Sunday, April 6, 2014

3-13 The Multitude of Museums in Malacca

Red Roofs of Singapore
We left Singapore on a bus on January 8th. We had to jump out at the border and go through border control then get back in, which was amusing. There were only 3 of us on the bus, so it took about 45 seconds despite our extremely impatient driver's laments of it being very slow.

Malacca has an amazing amount of museums. There is a district that seems to be primarily devoted to stuffing medium sized buildings full of relics, models and large blocks of text. Some of the museums are grouped into sets, where you can pay a single admission for all of them. This is how we ended up in the Literature Museum, the Democracy Museum and the Military Museum all within 3 hours. There were two more in the set, but they were closed for renovations.
Museum of Literature!  Books and authors and things!
I really like that Malacca has a museum devoted to literature. Generally speaking, people assume that libraries are enough, but as the Museum showed, there is a lot more. They highlighted people who have made important contribution to Malaysian literature through writing or through maintaining traditional storytelling techniques. They gave short histories on different styles of Malaysian literature and what they were based on. And they showcased books. Honestly, I was a little lost. I don't know Malaysian history or literature enough to know how all the pieces fit into the greater whole. I can learn all about the specifics of the first woman to be published, but only makes a little bit of sense because I don't know the history and context of women's rights in Malaysia. Still, it was cool to see a museum devoted to books.

The military museum was less interesting. Jason and I can't agree as to weather it was military or military leaders. It had models of rooms in a mansion, lots of clothes and photos of important people and a table set for a formal meal. Again, I'm sure it would have been more interesting if I'd had context for any of it.

The old fort, partially restored with
red tile instead of red stone.
The third museum was the most modern. The Democracy Museum had a mission statement that was something along the lines of, “Teach young people about the history and importance of democracy in Malaysia.” They seemed to be doing a good job, since we watched about 2 dozen people between the ages of 18-30 wander in and out while we were there. The museum itself ran a nice line between giving some of the context for the foreign visitors and not re-telling Malaysian history to the Malaysian visitors.

The Deomcracy Museum had a display of royal formal clothes over the course of a hundred years or so. At the beginning, the clothes are what I would expect; men's wrapped skirts and jackets held at the waist with a wide fabric belt. The belt was decorative, practical and held a kris, or Hindu sword. (My favorite kind of clothing are the kinds that contain swords.) As the years progressed, the style of clothing started to change. By the end of the display, the jacket was cut like a British miliary jacket, the skirt had been traded for pants and the kris had been traded out for a saber (good) or removed entirely (lame). This made me think about culture appropriation and how culture morph and change. There is a forthcoming post exclusively on this topic.

Crow's Nest on the Maritime Museum
We left the 5 museum zone and went to look for food. Instead, we found the Maritime Museum. It was a giant ship. Awesome. We got to climb around the different parts, including going into the sleeping quarters, captains cabin and the holds below decks. Each area had a small exhibit and a note about what part of the ship it was. While we were there, there were several students drawing, measuring and using auto-CAD to create diagrams of the building. I wanted to ask what they were studying, but the language barrier made it too intimidating to even try. Instead, I took pictures of them. (I did managed to ask permission for that.)

I do love museums. They are vastly informative places. Going to 4 museums in one day was a bit overwhelming. I'm not sure how much information I actually managed to retain. Enough to know I need to learn more history, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

3-13 Media Storms and Tragedy

At this point, no one seems to have a clue about what has happened to Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

We genuinely don't know. This is uncomfortable. In our current era of instant communication, we've gotten used to being able to know anything. Even if we don't have facts memorized we know how to find those facts and how to double check the facts to make sure we have them right. (Granted, this could be done a wee bit more often, but still, we know how it works.) We might not know how to lay a row of bricks or juggle four balls but we can YouTube it and find a helpful video with all the basics. We can look up weather forecasts, stock predictions, and election results around the globe.


So the idea of not knowing what happened to an entire plane? That's bizarre. Our phones have GPS, our cars come with GPS units, and we use mapping software to get the grocery store. We have made a hobby of using satellites to guide ourselves from our front door to a specific oak tree. We can get directions from Minneapolis to London (it involves swimming). But somehow, all of our radar, satellites and GPS are failing us. We don't know where the plane is, or even where it was last spotted.


It is our human nature to tell stories. We've told ourselves stories about how the world was made, why that man cheated on his wife, where our clothes come from and what motivates the chicken to cross the road. We are good at creating stories. We just aren't good at creating true stories. As the information available from MH370 becomes less interesting, we've started creating stories.


