Saturday, 29 September 2012
Votes & Views #27
The airport at Denpasar is pretty enormous. Certainly Cape Town International could be accommodated in it. As we spend a little quality time in immigration, I survey the passing parade. Beautiful humanity abounds – but so many of them! Within minutes another five planes have landed and the chaos intensifies as they disgorge their sweating cargo. The efficiency is not quite like Changi; everything is a little more laid-back.
Outside it’s cooler, but a heaving mass of vehicles and humanity greets the senses. Our hotel transport finally manages to fight his way through to us and after a while, extricates himself and us from the parking lot by sheer dogged bloody-mindedness, pushing himself into the streams of traffic. Might is right on Bali roads – but mind the mopeds – they could be carrying the whole family from baby to granny with everyone in between, all on one trip.
Streets are a warren, punctuated by building sites and evidence of civil engineering construction everywhere. Bali is on the move, and the first impressions are not exactly charming. The hotel is like hotels anywhere; rooms are passably clean, but musty. The aircon works, room service is slow and the food is a la the words of the immortal Crocodile Dundee – ‘tastes like s..t, but you can survive on it’.
Next morning reveals the charming architecture of the place though. Kampong-style would be about the best description. Double-storey, tiled buildings connected by leafy walkways, pillared verandas, ornate doorways, sculpted masonry at most extremities (totally surplus to requirements – utterly charming). The main dining hall - no, edifice, rather, is on the second floor of the reception block. Without exaggeration, it is spacious enough to accommodate a moderate herd of elephants. It brings to mind Robert Standish’s description of the planter’s huge mansion built of teak, in his book ‘Elephant Walk’. The roof trusses, which span some twenty metres of room, are massive timber baulks, held together with chains. A console without obvious purpose is crowned with scores of Javanese sika deer antlers. No table-top is thinner than ten centimeters of solid timber slab. In the reception area is an occasional table made of a single hunk of timber, over three metres long, thirty centimeters thick and a metre wide on a pedestal of equal thickness. The mind boggles at this largesse of timber everywhere.
After breakfast our Ricefield Villa driver, young Wayan, arrives and whisks us off towards Ubud. To our eyes, unschooled to Asian matters, city traffic is as chaotic and dangerous as it appeared last night. The rule seems to be that there is no rule – if you want to get into traffic, wait until someone appears that you can intimidate enough to push in front of. Be ruthless; do not give way unless someone has managed to stick a fender, or wheel in front of you, making your own progress impossible. Hoot often. There already seem to be too many people for this modestly sized island – judging by the number of motorbikes on the roads.
The city blends into towns. Shops, houses, factories, eateries jostle with living quarters. There is industry everywhere. Chunks of carved, monument-sized trees, slabs of timber, planks, spars, sculptures and even furniture made of cunningly sliced and sculpted rootstocks of jungle giants line the streets. A mind-boggling variety of furniture which testifies to the inventiveness of the human mind. One thing all local carpenters seem to have in common though, is their complete disregard to the proportions of the human anatomy. Their products are certainly not made to their slighter scale, but even our larger, European frames find especially seats fiendishly uncomfortable – statuesque though they may be. The ex-lumberman in me examines a set of four diningroom chairs, each carved out of a solid chunk of wood, in the form of a cupped, upturned hand perched on its wrist/pedestal. Four of these would need a cubic metre, or about a ton of hardwood as raw material. To while away the potholes I do a little mental arithmetic (which I have just checked on a calculator) and I come up with the astounding fact that even if one likes robust furniture, from that amount of timber, you can actually manufacture between forty and fifty chairs of the sort of design one sees in homes that we are familiar with.
A couple of hours later, our wild ride comes to an end in a back-street building yard, by the look of it. Not very inspiring. A crowd of women and children gather. Our host’s family, Kadek, Suarja’s sister, the wife, Nyoman, another unspecified female relative, confusingly named Wayan as well as our male driver, then Niva, a buxom lass of vague kinship and Kiki, the young daughter, who gives our Mia a warms welcome hug. We have arrived home.
Here I must explain that names in Bali get somewhat confusing. Each member is called by the number order in which they were born, Kadek, Wayan, Nyoman just mean something like first, second or third. Every family hierarchy has them. Most confusing to Euro minds. How they manage in classroom situations boggles the mind – presumably they have to take refuge in nicknames to distinguish between scholars, as you may very well have half a dozen or more all answering to the same numerical epithet.
Nyoman and Niva are our chauffeuses and as Fay and I are senior, infirm citizens, we get a ride to the villa; my relatives opt for a walk. Fay is an experienced biker, but I haven’t mounted an iron horse for almost fifty years. I view the slender Nyoman with skepticism and opt for the slightly heftier Niva to drive my not inconsiderable weight down into the unknown. Since we are barely acquainted, I hoist myself up behind her sturdy back, and clutch a thin metal grip-thing below the level of the seat, and we tear off down the path which dips and jinks between houses and a deep-set, but shallow canal on either side. I try hard to anticipate which way Novi will weave between pedestrians, chickens, potholes, builders pushing wheelbarrows and round right angle bends and T-junctions – but I wobble, so, in desperation I decide to risk being accused of indecent assault on a minor, and I clamp my knees firmly round her amplitude, while clinging on for dear life. Not as good as putting my arms round her waist and really snuggling up – but after all, we’re just getting acquainted. Later Kadek tells me it’s perfectly proper for complete male strangers to embrace nubile maidens while on the pillion seat of a bike. Ah well, later perhaps.
The path is perhaps a metre wide at best. There is oncoming traffic, pedestrian and motorized; farming activity and transport of produce, as well as building materials being carted or carried to a number of construction sites along the route. Choking clouds of smoke come from smouldering heaps of rice straw, and the odd duck, chicken, cat or dog joins the busy highway. In the midst of fields dotted with hovels of the workers, strange Italianate mansions or villas rise from behind high walls. Three minutes of sheer terror, then we are deposited at the Elysian Gates. Inside these imposing, carved gates, a deep narrow garden; a strangely harmonious blend of Balinese, Hindu, Buddhist and Japanese elements. Some bonsai look-alikes in pots are dotted around the grassed open space, strategically raised on low plinths ( which I later discover to be skylights of a whole underground series of storerooms and previously, the living-quarters for the family). A stepped watchtower to one side looks like a three-storey gazebo. The Buddha statue has a red hibiscus in its belly button. The house is hardly visible behind a huge jackfruit tree and other, diverse shrubbery.
