Monday, 9 June 2014

Islanesia part II

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller.

The more time you spend in one place the more layers of life and dimensions you uncover. You barely scratch a surface as a tourist or at best: end up in distilled mock-ups, heritage prosthesis of a "local culture" carefully designed to give you condensed and usually sad version of the real experience. Seeing more gradients requires sacrifice. Whether it is a real danger, lack of comfort or sometimes losing your wits, it is a long term investment and if you're patient enough reward will be worth the effort.

Bali seems like a different country - for many tourists heading to Kuta it is. For more sensitive, culture-oriented (or just Ubud oriented) it's a romantic totem of long forgotten history, Indonesia without Islam which seems sometimes like an alien implant not fully accepted by local immune system, loud and omnipresent conqueror that dominated gentle beliefs of ancient people. Mosques in other parts of the country are like Gothic cathedrals in Europe - rich and shiny guardians of religious matrix, towering over other buildings which seem only temporary shelters for workers creating their glory. Bali has this charm of Hindu and Buddhist tradition you can see in Thailand. What happened to this legendary Muslim tolerance of 10th century, open minded religious philosophers implanting seeds of ethics and science instead of regulations and moral constrains?

Amazing mental feature you can find in Indonesian mentality almost everywhere is horror vacui. Emptiness scares people here. If you look at art, every inch of a canvas is covered with paint and every sculpture with intricate patterns. Silence must be filled with music (preferably maximum volume and high-pitch, especially in the night bus as silence then is the most disturbing), sound of a motorbike engine or karaoke session; if there is a space between vehicles on the road in the heaviest traffic, it must be filled even with crazy and dangerous maneuvers. Horns, screaming, singing - all to deter demons of silence lurking in the nothingness (has Heidegger's flagship philosophical and linguistic experiment "Being and Nothingness" ever been translated to Indonesian I wonder? Is it even possible?:)) Entire universe must be filled with demons and ghosts of course - there is no empty space, even "on the other side". Maybe that's why strong, structured religion is necessary to deal with animistic, traditional beliefs?

But there comes a paradox (well, for a European logic-driven brain). Religious identity is compulsory in Indonesia, you can't (officially) be an atheist. Many do it only for the sake of fulfilling national duty, complying with rules though - practicing is an entirely different aspect and is not really controlled. This holistic or rather selective approach goes much further and deeper-more important than individual happiness is adhering to social norms, even if not understood. In education - do what you are told and follow instructions- style is predominant. There is no room for improvisation or initiative. Many Indonesians can't deal with solving problems and they seem completely helpless caught by circumstances not covered in the "user guide book". But strong middle class work hard and produce goods rest of the developed world just consumes. Labor force is cheap - there is more staff in every shop or restaurant than customers, but it only means quantity of customer service, not quality unfortunately. We Europeans are like global aristocracy, descendants of sophisticated Greek homoioi living in a noble dream of free society founded on army of slaves, infinitely obsessed with self-awareness and self-development, torn between TV series and shopping malls. Just consuming but surprisingly never having enough time, always rushing. What is that make us so busy? People here do everything themselves, trinket, re-do or recycle all possible products but seems they have time to just sit around all day long... Another paradox worth modern Marx.

Smoking is a primary medicine for boredom but also way of social bonding and drug of choice due to affordability and egalitarian character of addiction. Almost all men smoke. It's the only national sport and totem of masculinity in this stubbornly patriarchal society.

This is of course just a part of a never ending story. Sulawesi differs from Java and Bali like all other south-east Asian countries from each other. How all this variety coexists, find national balance I have no idea... History shows it's a melting pot, dormant volcano ready to explode without warning but this constant danger is a beauty, hot chick playing with your senses and lust. Traveling around Indonesia is like opening boxes inside boxes, infinite Russian dolls, discovering entire micro-universes within one big bubble-universe.

Friday, 16 May 2014


Imagine country comprised of nearly 17.000 islands lined up along Ring of Fire - the most geologically active tectonic rim on Earth, marked by volcanoes like chimneys of geological factories shaping their fate in constant cycle of creation and destruction, fertilization and death, speaking 500 different languages and dialects (most of them on just one Island-Papua, the most ethnically diversified piece of land on Earth. No wonder Jared Diamond found it so intricate to settle there and investigate history of humankind), spread over 5200km with countless local traditions and beliefs lurking in the shadow of Islam (apart from Bali) and inhabited by nearly 250 million people (more than half of them on Java, one of the most densely populated area on the planet) and you have an idea of this mad, fascinating mosaic called Indonesia.