The facts are unclear, and the situations is shaky. Instead of saying simply, “We don't know,” we are choosing to speculate. The speculations don't help. They give false hope to the families and further muddy the already muddy waters about what happened. They make a chaotic, difficult situation into something that looks like intentional misdirection.


Much of the news coming out to the public seems to be meant to hit a deadline, not relay reliable, factual information. Often, when the facts aren't interesting enough, they get jazzed up with crying family members, ringing cell phones and stories about unstable co-pilots or other nefarious plots. This constant news stream has created the need for a team of professionals to monitor the currents of politics instead of the currents in the ocean. There are people devoted to quelling the fires started by public speculation. Imagine if they could spend their hours working on finding the lost plane instead.


This is a tragedy for families who are now missing a mother, a brother, an aunt, a son. The people left behind are grieving, angry and hopeful. They are in emotional turmoil of not knowing what happened and hoping against all odds that their loved ones survived. This is not a circus show, this is not entertainment. This is not to be sensationalized for the nightly news. This is a tragedy.


Let's stop making hourly updates and instead say honestly, “We don't know.” Let's use this as a learning experience in how to improve international cooperation efforts. Let's reflect on our expectations on the unknown. Let's take time to grieve with the families.

Friday, February 21, 2014

2-12 Singapore!

Things I noticed about Singapore:
  1. There is excellent public transport.
  2. Food is expensive unless you eat at Chinese takeaways or Little India
  3. Little India smells delicious. Like the whole area, starting as soon as the doors open on the train.
  4. The story of Singapore is very much like the story of the USA. Immigrants looking for a better life or opportunity but often finding a squalid existence for at least the first 10 years and land disputes with native peoples.
  5. It is a very clean city.
  6. I love not being hassled by hawkers.
Creepy hand print at the water and light show. 
This image is being projected onto sprayed water.
We arrived at the Singapore airport and caught the train into town. This alone was a bit of a shocker. There was a train that went from the airport to town in a simple, well-mapped fashion. Brilliant. Then we had to find our hostel.

The hostel was hidden and I kind of think the manager did it intentionally. We looked around for about 15 minutes from the street corner it was meant to be on. Then we called the reservations number. We asked where it was and said we'd like to drop off our bags. The manager babbled something and hung up. We waited on the street corner, thinking she'd said she'd come down. No such luck. Finally, we started opening random doors to see if the address was wrong. Through the second door and up a flight of stairs, we discovered the hostel. We knocked. No answer, we rang the doorbell, which did finally get an answer. The manager stuck her head out to say that check-in didn't start until 1 pm. She was shutting the door on us when we asked if we could leave our bags. She grudgingly allowed us in and pointed to a corner of the common room. We dropped off our bags and ran away. When we did go back to check in, she was much more civil but we still spent most of the 3 days we were there trying to avoid talking to her.
The immigrant stories struck a chord in this American

Singapore has an excellent Asian Cultures Museum. We were in it for close to 5 hours and only covered half the galleries. We didn't have the brain space left to keep looking at things after 5 hours. I learned a lot about Islam and Buddhism. My favorite section was the bit on calligraphy. It is fascinating to see different orthographies and think about all the different ways we could create words with squiggles on a page.

A photo of a photo.  I'm so meta.
My favorite museum in Singapore was the Chinatown Museum. It is relatively short, but very well put together. It shows how the Chinese immigrants came and made lives in Singapore. It had a very good demonstration of the cramped living quarters with the personal effects of several families. It also had quotes from people who lived during that time, which really humanized the whole thing. I would recommend it to anyone visiting Singapore.

We also took a trip to the night zoo. I love animals, so I enjoyed myself, even if the flying squirrel wouldn't jump off the tree while we were watching. They had nice exhibits with a good mix of animals all of which seemed well cared for. Watching the show gave me a sense of dislocation when they said, “This great animal comes all the way from North America.” Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore. (The animal was a Great White Wolf.) The otters were the best. They've been trained to recycle. The trainer set out a bunch of bins and scattered recyclable across the stage. Each otter chose a different material and threw it in the correct bin. It was very cute.

The owl was a show off.
The shocking thing about Singapore was the modernity. Coming from Vanuatu and Indonesia, it was unexpected. Not that I think Singapore shouldn't be developed, because I know it is, but rather that the contrast between these places was shocking. Sinagpore looked a lot like home, and I guess I wasn't expecting that. Going from streets crowded with food stalls, parked cars and motorbikes to wide open walking areas and clean, timely public transportation was pleasant. But going from smiles on the street with a nod or a greeting to head down and move along on your business was less so.