It transpires later in conversation with our host, Suarja, that foreigners, though welcome, can’t own residential property in Bali. So they take a local partner, with whom they have a legal contract to permit them access to the property they purchase and develop, but it is a sort of lifetime-lease. The fixed property reverts to the Balinese partner once the alien has shuffled off – or it might even be stipulated that the contract ends after a number of years. So Suarja has a Japanese partner from Tokyo, who every year spends the odd weeks relaxing in these rustic surroundings after his hectic business life in the city. In between these times, Suarja rents out the villa and the services of his family to the likes of us, to pay for upkeep and also to earn a living.
The main dwelling may have a concrete core, but the impression is purely organic. Timber, bamboo and atap are the main elements – the glass is hardly noticeable – just the spaces between pillars and the rolled blinds at half-mast to keep the sun at bay. From the outside the roof looks like a haystack, from inside it’s a marvel of detailed, interlocking construction; an intricate landscape for roaming geckoes, who invertedly bark defiant challenges at each other as they scurry about in the evenings.
The sanitary department smacks of Japanese influence, cleanliness and sophistication. One needs to remember to drop the blinds before use – something that probably comes more naturally to a Tokyogi who is used to living in a glass cage three metres away from the neighbour in a similar, opposite apartment in the building next door. The toilet has triumphal, carved double doors – very chic, and a phenomenon we encountered a number of times during the next eight weeks.
The entire top storey is taken up by sleeping quarters and bathroom. Two large double beds in the huge room itself, an extensive porch out front, with similar sleeping arrangements outside, should one so wish, and another narrower veranda at the rear of the house, overlooking the pool and the ricefields surrounding the place. The view on all sides of the house at the lower level is confined to the formal, tropical beauty of the garden, the structures, swimming pool, koi ponds, statues and altars. From above, you have an uninterrupted view of the surrounding agricultural activity as the extended village gets on with their daily work. Paddy fields border on each other, occasionally interspersed with shanties where the farmers live during the harvesting season. The fields are demarcated by an intricate system of channels, through which the flow of water from the distant hills is directed by some, communally negotiated plan. Everyone has water for their fields; mostly enough for a harvest every hundred days – much needed for the ever-growing population.
We are surrounded by an agricultural settlement visible for 270 degrees around us, and though it may not sound very exciting, it is a delight to watch. Men armed with long-handled sickles, walk into a ripe patch of rice and almost casually, start slashing. The result is gathered in middens and when sufficient amounts have been accumulated between the fields, a few days of drying under the tropical sun seems enough and a little one-lunged threshing machine is dragged on site through the mud and the harvest is fed into it. A horde of women descend on the resulting heap of grain; they rake and gather it up, winnow it, and it is bagged, only to be carted away on the pillion seats of mopeds, stacked three high, for consumption or sale.
All this is done by the measured, constant efforts of less than a dozen people. In between food has been cooked in the field, children fed and washed, the stubble has been burnt over, and smoking, gossiping and visiting has not been neglected either. The livestock is tended; a few golden-eyed cows wander about, rafts of ducks are led into the fields by a man bearing a long bamboo pole with scraps of rags tied to it. Once the destination is reached, he plants the pole in the mud, and apparently the ducks accept that as a ‘mother protector’ figure or beacon, to which they will rally. Meanwhile they have to dabble in the mud for a living. All their minder has to do in the evenings, is to collect the pole and his flock and walk them home again. Scrawny, long-legged chickens range up and down the fringes of the ricefields, contesting any scraps of nutrients. They do not get fat (or tender) during this process.
At any time during the day, there are numbers of small, apparently waving objects floating in the skies on all sides. They are difficult to make out, but I suspect they are kites. This is confirmed during later excursions, when we get closer to the dwellings from which they originate. Kite-flying is a national pastime, and at times there are hundreds in sight, gaily dipping in the breeze. Many are dark in colour, with painted faces on them and fringes around the edges. They are rigged in such a way as to dip and nod eternally – which may have a religious significance. Certainly, there are huge examples of these flown above Bali; we saw one that covered the entire loading area of a small truck. Others again, show the Chinese influence, in that they have fancy carved or papier-mache heads of dragons, and long, sinuous bodies. Naturally we stop at a kite factory during one of our excursions, and invest in a half dozen gaily coloured pieces of aerial art for assorted grandchildren. Just a pity we have to limit ourselves to the smaller sizes so that they can fit into our suitcases. We are especially charmed by the ‘galleon’ kites, which are in the shape of a three-masted ship, with the sails cunningly rigged to give lift. I had actually seen one of these fly at a kite festival in Cape Town, and thus I was very happy to acquire one for my grandson. Just hope it flies!
We intend an excursion, so after another exhilarating pillion-ride, our driver Wayan takes off in the direction of Ubud. Almost immediately we land up in a gigantic traffic jam. It takes over an hour to progress a few hundred metres, down through a ravine, up the other side towards town. Not even the mopeds can get through, and scores of them start returning along the narrow sidewalks – on the wrong side of the road. We decide to quit and Wayan makes a ten-point U-turn by sheer determination and complete disregards for all other road users, and half an hour later we are back to where we started off from. From ‘sources’ we learn that there was a mega-funeral procession under way through the centre of town. Some thirty-five unfortunates were to be cremated. No, not a mass slaying, nor a bus accident, nor an epidemic. Local custom dictates that the deceased are buried for some five years to permit the soul to escape and find another host for its next reincarnation; then the remains are exhumed and cremated in batches. An eminently sensible idea, so as to minimize traffic disruption and the waste of fuel.
We laze about and are served on hand and foot by smiling, gentle people, eager to please. No great hardship. Once we have settled in, we decide to try our mobility despite Fay’s crutches. We venture out again, this time to a noted temple in a jungly ravine. Wall to wall tourists, of course, and we join in and have to don gaily coloured temple sarongs to hide our unseemly knees – most dashing. The main feature of the temple is a spring bubbling up through white sands in the walled temple pool. Next to it the water flows through a row of gargoyles into the public dip, where crowds of devotees (and hot tourists) line up in the waist-deep pool to be purified under the waterspouts. We wander about and admire the aged stone sculptures and lavish gilt and paint jobs in between. Here and there are small islands of peace, and some white-robed men and women attend to their prayers.
