Chapter 24


1991-07-29, Bukit Tingi

"How often he had longed for it ......  To feel a sympathetic 
vibration between himself and all the things of the World!"

           'Pictor's Metamorphosis'      Hermann Hesse

"In other ways too, our laments for lost Paradises may really 
have much more to do with our own state of Mind than with the 
state of the place whose decline we mourn."

             'Video Night In Kathmandu'    Pico Iyer

"The day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole."

    'The Autumn Of The Patriarch'      Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I'm a Cultural Aborigine.

This is not so much a physical disease as a state of being. Began noticing my descent since South America. It may be I've been on the road too long. It may be something else about the nature of trans-cultural experience and a certain level of acceptance, perhaps delusion. I'll attempt to explain.

Singapore. a bustling commercial hub for Asia. A cultural melting pot mixing Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islam and more. The skin soup in this neon and concrete land must include a sampling of every ethnic niche from India to China. All Ancient Traditions accepted.

And all Major Credit Cards.

Singapore is an electric supermarket shopping addict's Nirvana. The mantras of a thousand video games emanating from store windows surrounding shopping mall centers on virtually every street in the city.

Buildings so closely packed, for miles, the next short step is just to enclose them all in a sprawling city-wide air-conditioned umbrella canopy under an artificial sun.

Stalls and stores, jam-packed with radios, televisions, cameras, videos, VCRs, audio equipment and computers are everywhere from Chinatown to Orchid road.

With fast Metro-rail underground throughout, already the last vestiges or shadows of history lie in the basements. These are hawker stalls. Single family food shops lined up arcade style in a thousand different flavors.

If one is inclined to gastronomic indulgence, Singapore is the place. Otherwise, meditate upon the koan: 'Charging on over-extended Credit, I stop melting Plastic.'

Indeed, with electronics from the East, and a Westernized energetic embrace of New Wave Punk Capitalism, I find it absurdly difficult to walk in ethnic sensitivity when it all seems like Hollywood!

Out on the streets, in daylight, bright hot sun on bleached concrete creates a sweltering heat. The trick is to slip from one 'Aircon' shopping mall cum office complex to the next in the shortest time.

New shining Toyota Taxis slip by, full 'Aircon', High-Tech sound system, cushiony velvet seats and meter. I'm beginning to feel that America is really impoverished, remembering those battered old Yellow Cabs criss-crossing the thoroughfares in Manhattan.

Inches away, Muslim women walk by in black and white chadors covering body and face, next to the Chinese and Malaysians wearing bright fluorescent day-glow oranges, greens and purples.

Down Bencoolen Street, central Singapore, office buildings at least fifteen years old stand waiting tiredly to be demolished.

For now they serve as homestays, guest houses for travelers who are seeking some sense of this city. Offices transformed into bedrooms and dormitories, communal baths with mandy, that bucket device for bathing, and squat toilet.

Old and new. Although not new enough in a city where anything standing longer than five years is antiquated!

Northeastward the Bencoolen Street meets Orchid Road and the renovated Raffles Hotel, ancient landmark of a colonial past, symbiotically attached to the ultra-modern glass-and-chrome sterility of Raffles Shopping Center.

This is just the starting point for a snaking chain of post-modern architectural splendors. Shopping Pagodas housing more material goods than the world population can use in three lifetimes.

The shops are International or 'Wanna-Be's'. Everywhere there are vaunted reverential names like Bijan, Gucci, Dior and Chanel.

On the street, hawkers peddle similar merchandise, where you can find that precious 'Rolex' or 'Guchi' watch you've been looking for. At least they pronounce it correctly, and they will bargain!

I've got shopping fever!

Caught it in the the spirit of the environment. I'm in a maze, a jungle of chaotic color and sound. Seductively drawn into this frenzy, wanting desperately to use Plastic burning a hole in my pockets. It's only Money!

Spiritual ecstasy is only the next purchase away! Singaporeans all around are decked out in Nikes and Georgio Armanis.

On the other end of Bencoolen Street, off to the right, is Arab Street. Refugees from India tend stalls selling cloth, head-dresses, sarongs, jewelry, hardware and used goods.

