didn't think that was possible in a crowded commuter train.

05 January 2006

First photos of 2006 - darn, in the office

Okay, 2006 is crazily ramping up at work without my consent...

Here I am, trying to smile at 10 pm in the office -

But in fact I am feeling like this :'(