An early morning trip to the volcanic caldera of Gunung Batur is arranged. This is in the north of the island, right next to the massive Gunung Agung, the almost three thousand metre high volcano that last erupted some fifty years back and killed a number of people, as well as destroying numerous villages on its slopes. The road climbs steadily, but there is so much haze about, we can’t actually see our target. Everywhere are deep ravines, cut by erosion, through tens of metres of exposed strata, all rich, umber and fertile; legacies of tens of thousands of years of eruptions from the volcanoes in the north. Then, suddenly, we are at the edge of a cliff at Penelokan, looking down at a blue crescent of lake, curving into the crater walls on the opposite side – for we are now inside the caldera of Batur. On the right are the towering green-clad walls and spikes left by a giant explosion in the distant past. To the left a massive cone looms, with a number of smaller, half obscured craters, fresher slopes of volcanic debris, and several small plumes of steam, where the monster signifies that it is not yet dead by a long stretch. My heart beats faster – I am actually inside a ‘live’ volcano.
We descend along a narrow tortuous road, punctuated by fleets of crawling miniature trucks, grating along in extra-low gear. They are hauling volcanic sand, just tailor-made for construction, out of quarries with towering sides looming over them, all along the route. There is a building boom in Bali. The serene waters of the lake are punctuated by rafts of aquaculture. Numerous clones of a worldwide genre - luxury hotels and spa’s have sprung up around a number of thermal springs spawned by the volcano, yet poverty-stricken villages seem to stretch along the entire western shore. The road twists and turns among the houses, lean-to’s and shops and chickens and children scatter. Suddenly we are out in the country again. Not a house in sight, instead a jumble of rough, black boulders, scattered about, piled up, seemingly raked into ridges. No trees here, just wispy yellow grass, reminiscent of the African steppes. These are remnants of previous eruptions, the last only a few decades ago, while its hidden giant neighbour is still spitting at intervals. The road comes to an abrupt end and we turn around. So much for Lake Batur.
A visit to a market was included in our plans, so off to Ubud we go once more. Unfortunately this proved to be more of a tourist trap than the sort of thing we were interested in. Still, there were some pretty handicrafts on show, and we could not pass them all by. A mad scramble through dimly lit alleys with hawkers urging their wares on you from all sides. As the displays were mostly at knee-height close to the narrow walkways, and up to ceiling height further away, one needs exceptional vision to be able to appreciate all on offer. We quit this potential craft mine, hot sweaty and bothered, and we are glad to escape to a recommended, pleasant eatery down a little alley. It is relatively cool, well-aired and shady, and has a charming, beflowered fountain in the passage leading to the toilets.
Here I sample the only memorable dish in Bali; a jackfruit stew/curry, which strangely enough, is not served with the almost inedible (to us) large bowl of steamed rice that accompanies every dish for the islanders. I acquire some from my companions and ladle the stew on top – heaven. Faintly like artichoke hearts in texture, but with fragrant overtones of flavour. I’m a happy diner. Talking of food, that which was prepared for us by our staff at the villa was quite adequate, but the fish and shellfish were mostly overcooked, while the chicken and pork were tough, close to the point of becoming shoeleather. In the end I learnt to stick with fried noodles or rice, in which the tough bits are chopped so small that they became the garnish – only to stick between your teeth with dogged tenacity.
Another of my quite irrational desires was to see a hillside artistically draped with green steps of ricefield terraces. Our man Wayan was duly instructed to find these, and as usual, he managed magnificently despite it being a grey and drizzly day. Voila – rice terraces to order, and even a viewing platform, complete with a local bandit who wants to tax us for the privilege of taking some photos. With one hand he took our money, while already the other appeared from behind his back, offering a variety of so-called batiks and other geegaws.
Suarja pays us a ‘state visit’. He is a man of position in local and national affairs; a born diplomat and negotiator. Power exudes from his burly frame, and one gets the impression that this man’s word is law wherever he moves. We have an interesting evening in his genial company and learn a little about Balinese customs and culture that make this island such a different destination from the rest of Indonesia. He expresses a worry about food shortages that are looming for his people, and thinks that tourism is the only answer for that. Would I come back again, he asks? Like a shot, I reply – but it is a long way from South Africa. So why not come and live here, he suggests. In no time at all, he would fix me up with a local partner, we could build a house and he would find a family to look after me. It sounds most enticing, but there is a small matter of dollars or rupiahs to contend with. I have to explain that we are not all idle rich, and some of us have to work to make a living.
He urges us to witness a Kecak dance on the next day. This depicts a part of the Ramayana, the all-pervasive Hindu epic which influences everything from poetry to architecture from India to Indonesia and Cambodia. What makes it different from other dances is that there is no music, just the dancers chanting the hypnotic ‘chak, chak’ and depicting the scenery and elements while the main actors perform a depiction of a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helps Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. It is a devotional activity as well as a tourist spectacle, which does not prevent some local children running in and out of the temple during the performance. A testament to the way their belief-system is integrated into daily life, like the ever-present shrines and offerings.
Wayan receives orders from the boss, Suarja. He is to take us to a woodcarvers’ gallery for a viewing of their finest products – not to buy, unless something should really take our fancy. We set off on what I perceive to be an unnecessarily lengthy trip, since there are woodcarvers everywhere. However, this must be something special, though my heart sinks when at arrival, we are accosted by a ‘pusher’, who immediately wants to shepherd us towards a couple of uninterested loafers who are desultorily chipping away at raw chunks of timber. As politely as possible, I tell him that we really do know how timber is shaped, and that we want to have a look at the real thing. Well, I am forced to change my mind. The inside of the gallery of crammed with a wealth of sculpted interpretations of human, animal, mythical and other forms of sometimes breathtaking beauty and artistry. Certainly, there are hundreds of items which are stereotypes that can be seen on every street corner and in every curio shop, but in between there are real treasures, unusual interpretations of deities and above all, sculptures with humour – from a gentle smile to a deep belly-laugh is evoked by these sophisticated depictions. My personal favourite was a Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, sprawled on his back, obviously corpsing out with laughter, and looking as if he had just had an extra deep drag at a joint, the remnants of which he is holding between his fingers. Not easy to explain why this should be funny, but it is my most enduring image of the gallery’s products. If he hadn’t been so heavy, he would have found a space in my suitcase.