Jakarta, capital city, mad, chaotic, choked in traffic and pollution megalopolis, municipal virus spread over 600 square km and holding in its claws over 20 million people is like an architectural nightmare. Saigon was swarming with motorbikes but it seems like a countryside now. Crossing the street, which is usually wider and busier than it looks is a gamble and narrows with a suicide. If you think you're ready to dodge incoming traffic, flowing like a crazy tsunami wave from every direction because you have spent some time in Asia you're playing with your fate. Heat, humidity and fumes from all types of vehicles infer your senses and sponge your brain. It's a pure municipal challenge aimed for the toughest city-survival junkies.

Kota- the oldest part reaching back to a Dutch occupation (Batavia) looks like quintessence of slams now (apart from Taman Fatahillah, nicely trimmed for tourists main square). Neighboring Glodock is even worse contrasting enormously with Central Part of Gambir and Merdeka with its rich mansions and embassies and looking like a different world if compared with Senayan with its shiny, modern show-off shopping malls where looking for a dream therapy wanna-be's hide from surrounding chaos. Contrast between rich and poor is not surprising but still strikes with the same force. From one hand: uneducated dirt- poor Nobody's leaving below any standards with 6 kids in cartoon house under the bridge, selling whatever they can on the street or prowling all day for easy money and from the other: hedonistic zombies from upper class, cruising around town in their SUV's like tanks in the ghetto, megalomaniacs plagues with the same Western complex as their more developed clones in Singapore, taking selfies in front of Louis Vitton kitsch displays to make valuable daily contribution to their dream life on facebook.

Nobody walks in Jakarta. Walking is for losers. You take your motorbike to visit shop around the corner. Don't forget your face mask though - pollution is a horrible inconvenience. Sidewalks are either non existing or resemble ditch under construction where you can trip, fall into a hole or break your leg. Walking on the street is also impossible as per above. There are bajajs or taxis fortunately - you can sit, relax and experience legendary traffic enjoying long, long way to your destination.

People in Indonesia are as diversified as everything else but there is one thing they have in common - smile. They will wave, greet or try a random chat even if using body language only (and most will be genuinely surprised that you don't speak Bahasa Indonesia like it's a must! Truly admirable patriotism:)). Annual research conducted in cooperation with American psychologists place Indonesians on the third place of the most happy nations in the world (criteria are not transparent though). In the world of volcanoes regularly killing thousands of people and destroying their households, poverty, corrupted government and oppressive police system people remain kind, helpful and extremely friendly. It seems to be reversely proportionate to the financial status all over the world. Maybe living on the geological ticking bomb make them understand more deeply that life is fragile and temporary and we are all part of the same system (Tat Twam Asi)? Mixture of deeply rooted Hinduism and Buddhism (with Borobudur and Prambanan as its remnants) which highlights importance of present life in determining future cycles and Islam historically glorifying tolerance may also play a role.

Constant threat of natural disaster make Indonesians more attached to the nature and fuels traditional, animistic beliefs in forces we spoiled by civilization and city incubators arrogant individualists ignore. Sad it doesn't make them understand that this connection to nature and place in macro-cosmos comes with responsibility. Do they have to destroy it first and loose what they take for granted like in many other cases to notice and appreciate what they have? Trash contaminate landscape just like in Myanmar. Not long ago everything was wrapped in banana leafs so there was no recycling issue - technology has changed but habits' die slowly...

Volcanoes blemish face of Java like bubonic nodes.They are destroyers but also creators. Capricious rulers of land, fertilizing soil to sustain overpopulation by spewing valuable minerals in constant tectonic recycling process, re-shaping land or forming new Islands (like Krakatoa explosion in 1883 or the biggest ever recorded - Tambora on Sumbawa in 1815 which lowered original mountain by half and affected global weather system causing year without summer), gates to the different world inside Earth's crust. Once you stand on the edge of Gunung Penanjakan overlooking smoking crater of Bromo with Semeru in a background - the highest volcano in Java, you can't help feeling shrunk to insignificance, same feeling you face when looking through a telescope or Hubble images of distant galaxies.

Food won't blow you away (especially after Thailand and Malaysia). Soto Ayam, Nasi and Mee in all shapes and forms are served in traditional warungs. It's usually family run business so there is no restaurant atmosphere. You can often serve food to yourself from the stall. Sugar is an essential ingredient of every decent drink, don't ever try to fight with it - if not gula condensed milk in your coffee will make your teeth crumble anyway.

It should be called Islanesia for the 2 main features: Islam and Islands. Such a similar words, they seem to fit here perfectly. World of nature, magic, diversification and permanent threat where even farmers get stuck in traffic when leaving their rice fields. Fascinating and overwhelming, the whole world in its own taking years to discover...

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Myanmar means love of life

It's very difficult to write about Myanmar. I feel overwhelmed by visual impressions but they can't turn into words like I have no tool to chisel shapeless mass of experience and I can only stare hopelessly at this beautiful piece of marble that I have just uncovered.