We left Singapore on a bus heading into Malaysia. It was a short visit, but that's all our budgets could afford.

Friday, February 14, 2014

2-12 Night Train to Jakarta

We figured a night train saves on hostel costs. We figured a night train means more time sightseeing. We figured a night train means sleeping instead of boredom. What could go wrong?

A very buff, weird frogman statue. 
Clearly we were thinking with all our brain cells.
Most of that plan, it turns out. We did save on the hotel costs, but we did not sleep or get to see the countryside. A lose-lose. After staying out late to watch the puppet show and then getting up early to see Borobudur, I was feeling the need for a good night's sleep. Instead, we were in seats with the flourescent lights and the Adventures of Tin Tin playing at full volume all night. Even when everyone in the car was asleep or trying to be asleep, there was no dimming the lights or lowering the volume.

I slept about 2 hours. Jason slept about 4. I read an entire book.

We arrived at the Jakarta train station at 5 am, well before we could even go drop our bags off at the hostel, much less check in for a nap. We went to Dunkin' Donuts, because it was there. (And we hadn't seen a Dunkin' Donuts in about 3 years.) I fell asleep in the corner. Jason messed around on his phone. At 6 am, we decided to see if the hostel would at least let us drop our bags off. To kill time, we walked there. It took another 45 minutes, carrying all our stuff.

We woke up the attendant who was very confused. We left our bags in a corner of the common room and went for another walk. Anything to stay awake. We ended up going to the National Museum of Indonesia, which under different circumstances probably would have been fascinating. They had an ethnography section that went through each of the major tribes/clans in Indonesia by showing some of their items from daily life like baskets and clothes as well as some of their ceremonial items like religious figures, jewelery and weaponry. We kept finding signs to read that were located in front of benches so we could sit still.

One of the monuments in the National Park
 took a wander through the kastom abodes section. I forget what it was called, if I managed to read the sign at all. At that point, text was getting awfully complicated to process. From there, we went into the textiles, though we gave up shortly afterward. Neither of us could read things longer than a sentence and the logical leaps such as “this sign goes to this display” were getting difficult.

It was only 10 am, which meant no check in for another 3 hours. We found a place to eat. It was overpriced with poor service. They didn't understand my order and failed to bring me food. It was just par for the course.

We went back to the hostel at 11:30 and sat in the lobby until they gave us a room. Luckily, they had internet so, we could keep ourselves awake on Facebook.

We left Jakarta at 5 am the next morning, heading for Singapore. Perhaps not the best “last moments” in Indonesia, but I'd still go back.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2-8 Temples Part 2: Prambanan

My continuing obsession with gargoyle-things
Prambanan is a Hindu temple built around 850 and abandoned beginning around 950. The temple complex was originally named Shiva-grha or Shiva-laya in homage to Shiva. It likely got the name Prambanan from the nearby village, though there are conflicting opinions on that. The temple was built by Rakai Pikaton of the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty probably to show that the court had changed from Buddhist to Hindu. Also, because there was a really big Buddhist temple nearby and that couldn't go unanswered. In the 930s, the royal court moved to East Java, probably due to volcanic activity. That was the beginning of the end for the temple, until its “re-discovery” in the early 1800s.

Though the local people have always known of the temple, it wasn't a mark on the world stage until Sir Thomas Raffles' involvement. One of his hired surveyors found the ruins and made a report, which caused more surveyors and more reports which led to some mass looting which led to some poor archeology which led to more looting. In 1918, reconstruction began in earnest and the main temple dedicated to Shiva was restored in 1953. The restoration of the temples has continued though possible restoration is slowing down. The temple and surrounding area have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are now in use for tourism, religious practice and cultural conservation. The archaeologists are only restoring temples that have more than 75% of their original stones available. Due to the heavy looting and re-purposing of the stones in the 1600s and 1700s, many of the stones are no longer available.
The statue in one of
the main temples. 

The original complex at 240 temples. The three big ones were dedicated to Shiva, Bramah and Vishnu with 3 slightly smaller temples dedicated to their mounts. An additional 10 small shrines are located on the 4 cardinal directions inside the wall. The majority of the temples (224) were placed in four concentric rings around the wall. Smart people like to debate why and what it represents. I won't go into that for fear of the smart people.

To show respect to the temple, everyone wears a wrap skirt, much like a sarong. Because most tourists don't have this on hand, they have bunches. As you walk through the ticket booth, they wrap a strip of fabric around your waist and tie it, mostly without speaking. If I hadn't known ahead of time about the respect thing, it would have been a bit abrupt and abrasive. As it was, I found it funny.