I wanted a closer look at a furniture factory. There are hundreds about, so we don’t have to search too hard. I look critically at these, imaginative and often monumental, timber constructions. They have grandeur and certainly presence. Their workmanship is sometimes quite good, sometimes poor, but what they all have in common is that they just don’t fit any human frame, and they are built with a complete disregard for economy of scale or use of timber. Who is going to buy all this stuff, one wonders? China? Europe? South Africa? If one looks at the thousands of tons of timber wasted in small factories on an island like Bali, it becomes clear why the rainforests are disappearing. None of this timber is grown on Bali; the local forests have long gone, I’m told. This timber comes mainly from Java and Sumatra, and other outlying islands. And still, they chop it down like there was no tomorrow. A sobering thought.
Another hot gallop down a warren of streets to find a bookstore. I was hoping to find something printed in that wonderful curlicued writing the Balinese have, which would at the same time give me an idea of what letters they used – just idle curiosity on my part, nothing academic. In Singapore I hadn’t been successful in finding anything more than slightly secondhand, so I didn’t have much hope in that department locally. Still, my luck was in and I bagged second prize; a modern book of local tales, written in Balinese script, transliterated into Roman characters , translated into both English and Javanese Bahasa in parallel. My day is made and I make my triumphant return on the motorbike’s pillion seat cosily snuggled up to the fair Novi.
After a number of cloudy days the sun finally makes its appearance, and I decide to sample the pool at the house, which proves to be decidedly chilly in contrast with the balmy air. A consultation of a website on the climate of the region, reveals that although theoretically almost at the equator, June and July are the coolest months of the year. Mostly it’s been hot, but not unbearably so, and we have enjoyed the change from a Cape winter. In addition, the expected clouds of mosquitoes didn’t arrive, even though we were totally surrounded by flooded rice fields, which should have been a fertile breeding ground for these pests.
Our last day, and we get our first taste of international finance at its worst. The Indonesian currency runs into many noughts, even when compared to our own, relatively puny unit of value. But Suarja wishes to be paid in greenbacks, which we are happy to oblige with. His sister Kadek however, can’t do anything with dollar bills, it would seem, so she needs obscenely large numbers of the local rupiah instead, to pay for food, housekeeping etc. Now we don’t have bundles of these on hand, so I have to exchange or draw some, always careful so as not to land up with bags full of wastepaper once you have departed from the country of your stay. Then there are small irritations like exit taxes, tips and the like. Always a headache – at each destination we were to visit. Somehow one was never quite certain that the correct number of zeroes had been applied to the calculation, since there were fifteen occasions on which I changed currency zones during the trip. A minefield!
We decide to visit the abode, workplace and gallery of the flamboyant local artist, Maestro Antonio Blanco. He aspired to be all things Dali, Tretchikoff and Picasso to all people, married a local dancer and proceeded to paint – her. You can see the fair (actually dusky) Ronji in all sorts of poses; standing, sitting, lying, smiling, scowling, drunk and sober, but you will see Ronji, mostly in all her nude glory. Quite decorative, but a little too much of a good thing. Loved the garden, and the over-the-top buildings, not to mention the three-storey sculpted serpentine entry arch in the shape of the maestro’s signature – largest in the world, naturally. Definitely worth a quick visit, and the parrots and other birds are so acculturated to Bali that they don’t even bite.
Farewells at the villa. We are sad to leave these gentle, humorous people – Kiki, Made, Nyoman, Kadek, Wayan and Suarja, our hosts. Our drive to the airport brings home to us how much we didn’t see, in part due to lack of mobility, partly because of the short duration of our stay. We barely sampled a few of the island’s attractions briefly – but that was going to be our fate wherever we went in the next seven weeks. Our luck holds and as our plane sweeps over the island, the massive peak of Gunung Agung pops up over the low cloud and lords it over his domain, while his smaller sibling, Gunung Batur with its aquamarine lake lazes in the bright morning sun next to it.
Sunday, 23 September 2012
Votes & Views #26
We all have dreams. In this case I mean wish-fulfilment dreams – like a little boy wanting to be a fireman or locomotive driver; a little girl wanting to be a princess or a ballerina. Some of us may wish to own material things, others aspire to experience intangibles. For some, these early longings fade away, or are replaced by other, more mature versions which reflect changing values. Some have their wishes granted, for better or for worse and for a few, life’s harsh reality bludgeons their dreams to smithereens. Yet I suspect that in many a human being there are remnants of scores of secret juvenile fantasies that persist and in the passage of decades, they may even become a ‘bucket list’, to borrow that now-famous phrase from the film of the same title, even if one is not in an imminently terminal state – any more so than all of us mortals are, potentially.
So it was with myself, in the grey, grim, post-war days in Europe. Among a whole lot of wishes involving an African scenario in one way or another, with which I won’t bore you at present, for some reason I came across images of the vast temple complex of Angkor Wat – possibly due to publicity given the independence that the Cambodians had wrested from the French in 1953. Whatever the impetus, I became imbued with this archeological fervour and my first choice of career was made, and though this was one wish that was not granted; I did dabble in the science in later life. Still, the vague wish to actually tread over the ruins of Angkor persisted through the next sixty years, and suddenly by late last year, I realised that the world had shrunk and it could be done with relative ease; fortune had smiled on me to a modest degree and I had a niece living in Singapore, who invited me repeatedly to come and visit. From that base I could branch out to explore the whole of South East Asia in manageable chunks, returning to the comforts of her home in Singapore for rest and recreation alike at intervals during the trip. Asia beckoned beguilingly; the idea of sampling tropical fruits, foods and spices, and meeting different nations, histories and cultures at first hand, was very attractive. My health was unlikely to get better with the passage of time – but if I took the plunge now, I would actually be able to take Angkor Wat off my bucket list!