Men in native sarong and white shirt work as waiters in the restaurants, mostly serving Arabic food. A good Murtabak, egg, flour, onion, spice and mutton souffle can be had for dinner for fifty cents.

Don't order beer. Don't even try.

The wailing, screech and imploring whine, a soulful chant drones through here five times a day. Emanating from a pre-recorded cassette, funneled through one of those Gigawatt Cosmic Sound Systems, turned out by enormous speakers mounted on turrets in the mosques, beckoning the Muslim faithful to prayer.

In the evening this is replaced by Madonna and George Michael as I walk down old, muddy curving sidestreets, peering in small open doorways, a red light out front or inside illuminating old Chinese women with one or two indistinct and bored females, waiting.

The doors are crowded by groups of men peering in and leering. Sarongs and shirts and questionable Muslim spirit.

On the streets, after dark, any night it's meeting time and an ancient cultural rite of male bonding, as groups of Indian men stroll casually hand-in-hand, two or three abreast. They congregate on street corners or parks in groups. Some playing chess or backgammon, others sipping coffee. No alcohol for these traditionalists; all have cigarettes hanging from their lips.

At a small corner park on Arab Street, a tour group of Chinese, carried in local rickshaws stop at the curb to gaze at the nightly groupings.

Out of nowhere suddenly, there appear black mini-skirted women working the carriages, plying their trade.

One enters a carriage, smiles and sits next to a middle-aged Chinese woman. They are hugging each other, all smiles, as the husband takes a photograph for the family album. Memories.

In the older quarter, Chinatown, more buildings stand, ready to be demolished any day, yet still used as shops or apartments. The families hang laundry out to dry fifteen stories high. Colorful flags against a bright white skyline.

The street storefronts leap out in a display of Chinese and Arabic lettering, and there are varied hints of an old Chinese architectural splendor buried in the columns, red-tile roofs, peaked and hand-carved in intricate detail.

I feel culturally awash and unsure how to move, in whatever century or tradition seems appropriate.

Amidst the rickshaws, golden umbrellas, silk detailed scarves there are row after row of the latest Japanese offerings. High-tech electro-automated living. And here I find the best deals in a deal-ridden city. I buy a quartz watch for ten dollars. This I will use for the next two years. Such a deal!

Along these older streets, incense burns day and night. Within any block is a Hindu or Buddhist temple. Old men sitting on sidewalks offer to read my fortune in my hands, or throw a Chinese version of Tarot, or dice, or what have you.

I become tempted by one old Indian Baba and let him study my palm. He informs me that I need to settle down, get a job, raise a family and stop messing around. This guy is definitely 'Out To Lunch'!

Leaving Singapore on a modern fast Aircon Bus out, across the border to sink deeper into Asian Mystery. Malaysia. The Northwest tip, Penang, a port city for transit and transitories. A traveler's haven.

It's here, in Penang, amidst gringos and travelers I find an older, mustier, shadowy and romantic Asia.

Dirt streets, small alleys, an ancient food market, black wood beams strung with pigs sliced in half waiting to be cured. Staying at a legendary landmark, the Tye Ann Hotel, five dollars a night, on Chulia Street. They serve a good cup of coffee and good advice.

Museums aren't much in this corner of the globe. Mostly old photos of the Japanese occupation during World War Two. Ruins are not frequent either. I have the feeling that people are living in them.

Rickshaws provide cheap transport in the streets, yet even these are slowly being supplanted by Honda motorbikes.

The only constancy in this predominantly Muslim country is the ubiquitous Call To Prayer, five times daily.

A large Mosque in the city is white, bright and airy. Doors like balconies opening to the courtyard within. Marble floors and impressive columns. Spartan yet rich in its pious simplicity. The Faithful gather here for worship and social exchange.

One of the brethren explains to me the necessity for amiable Muslim brotherhood. He is well-versed in the Koran, quoting the Prophet ("peace be upon him") with prose and skill. While not openly dogmatic, a missionary none-the-less. It's a good line and richly seductive.

Islam accepts and acknowledges other religions, other prophets. Moses, Jesus, the Buddha. Mohammed was the final and purest messenger.

Women are, of course, equal. But it's God's will that they remain covered from head to foot and housebound.