Colors, sounds and smell attack your senses when you leave Yangon airport like mad herd of buffaloes running amok. It seems you unconsciously crossed a space-time portal and landed in parallel universe... 50 years ago. It's a heritage park 3D. Bizarre mixture of history and modernity, heartbreaking poverty and ostentatious luxury (as a social fire-wall), explosion of chaotic energy with a unquenched hunger for living and economic harness that stop dreams of personal freedom half way, hellish scorching heat and coldest social rules that makes you angry that some people need to break their sweat and give entire life to get to the point where you start for free and take it for granted all your non-deserved leisure life.

Myanmar is a sizzling pot of Laos, Cambodia and India served with extra spicy Thai sauce although third variable in this equation is still only based on stereotype and blind guess to me. 60 million people cramped under slowly but inevitably melting military regime where 80% live off unforgiving piece of land with no support from mysteriously distant but feared government. Land that is littered with pagodas or its sad corpses like mushroom after rain(or plastic bottles on the side of the road in every village. Environmental consciousness is an oxymoron here).They look like a sacred sign posts implanted to measure distance with its golden towering stupas. All seem to be occupied-no other buildings are better looked after and polished. Every kyat is best spent on pleasing Buddha. Religious obsession has its extreme form here. Pagodas are cultural,social and even political centres, they grant loans or organize events with music and dance.Political penetration is proportionate to internet coverage (or rather it's lack - matrix has a long way before claiming this land)  and resembles vaguely centralized medieval feudalism where ruler is only nominal - religious and ethnic identity is much more important and firm. Monks are the local spiritual sheriffs-bolts sealing this fragile structure.Burmese are majority but there is officially 135 ethnic groups including British heritage of Indian, Bengali, Chinese, Chan, Wa and others almost each occupying distinct region.

Yangon is like a small but equally loud and chaotic and even more rough version of Saigon. Constant buzz of beeps and horns is like an anthem of progress and civilization. People are mostly nice and gentle but their souls are corrupted by harsh environment-you just want to hug them and apologize for inequality in the world but you know they can see through your pitiful eyes. They're not hyenas like Vietnamese or wolfs patiently circling its pray like Thai but curiosity has a deeper dimension. Sometimes it looks like farmers jumped on a seat of Time Machine to the future-they're still not familiar enough with technology to keep comfortable distance and counter-balance its corrupting effects. Ultra modern buses drive on a Cambodian-quality roads( with on board entertainment of Burmo-disco or full volume dance remakes of American pop-culture. Exactly what you dream about on a 10h night bus ride when your party mood is in its peak!),beetle-nut spitting farmers expose red gums in joy playing video games on newly acquired tablets or fones (spelling errors are common just like in Thailand only more ridiculous, making this wanna-be modern pose even more surreal and absurd), young Burmese couples go to the cinema to watch Hollywood movies without subtitles not understanding more than few words or hang around in Western cafe-bars paying for hamburgers more than for quality local dinner.Is it inevitable price for success for every developing country?Do they need to repeat the same pattern as other decolonized Asian nations that forgot history?What kind of devil drug this technology is that makes entire societies sacrifice their lifestyle to pursue wealth and progress? If you consider though that in 2005 to get an ordinary sim card you would have to pay 1600$ (it's available for 20$ now) - more than average annual salary in Myanmar you start understanding this universal drive to life standard you can see everyday in TV. American and Chinese movies and soap operas are widespread so virus is already seeded and can't be hidden behind iron curtain like in North Korea.

Women in Myanmar is a separate chapter.Most of them look like models dressed up for night out even if they only drive their motorbike to the shop next door to buy groceries. Men with their blood stained teeth and silly long sarongs look like their savage bodyguards from stone-age construction site. Myanmar is a country of difficult to grasp contrasts that changes with light-speed in front of you. Venus on Botticelli's painting emerges here from a side-road sewage, with curious dark eyes, sincere smile and body of Beyonce. Hotels and resorts are built quicker than you can book them.World around is changing too fast for Burmese to keep up so many of them still function in a noble stasis,beautiful and unspoiled fossilized dream of J.J.Rousseau but "civilization" lures behind their backs like a hungry wolf destroying weak characters forever. Shiny, modern cafes and bars look ridiculous surrounded by ditches filled with all possible waste like fortresses of progress guarded by moat of past or promises of better life.

I met many people with symptoms of Myanmar addiction. It's unspoiled, romantic beauty combined with natural curiosity and kindness of Burmese people triggers some deep rooted longing for authentic humanity in our corroded Western souls. One can only hope that modern lifestyle won't wipe out their natural beauty and mysticism and  that they can withstand invasion of technology. Life have so many more dimensions when it's not wrapped up in the same package and sold in exchange for your soul at the nearest shopping mall.