By early January my friend and I had worked out a plan of sorts – itinerary it couldn’t be called by any stretch of imagination. I wanted to stay in the region for eight weeks to make the discomfort of the flight worthwhile, since I am a poor traveller, but beyond making a few stabs at booking flights to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, I got bogged down in the unfamiliar territory of international flights and the delights of web-booking. Finally I went to see a crackerjack lass at the local Flight Centre, one Zakiya, who very sweetly and efficiently sorted out our initial travel problems, saved us a few thousands by adding ‘legs’ to our outward and return journeys – and the die was cast. The usual problems, hassles and delays then set in, with which I won’t bore you, but sufficient to say that the trip was a doubtful starter just two weeks after the booking was made, when I suddenly developed some potentially serious ticker problems, in addition to a crippling back instability that was nagging at me. Several weeks later, we had vastly differing opinions from the medical fraternity, the bank account had already been looted by the medics and the price of a couple of intercontinental flights, but my last healing guru said ‘what the heck, go and enjoy your holiday and we’ll see what gives when you come back’. The house-, cat- and business-sitter was installed and we were all set for a bit of dolce far niente – but of course, it never turns out quite like that.
Nonetheless, we went ahead, booked another couple of flights with the gentle Zakiya and got our visas-on-arrival in gear, so to speak. On the last weekend before the departure, my companion rose from her seat in a perfectly level room, to cross the floor, when her knee gave way and she was immobilised on the spot, so to speak. We spent the rest of that Sunday in a hospital, hoping to get some good news. By the next afternoon we had four different diagnoses from four different medics. You could choose from a minimum of soft tissue damage (unspecified) to a fracture at the top end of the tibia, with the need for a stainless steel knee joint or torn menisces thrown in between for good luck. The reality of the situation was that she could only hobble around on crutches or be trundled along in a wheelchair. Not good in third-world countries with dodgy or no sidewalks, I believe. We decided to ignore the whole thing instead.
We did book wheelchairs ahead at all airports that offered this sort of service, and duly boarded our flight to Singapore. Yes, it was as cripplingly uncomfortable as I had suspected. The airline staff were absolutely wonderful, though I mentally did question the need for disturbing their passengers every hour or two during the miserable hours of the night, to have drinks, eats and hot face-wipes. The little image of the plane crept ever closer to Singapore on the small screen in front of me, and I consoled myself that I would not have to do this again for 50-odd days – and yes, these fourteen long hours would pass. Finally the city loomed out of a thick, smoggy, orange peasoup of a dawn. We landed at Changi and were whisked away, Fay in luxury in a wheelchair, with me panting along to try and keep up. It seemed like we walked for miles; then we boarded the travelator and whizzed along for hundreds of metres further. For someone more used to African airports, this was a whole new world – gigantic, efficient, fresh and sanitised. It seemed as if every five minutes another plane landed and spewed out its live cargo. With a minimum of delay or fuss we were decanted at the exit and warmly received by niece and grand-niece. The car was at hand and we left the complex to step into a dawning hothouse, a physical assault on the senses.
A city is a city; it’s a given that there will be thousands of cars, multi-lane highways, high-rise buildings and a profusion of civil engineering. What immediately struck me was the amount of vegetation in between everything. In places the trees on the verges of the highways had their crowns reaching out and almost touching the crowns of those tropical giants that were planted on the centre island. Cool, green tunnels snaked away into infinity. The buildings’ outlines were broken up by green canopies, and gigantic bridges had flowerboxes built into their structures from which sheets of plants trailed – sometimes even flowers. The embankments were vaguely shaped and camouflaged by draped greenery; one would expect brilliantly coloured flights of birds to erupt from the jungle, or massive herds of grey, indistinct shapes. Instead, all that this jungle spewed was vehicles.
Our only imperative task is to get our Laos visas sorted. The most difficult task was finding parking and the entrance of the building. The official was as helpful a Communist as you could hope for, and except for some considerable damage to the exchequer, it was painless. The first day is misery with jetlag but we drag on until well after sundown and keel over. A good sleep makes the next day brighter and more enjoyable. We visit Little India and mosey through a food court. A friendly introduction to pad thai, kwai toeung and butter chicken follow to celebrate the birthday child – my friend. Walking is hard going and the painful knee needs lashings of icepacks. Good that we’re not in a hurry and that we don’t have a frantic programme to get through. The local zoo comes with a high recommendation, which is well-earned, and we spend the better part of a day ambling along on two exorbitantly expensive scooters – a really good investment in our state of decrepitude and considering the steamy heat. No bars; some glass; further the monkeys and orang utans walk on branches over your head, you could stroke the flying foxes and sloths draped over the vegetation(but don’t) and tapirs and tigers walk past within spitting distance. They look a good deal less penned in than the population of Singapore.
We have a few days in the city to recover before we leave for the next leg of the journey. It seems like a good idea to sample shopping at a ‘wet market’. Deadly when you’re on crutches – tiles awash with slush, water, scales, slime – sounds unhygenic, but actually quite fresh and powerful yet inoffensive. Here and there a familiar fish-face or fin; as also a mind-boggling array of seafood that I have never seen before. The fruit and veg section is equally bewildering. Most names don’t mean a thing to us, even if we can make out the words rattled off by the seller in answer to our queries. We buy red dragon fruit – magnificent yet implausibly tasteless. Jackfruit – not tasty immediately, but boy, do they grow on you. How many mangoes does your garden grow? Seems like utterly otherworldly stuff from what we’re accustomed to. We are tempted by plump beige Chinese pears, a touch woody, but flavoursome. Rambutans are a little past their prime and are reminiscent of alco-lychees. There are about a dozen species of bananas beckoning, from dead ordinary, through shades of dusky purple, to pigmy jobbies the size of chipolatas. We sample something approximating a halved hedgehog with pips. The seller hacks around in the prickly carapace and produces some milky slush – ‘sour-sop’ it’s called – and is promptly promoted into the top echelons of fruit heaven.