The Laws instill a spiritual sense of purity, yet I can't seem to relate that to the way this zealot's eyes keep wandering over to that female tourist standing by the fountain. I guess all is forgiven in heaven. Except of course, George Bush and his works.

A Buddhist temple down the road is a stranger sight. It's the 'Snake Temple'. When it was built a colony of bright green and yellow fanged serpents, Wilson's Vipers they are called, came to reside in the temple. They are relatively lethargic, and don't bite ...... at least, not today.

The monks feed them and believe they are sacred. They have the run, so to speak, of the temple and grounds.

A hawker is there, of course, with camera, handling the snakes, wrapping them around tourists, shooting the scene. Memories.

I pick a few up. Snake tongues darting out, eyes winking. It's a little like playing poker with Destiny as the snakes stare at me, evenly, in the eyes.

The hawker keeps warning me that I'll get bitten, and doing all he can to persuade me to release those serpents. I'm ruining his business.

I catch a fast boat, across the channel to Indonesia, finally landing in Sumatra. A short hot muggy night in Medan, then on to Berestagi.

The Batak Culture. Hot food, Chinese Kung-Fu movies, more snakes and betel nut. Getting more primitive now. Only mandys and squat toilets. Don't eat with your left hand.

I become more immersed in Asia while travelling through Sumatra. The markets, betchuks (like rickshaws), hot spicy food, and the odd assortment of do's and dont's with feet and hands.

There is also this boundary business. Or lack thereof. In relation to Western norms for personal space, these people don't have any.

Not just the casual crowding in buses and sidewalks. It's not even the novelty of being a Westerner. In a conditioned social climate of close living throughout life there is absolutely No Privacy! I feel assaulted by the unconscious presence almost constantly.

By the time I land on Nias Island, off the coast of Western Sumatra, having taken an all-time personal worst eight-hour Busride-From-Hell south to Lagundi beach, packed like Oscar Mayer franks in shrink-wrap seats with no springs, on a road unfit for cows, I'm feeling confused, lost and desperate.

Conscious awareness and cultural sensitivity be damned!

Everywhere I've visited, hawkers in my face, outrageous prices for goods quoted to the 'Rich Gringos', impersonal communication, a Punk-Rabid Nouveau Laissez-Faire Free Market loosely based on greedily-assimilated Western ideals of business. "We want ours .... and we want it NOW!"

"Hey Meester! Where you from, what your name, want to buy from me? I sell you cheap, Coca-Cola, Bungalow, cut your nails, cut your hair, antique pure gold ring, watch, camera, massage, marijuana, hashish, heroin, blow job, my sister, my brother, my mother! Anything you want, Man. Good price. Cheap!"

Fuck!! What I want is some silence. Space, room, air, rest. Freedom from assault!

I've dropped all pretense of cultural sensitivity. I've become a Cultural Aborigine, A Touristo, an arrogant Hick, Rambo in the service of the Lord. In a word, no more Mister Nice Guy!

The veil is lifted, the bubble burst, the radio has become static-free. There is a crack in the zircon crystal of this elaborate farce. I drop all pretense of the façade of respect in cultural exchange. Politeness wears a sour taste and I gag.

In the eyes of many all I see reflected is a Western traveler with a pocket endlessly full of greenbacks, and the fine citizens of these once noble cultures are eager to forget all sense of history and tradition for a few dollars.

I drop all of those 'tasteful' measures and 'respectful' observations recommended in the travel guides!

My introductions and encounters have become Mano-a-Mano now.

The Real is what is before me, as it is. And I react accordingly.

Romanticism of the cultural ideal, traditions untainted by the cosmic cauldron of human similarity is a philosophical deception playing Russian Roulette with emotions.

While we can live in a fantasy world that paints glowing images of once noble cultures, this is merely a seductive ploy. Once that fantasy runs headlong into the brick wall of Post-Export-Capitalism-Age Reality a shock akin to vertigo results.

I dropped that in Nias by the shore, letting the foam carry it with empty shells and crushed plastic water bottles out to Sea. Whew!

I'm headed for Bukit Tingi now. Then onto the maelstrom of throbbing gamelan called Java. I feel lighter. And at times I sense a clarity like the crystal tone of the meditation bell, calling me to silence. I hear my breath.

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

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