The approach to the temple is startling. Though you can see the temple in the distance, it sneaks up on you when you come out of the ticket booth. Its like you were far away and by crossing into the ticket booth, you teleport much closer.

The extremely detailed carving was gorgeous and very
well preserved
There are two main areas in Prambanan. The first is the area is enclosed in a fence and holds thousands of blocks. The blocks were once a part of different temples, but the temples have fallen or been dismantled. In many cases, the foundation of the temples is still standing, but there is no information about what it once looked like. Instead, the blocks are stacked in neat piles in hopes that there can be more reconstruction in the future if new information comes to light.

The second area is the main temple. A ten foot wall surrounds it, though the ground on the inside has been raised about six feet, making the whole thing tower even further above the surrounding countryside. The ground is packed, dusty dirt that kicks up puffs with every footfall. The temple itself is actually a collection of buildings, not one large complex. The three main buildings are dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma with smaller buildings dedicated to minor Hindu deities.

The wall marking the inner sanctum and the
piles of stones where once there were temples
Again, the carvings are spectacular. Unlike Prambanan, the carvings don't cover every surface, just almost every surface. The carvings here seem to be meant to help the visitor read the stories on the wall as they pass through the temple. They felt more accessible to the common man. Also, they had excellent gargoyles.

In both temples, drainage was worked into the fundamental architecture. I realize that the architectural knowledge involved in creating the temples is immense, but this touch really drove it home for me. People who planned for appropriate drainage and built their statues to elegantly control water flow are people who have truly mastered the forms they are working with.

These are beautiful creations that show the master works of hundreds of craftsman. They are to be revered for their historical and cultural significance. These places show the best of humanity, the best of what people can do when we work together and create.

By the end of the day, I was in temple overload. I stopped being able to appreciate all of that. All I wanted was a nap and a plate of food.

Prambanan, as it stands now


Friday, February 7, 2014

2-5 Temples Part 1: Borobudur

Borobudur Temple
I'm not what one might call a morning person. Because Current Me has no sympathy for what she inflicts Future Me, we signed up for a tour to watch the sunrise over Borobudur temple.

We got up at 4 am and got in a truck with one other person. I went back to sleep. Sometime around 5 am, the bus arrived in the hills above Borobudur temple. We got out and started winding up a mud-slick path in the dark. As the person behind me was dancing the Slip and Slide, I was grateful for my years of Pentecost bush walking. Part way up, it started drizzling.

The fog burned away slowly
At the top, we joined a few dozen other tourists, standing in the rain and waiting for the sun to rise. The other person in our truck had an umbrella, which he kindly shared. We had a tripod, which we shared. We ended up wandering the temple with him for the next 4 hours.

Though the sunrise was not spectacular, the walk was worth it for watching the mist dissipate from among the hills and valleys to reveal rice paddies, tendrils of smoke from breakfast fires and stands of bamboo. When the sun was up, we headed back down the trail to the truck. Our driver let us stop a few times as we approached the temple and the volcanoes.

At the temple, things got busier. Though we were early, there were other tourists who took a more direct route to the temple. We were by no means the first ones through the gate.
One of the volcanoes that covered the temple in ash
Borobudur is a Mahayana Buddhist Temple built around the 9th century and abandoned sometime around the 12th century. The original name of the place was probably not Borobudur, but it is unclear what the name might have been. Suggestions include Nagarakretagama and Bhumi Sambhara Bhudara. The name Borobudur seems to come from Sir Thomas Raffles mistranslation of the local town name.
Sleeping Buddha Mountain.  See the face?

The entire structure has 2,672 bas relief panels that tell stories from daily life, the Buddha's enlightenment and past life, and a bunch of other things. These panels are still being used to do research about specific aspects of life during this time. The nearby museum has a boat made from specifications on the bas relief. According to legend, the style of boat portrayed sailed from Java to Africa. There were over 500 Buddha statues when it was built but due to looting most of the remaining statues are incomplete. What is with stealing the Buddha's head? Its way less impressive without the body.