In between all of this, we have been to Bali for the best part of a week, but we return time and again to Singapore, our home base. Last night we graced a mid-range, melee of a sea-food eatery off East Beach. Pure bedlam; as soon as a table becomes vacant, more steaming patrons are seated to devour steaming dishes. The menu is daft in scope and almost completely incomprehensible. Many items are unfamiliar; the names mean nothing, they are just foreign syllables. There is a bank of tanks along one wall, filled with ‘live’ goods: Canadian Gooseneck Clams, Scots scallops, SriLankan crabs the size of chamberpots, Alaskan Spider Crabs which could span your table with their legs, Aussie crayfish that look like those we’re used to, and garish Tiger lobsters – a feast for the eyes – prawns, shellfish and fish you may or may not have heard named before.
We’re in luck .Our local family do the ordering. Sit back; alternate a sip of scalding tea with glug of Tiger lager from the jug. May be strange, but it works for me. The view is out onto the roadstead. Ships are banked up three or more deep from left to right across, forming the horizon. Cities afloat – but almost deserted it is said – just parked there waiting for the economic downturn to become an upturn. Food arrives … and arrives. Flied lice, black noodles with fish, prawn, chicken, greenery, carrotery, Thai octopus (squid) salad – fresh, sweet, slightly sour and spicy – beguiling. In between courses, a waitress person bearing a tall stack of plates arrives. Her name tag proclaims her to be ‘Frenzy Ann’, and her job is to whip away the accumulated debris, which is often, and to dish out new plates. The pepper crab, a whirl of body parts, darkly basted with grainy sauce; two menacing claws the size of middling lady-fists proclaims the dish’s identity. I try my luck on a spare leg with a knife – but this tribe is a tad better armoured than the crustaceans I normally murder. Joe has a nutcracker and after a bit of two-handed battle with much banging, we have pieces of 2mm thick claw-shell whizzing about. The slab of meat, chicken breast size, is delicate and sweet. I’d rather not fight for the scraps from the body. A similarly platter of garlic-chilli crab comes next and gets the same treatment, but we mop up the lashings of thick sauce with steamed buns. Though I’m groaning, more sauce is ladled over leftover rice – can’t bear to waste the lovely stuff. Luckily they have sink, soap and paper towel in mid-restaurant, so we can get halfways decent before we leave.
Its always hot, it seems, even after a shower of rain. We go for a morning walk along the walkway fringing the Macritchie reservoir. Quite pleasant and scenic on the opposite bank, with lush jungle trees and towering clumps of bamboo – but there is a certain sterility about the forest – a small group of monkeys sits around under a tree; only isolated birdsounds and cicadas can be heard, when you’d expect a cacophony. A few youngsters are spinning for bass and though we actually see one, it’s probably too hot for them to feel like a nibble. We walk across a flooded walkway, and the water is almost at blood-temperature. All around us are hordes of people, taking their constitutionals, running or shuffling along in the stifling heat, groups of youngsters on outings, though God knows what they hope to find. Not that it isn’t pretty, but more like an oil painting, nary a pooch in sight anywhere – verboten – I’m quite certain, by the edicts of the rulers, since filth is an abomination (rightly so) and dog excrement on the pavements would surely rank with spitting, chewing gum and littering, which equate almost to capital offences in Singapore. Dogs still bark distantly in our neighbourhood, though, penned up or pampered, and taken for a stroll by Filipino maids on a leash in the grey dawn or dusk.
We’ve been off to the mainland for a couple of weeks, and return with exotic scripts and books in strange languages, besides other delicacies. We are welcomed by my niece’s Filipino lady-help, as my relative has gone walkabout to Hawaii with her tribe. We have the house to ourselves – just the thing for lying about for few days before this journey continues. We sink into stupor, but the next day’s morning paper brings news of an electronic fair in the city – offering prices almost too good to believe. I am not a believer, but hail me an ‘uncle’ with a taxi anyway. The venue is on a lavish scale, and there are at least six of them in a row. I head for no 5 and as I enter, I am overwhelmed by retail frenzy. An expo is an expo is an expo – but in Singapore it sounds more like half a dozen street carnivals competing for audiences on the same pitch. Almost ever other stand has some sort of auction or special going. The man with the mike shouts his wares’ benefits, while his minions, also on the counters and podiums, almost rub the items in the gawking crowd’s faces as his sales pitch comes to a screaming crescendo. Presumably some lucky consumer walks away with the goods out of this bedlam, but I can’t stand the racket, so move to the next stand, where they are still winding up the hysteria and the sound.
Of course I don’t find the super-cheap camera and tablet as advertised – but I didn’t expect to. I make my way round from stand to stand, trying to avoid the special specials and hype – by a few metres anyway. I buy quite a nice little camera that will do for both business and pleasure, and a small tablet – actually second choice, as the first, larger one could not be persuaded to speak or write anything except Mandarin, even by the Chinese salespeople – and my linguistic skills don’t stretch that far. Even the one I chose only had an instruction booklet in that language, but at least the machine had a few dozen language choices, which the lass set to the appropriate one for me, knocked another $30 off the price and we parted friends. I like a bit of a challenge – at times. A few more small purchases and I was out of there like a scalded cat. In Singapore you don’t always get to hail a cab. Venues have orderly ranks, where the clients queue, not the cabs. Should one disgorge his load, he sidles up to the line of waiting people and the first in line get the prize. And so it goes, nice and orderly – very civilised.
I got a chatty uncle (actually young lad – but this is their title by right, it seems) this time with a good command of Singlish (yes, that is what the local dialect of Shakespeare’s tongue is called), so as we got mired in a traffic jam, we had quite an interesting conversation. From what I hear, it sounds as if even taxi drivers get bored by being over-governed. He complains about being able to put his eight year-old on a bus or metro alone to go across the island to see a friend. For kicks he visits Japan, the US, Indonesia and Taiwan. He’d love to try Cape Town sometime, he reckons.
‘No, you wouldn’t, buddy,’ I tell him. ‘The view’s great, it’s not too expensive, but since you come from a law-abiding dictatorship, you might find our lot a bit of a culture-shock, if not a downright health hazard.’
We pass a pleasant hour in a traffic snarl-up, talking of presidents and pumpkins, pensions and privilege. Apart from that excursion, I try to recuperate from a serious back spasm, probably incurred on the train at Hue, when the quite hefty luggage had to be swung down from the overhead rack. My friend decides she’s had enough and returns to South Africa. I’m not done yet and book my next trip to Phuket, to sample a little of Thai hospitality and culture, and then on to Penang, the reputed food and spice Mecca of the Straits.
A week later I am back with another bee in my bonnet. I have only just heard of the plain of Bagan, in Myanmar, which has apparently some two-thousand temples of the same vintage (templarage?) as Angkor Wat – this in addition to the Shwedagon in Yangon – enough of a drawcard for any tourist. I decide to try my luck at the Myanmar embassy in Singapore for a visa. After some agonising hours of waiting in a stifling courtyard, I get into a queue and when I reach the counter, the snarley type on the other side of the bullet-proof glass tells me that I have no ‘standing’ in Singapore and need to apply in my own country. When, stupidly, I ask why, he snarls at me ‘how do we know who you are?’ I can only dumbly wave my passport at him and point at my chest. He doesn’t give a damn; nor will he deign to contact our embassy a few blocks down the road. I can come back in seven days and he will enquire in South Africa whether they know of me there. He takes my application form and photo.
Instead, niece and I decide to do some serious dim sum sampling on the synthetic leisure isle of Sentosa. This is reached by an airconditioned bridge, which has travelators to speed the flow of tourists, while a monorail whistles past overhead. The island is almost entirely deserted; it is midweek, but apparently there’s hardly standing room on weekends as Singaporeans seek diversions. If you’re looking for kitsch, this is apparently your destination of choice. Nothing seedy, or even vaguely unhygienic – no, all good, sparkling, garish, mostly electronic and gastronomic entertainment. Our restaurant is no exception. They have elevated dim sum to haute cuisine, and the prices along with it. Admittedly the food is absolutely out of this world – and if you are so minded, you can watch the chefs preparing your little dumplings from behind a sheet of glass. They also make a fantastic lemongrass drink with a ball of sugar-ice floating in it, which I sometimes dream about.
On another day we go island-hopping and take a bum-boat to Pulau Uben, which is a mile or two off the main island across a busy shipping channel. It looks like Singapore of a century ago, I’m told. Corrugated iron shacks; bits of thick jungle, meandering roads through the village; chickens, cats and dogs meandering about, stalls selling all sorts of fruits and refreshments and hiring out bicycles by the hundred to tourists from the ‘mainland’. My companions lead us straight to the waterside restaurant. Suddenly it’s pouring with rain – a chunk of monsoon has come to visit. No matter if you get wet; it’ll soon steam off you again (see picture above). The beer is cold and the seafood is easy on the stomach and wallet. After lunch we take a stroll into a herb garden, cunningly hidden away in a chunk of mosquito-ridden jungle. Nobody stops you from tasting them all, if you like. Nothing stops the mosquitoes tasting you either. The monsoon comes back for another swipe.
Instead of hanging about an empty house (as niece is already visiting her ma in South Africa and husband is away in US on business – we do have a strange travelling relationship) – I wonder whether I won’t be able to cuddle an orang utan in Borneo – so I hive off to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The name of the place holds a secret niche in my heart ever since I read The White Raja by Nicholas Monsarrat when I was a teenager; so this is another small ‘bucket list’ item than can be ‘acquired’ – to tread in Brooke’s footsteps, so to speak, and to visit his kingdom. More of that elsewhere.
The end of my visit is beginning to draw near when I return, but I calculate that I might still be able to squeeze in that Myanmar trip, so I go and sit in the queue at the embassy again. This time it is even more pleasant. While some fifty people are broiling in the courtyard, the Singapore municipality comes past with their periodic fumigation truck and in no time at all we are all enveloped in thick, toxic, white clouds of fumes. Everybody is coughing and spluttering – but I get a violent attack of hayfever, and the only place is out of there, so I run into the embassy, past the coughing security guards and up the stairs to get to clear air. After some 20 minutes in relatively clearer atmosphere on the third or fourth floor, I can stand the hostile looks of passing staff no longer and retreat downwards, only to be detained by nonplussed guards, who can’t quite understand how I manage to ‘break out’ of their secure domain. They release me into the tender care of their hostile visa man once more, and he tells me curtly that no, they haven’t heard that I belong to the subcontinent of Africa yet, and that they will let me know in good time, except that the next day is Singapore National Day and they will be closed. That day I wisely stay close to home instead of fighting the traffic jams that develop as people make their way to the parades and show venues all over the island. Despairingly, I book flights to Java instead, as there are only five days left to departure.
The Botanical Gardens deserve a visit; somewhat as an afterthought, since the antique shops at a shopping mall nearby are all closed at 9am. Small signs in all their windows proclaim shopping hours from 11am–7pm. Obviously they have unionised – or their buyers have, and one of their rules is to rise late. Well anyway, I need to spend a couple of hours doing something else, after which I can return, so a city-tour bus seems to be the obvious answer. My brochure says it starts at the Botanic Gardens, which is only a couple of blocks away. The plod is all uphill and it is steaming hot on the sunny sidewalks. At the gates there is no sign of a bus stop of any sort, so I ask at the visitors’ centre inside. It turns out that the bus stops in the middle of the park somewhere, waaay further on. Since I might as well get some enjoyment out of necessity, I amble (or rather slosh) my way round a very beautiful creation, perspiration dripping from every pore, necessitating the purchase of a bottle of water at every station, so to speak. The Singaporeans have to be congratulated on this facility. As usual, no expense has been spared. Everything is beautifully landscaped, manicured and scrupulously clean. The tropical plant collection is extensive and the only small niggle I could find is that their collection of ginger species is not adequately labelled for my taste. Except for the heat, I loved every moment of my stroll. Of course, for $50, I could have hired me a battery-powered golf cart with an English-speaking tour guide, but I only found that out near the end of my walk when one hummed past me.