The proper way to approach a Buddhist temple is called perambulation where the person walks clockwise around the structure three time before entering. We started at the bottom and walked clockwise around the temple, level by level. There are 9 levels, 6 square and 3 circular. The whole thing makes a Buddhist mandala if viewed from the top. We'd done well over 3 perambulations by the time we got to the upper sanctuary.
These kinds of panels covered the temple

Each layer was wrapped in carvings and statues. The carvings depicted scenes from the Buddhist epic, meditating Buddhas and protective figures. Each carving was detailed down to the whorls of hair on a person's head or the texture of leaves on the tree. Though a lot of the detail had been worn away by time, the remnants were still spectacular. The scale of the place was as awe-inspiring as the detail. The bottom level is 123 meters to a side and the highest point is 35 meters above the ground. There is an additional bit under the ground, but I don't know how deep that goes.

So many Buddhas!  These ones even have heads!
The top of the temple was a round, open platform surrounded by stupas. Each stupa housed a Buddha statue facing outwards. From the top, we could see two volcanoes and the Sleeping Buddha Mountain. If the carvings hadn't dazzled me already, this would have done it.

It is amazing to me that this kind of massive structure can fall out of use, but that seems to be what happened. The history of the 11th-12th centuries in Java is bit unclear. In some instances, it looks like the Buddhist and Hindu kings were friendly, or at least that their disagreements were not about religion. In others, it seems like they clashed, or possibly clashed with the invading Muslims. Sometime around the end of the 10th century, the king living near Borobudur seems to have moved his capital to East Java. This is probably due to an increase in volcanic ash. From there, the stories of the place bega morphing from holiness to haunting. Several later stories of princes and kings tell of bad luck and illness following looting attempts or visiting Borobudur. While Sir Thomas Raffle was the governor of Java, he went on a tour and was told about the temple. Since then, Borobudur has been gaining accolades and recognition around the world.

We headed back down in time to jump in our bus and head on to Prambanan. We took a short detour to stop by another, much smaller, temple. Though we didn't go into the temple, we did have some fun wandering the monastery and taking pictures of the monks cleaning the grounds.

Watching the volcano

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2-4 The “Real” Deal

I'm tired of hearing people say a given city isn't the “real” insert-developing-nation-of-your-choice. Stop it. It isn't true.

If I said, “I only went to New York, but that's not the real America,” you would laugh at me, right? Because New York is America, its only a piece of it, but its American. If I said I visited the Great Plains, New Orleans, or Portland, you'd say the same thing. You might say, I had an incomplete view of the US, but you wouldn't say any of those places are not “America.” So, why do people insist on saying that Phenom Penh isn't the “real” Cambodia, or that Luang Prabang isn't the “real” Laos, or that Port Vila isn't the “real” Vanuatu?

I've heard this statement over and over, both in living and working in Vanuatu and while traveling. Most recently, I read an article about Luang Prabang (where we are at the moment). The writer said this isn't the “real” Laos, because it is full of tourists. Here, tourism is an up-and-coming industry. Luang Prabang and Vientiane are the latest cities to make the informal Places To Go list for SE Asia. Saying that this isn't the “real” Laos, is saying that all of the people who live and work here are not Lao, that their lifestyle is not Lao and that the industry they are working to grow and support is not Lao. Which is fundamentally untrue. They are Lao people, living in Laos, thus they are the “real” Laos. It is a city based on culture, religion and tourism. If I must put labels on it, I would argue that this is the “new” Laos, the Laos that the Lao people are working to build now.

I've noticed that when people refer to the “real” country, they mean the places where poverty is most apparent. They mean ripped clothes, manual labor and overcrowding. They mean cultural experiences that aren't Western. They mean the place that looks like a National Geographic magazine or a save the starving children ad.

In Vanuatu, people said the “real” Vanuatu is land diving, or kastom dance. They pointed to men wearing penis sheaths to work in the garden or women in grass skirts weaving mats as being “real.” And all of those are Vanuatu. They are a piece of the culture and that cultural history is something that Vanuatu is grappling with today. But Vanuatu is not just that. It is a nation where 50% of the population is under the age of 25 and where the generation in school is predicted to be educated for almost twice as many years as their parents. It is a nation discovering cell phones and 3G internet and using both to expand their tourism opportunities.

When someone says, “This is the real place,” it reflects more on their expectations of what they wanted to see. For myself, I am not interested in my own expectations. I can examine my own expectations in the privacy of my head. I am traveling to experience the country, to see the tourist sights and the workers in the fields. I want to see what was before and what it is becoming through the eyes of the people who live and work in the country. To me, the real Laos is as much the coconut madeleines I ate at the night market as the noodle soup I had for dinner.

Countries and cultures are not static, they are not simple things to be summed up in a few photos or a weekend experience. People are complex. People can both follow tradition and adapt to change. Countries are made up of people, and are every bit as complex as those people. The “real” country is what you see before you, not what you've made up in your mind that it should be.