The bus was punctual to the minute and airconditioned to boot. Map in hand, bathed in a stream of deliciously cold air, I listened to the descriptions of the features we passed and enjoyed the overview. Chinatown was my next goal, with a little grid of streets right in the centre as the main target in my hunt for things bookish. The first thing in sight on Temple Street was about the most hideous, garishly decorated Hindu temple I have yet laid my eyes on. Disneyland technicolour is about the only way to describe it. Yet there were throngs of locals and tourists shedding their sandals like dandruff on the pavement and queueing to enter, while another doorway disgorged sated devotees and sightseers. In muted contrast, a few buildings up the street was a miniature turquoise mosque, scarcely five metres wide in all, with twin mini-minarets delicately perched on each corner. It also had its adherents staidly entering for noon prayers. The shops’ products ranged from garish mass-produced junk, to poorly made clothing and typical tourist-traps, to dark, dusty caves, filled with cracked ceramics, bronzes, wood and silken antiques and reproductions alike, which would tax the cognitive abilities of a layman to the utmost. My quest for the printed article was unrequited; instead I opted for lunch.
An unprepossessing corner entrance with a monosyllabic Mandarin/English sign over the door, proclaiming ‘Dim Sum’ in the small print underneath the ideograph, drew me like a magnet. I entered the restaurant through the kitchen, it seemed, since all was wreathed in steam, and behind it lay the dining hall, crammed with plastic tables, chairs and people. I was not warmly received, as I was a single person and there was only a four-seater vacant, but on promising that I would be prepared to share my table, they graciously agreed to feed me. No wonder, as the place was crammed with locals – always a good sign. Before my order had been finalised, I had a table partner of a young mother and her son, who immediately pinched my peanuts. We smiled at each other, nodded and then got on with our own business, i.e. having a dim sum lunch. By way of a farewell dinner to my South East Asian home of the last few weeks, I celebrated by eating my way down the menu of these delicately flavoured morsels, and drank a toast in local lager. Top marks to this nameless eatery; and the accolade for the best value for money in Singapore too.
After a few hours of enjoyable wandering about, I caught the bus again and as we were driving along towards the antique shops of my morning’s excursion, my phone rang. At first I was a little puzzled, since very few people knew this local number which I had bought on arrival. It was the Myanmar embassy spokesperson. I had officially been acknowledged as a pukka South African, and now the Myanmaris were prepared to grant me a visa. Since it was Friday and I could only present my passport up to 3pm, and visas took two working days to process, I could have it by Tuesday – the day I would be returning home! Regretfully I said, thank you, but no thanks – you’ve lost out on a couple of grand on your tourist income budget. He was still spluttering when I had the satisfaction of cutting him off.
The South East Asian Civilisations Museum was one of my last destinations of choice. As luck would have it, a special exhibition had just opened, focussing on the presence and history of Islam in the region. This fitted in very well with my sudden passion for Asiatic scripts and writing systems, so I bespoke me an ‘uncle’ once more, whose taxi dropped me off at this imposing destination on the Singapore River. At the efficiently run reception I was given my map and informed that conducted tours were imminent, each equipped with a choice of interpreter in English, Japanese, Bahasa, German, French or Italian. This was a free service (the likes of which were available in several of the temple sites I had visited, but you had to pay about US$10 per hour), though I didn’t make use of them since I wanted to find and study my hobby of choice, but I kept on running into little huddles of grateful tourists and guides in between the exhibits. Again, I have nothing but praise for the way this facility was arranged and maintained. The cultural artifacts were beautifully displayed; in the case of smaller items, one or more pinhead spots would highlight areas of interest; large items would be illuminated islands looming out of dim surroundings. Only in the stairwells did the sunlight blind you – everywhere else was a cool, dark treasure cave, twinkling with gold, jewels, paintings, ceramics and fabrics. A thoroughly enlightening and fascinating experience. I ended off this, my last visit, by managing to lose my credit card – probably as a result of repeatedly having to extract different pairs of glasses from a crammed shirt pocket. I heard it fall, but couldn’t see what I had dropped and probably kicked it under a display in the gloom; so disregarded it. I discovered the loss half an hour before I had to leave for the airport. Singapore is about the safest place on earth where you can lose anything – and have a chance of having it returned to you – but so far no one has phoned to say they have found it.
Singapore has its good points, but it is difficult to love. In small doses I would probably be quite happy to spend six months there, as there is such a huge diversity of sights, experiences and flavours to sample. The mighty dollar rules everything – $hows, $ales, $ociety, $hopping. If you have enough dollars, you can get almost everything – except drugs – for which you get the death sentence. I am told you can even watch an execution, by my fellow-traveller on the return flight, an expat Singaporean of some seven years standing – but I won’t vouch for that. The press is not only bland, it’s completely inane. Mostly you can read about the official party-line on matters of little importance, adverts for the next sale, and exhortations to Singaporeans to produce more babies, since they all seem to be too busy making money, necessitating people imports from southern China, and reminders that people have to provide for their parents in old age. Above all, the economy features in every day’s offering. Who acquired whom, what percentages GDP had risen, what forecasts were for earnings, and similar fascinating stuff. Yet the thousands of ships and planes that land on the island every year, bring in the very life-blood of the nation, their food, their clothing, their consumables and their durables. Singapore produces very little material goods since they can afford to import it all. Every morsel of food that I eat there has more airmiles on it than I drive in a year; and the container or wrapping, along with tens of thousands of tons of other rubbish, is exported to the next poor neighbouring country just round the corner. Singaporeans don’t have to do the meanest and dirtiest work anymore; they just import dirt-poor people from those same poor neighbouring countries to labour for a dollar an hour; then they lock them up in shipping-container like cells, which are stacked six storeys high, for the night, until they are required again to work next day. I could carry on a bit, but I know too little.
My other destinations were much more interesting, and you shall hear about them all in the next few months. None of the airports worked as well as Changi.Yes, there was dirt, poverty, overcrowding and fiendishly dangerous and snarled-up traffic. The taxis were horrible old rattletraps in the main. The roads had potholes and no drainage – in some places open sewers ran alongside the pavements. There were beggars almost everywhere, or else hawkers pestering you, but at least they had the time to smile or to exchange a joke. Most countries’ people were friendly and on the whole; none posed a threat. We walked the alleys at night, we shoved our way through crowded markets and strolled through the traffic; we ate and drank what food and drink we found along the way. We sampled only minuscule snapshots of each country, but along the way met some very interesting people and learned much unimportant trivia mixed with a little culture and history. It was the sort of modest adventure that I should not have missed in my lifetime.