Saturday, 8 March 2014


So here I've arrived... After 3 months of a rough ride I put my feet on a shore of the promised land. I've reached my vantage point, my Asian lighthouse which was calling me subliminally for the last few years. I left my caravel like a Spanish conqueror ready to claim this land as my destination, my home...
 What awaited me was a concrete Golem, shining Moloch. At first I felt like a caveman in the Museum, like a Tarzan who left jungle and found himself surrounded by flashing screens on a Time Square. Massive invasion of cars, streets wide like runways - when you cross you pray for the green light you can barely see on the other side to stay on, ultra - modern architectural orgy complimented by endless shopping malls which can swallow and confuse you like Minotaur's maze, grim, poker faces of pedestrians like wax figures that just escaped from Madam Tussaud's Museum, glued to their touch screens like these are their life sustaining batteries or electronic wires controlled by some invisible Puppet Master. Strange, artificial world screaming with wealth and greed, submerged in mindless consumerism. Clean and polished like it was build yesterday and nobody lives here... Not even a hint of stench or uncomfortable smell which attacks your senses at every dodgy corner in KL or Hong Kong... Not even dodgy corners to wander around accidentally...Is it a mock-up of a city? Are all the people just extras like in the Truman Show filling the streets to fool you, just for the show? Or androids, clones from Blade Runner set...
 I felt strange and uncomfortable. Couldn't find myself here... Shock and awe, decompression tougher than in Hong Kong. Did I spend too much time surrounded by poverty and pariahs of the civilized world or there is something wrong with this city? Don't get me wrong. It's overwhelming and impressive. Every single skyscraper is a separate chapter in the history of modern architecture, Marina Bay with it's flagship Sands casino/hotel (which costed 5.5 billion S$ to build), Art-Science Museum with a 3D projection at night, Gardens with a light and music show (which is subtle and done with taste on the contrary to Dubai) makes your jaw drops. You sink in after a while. Splendor  takes over your soul like Lucifer when you don't even realize. It's just to easy to resist. It's beyond being easy.This city thinks for you. All you need to do is sit down and relax (and open your wallet).Switch off your neuron functions,they are redundant in this environment. Maybe this is why people seem soulless,unplugged like zombies..
 Maybe all sci-fi prospects are right? We will grow into passive beings which allow technology, their surrogates to live for them. Just accept inevitable and don't get upset at the progress - perhaps this is how modern evolution looks like?
 Fortunately there are parts of Singapore that have more human dimension. Little India is dirty, chaotic just like KL and you can even spot litter on the streets. There may have been attempts to contain everything in massive Mustafa Centre but it flows freely around the vicinity. Chinatown is like a dummy again but at least it's cramped and less organized around Pagoda Street and Heritage Center.
 City of greed, show off and success, safety heaven with 5.5 million highly stratified shopaholics cramped on the area slightly bigger than Isle of Man (which has 85.000 inhabitants for comparison), ultra-modern structure sealed with strict rules and regulations regarding social and environmental behavior, friendly, expensive and derived from soul... Gotham City in a state of perfect balance without batman. Welcome to high-end version of Asia.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Maleisuria or back to the future

Backpacker's fatigue struck me like a lightning in a bright day.I couldn't find any joy and energy,my body was unplugged,detached from reality.What's the point in pursuing new places?Why do I even chase futile travel satisfaction if all that's left in the end is memory of an ever changing landscape and shadows of people that only pass me by?It's a common and well recognized condition when your mind reaches critical level of capacity to absorb new data, demands vantage point and stabilization because it's been exposed to vacuum for too long and everything you see and experience seems the same, fruitless struggle with time and space. What do you expect from new places in the end? What does this experience give you if you can't focus, absorb and analyze it anymore? Does it really matter if you visit hundreds temples, climb dozen mountains or swim in all the oceans if it all melts in your memory into chaotic mixture of emotions and images like simulacra without reference? You only re-discover what you already suspected and your character is being affected only as much as you allow it. You're the Great Dictator of your own character and the only fire wall to your soul.

First impression of Malaysia is similar to discovering a motorway in the middle of the jungle especially if you happen to land straight in Kuala Lumpur without Penang decompression chamber. It's Dubai built in India or London after tuning implanted into Chinese soil. If you think you've seen it all Malaysia will mock your confidence to death and play on your stunned corpse. Everything is suddenly smooth, quick and easy to understand, even compared to Thailand. Vietnam and Laos seems to be a distant history stuck in a different dimension. I felt transported back to the future, to Europe or Hong Kong.

 Malaysia has more races than all other South East Asian countries combined - Malays (with all range of variety called Bumiputra), Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai on the Peninsula and indigenous tribes of Khmer, Chams, Burmese, Orang Asli, Iban, Bidayuh, Punan, Penan and Senai on Sarawak and Sabah speaking 137 living languages and practicing freely their own religion from Islam (which is official state religion and particularly dominant on the East Coast), to Hindu, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and animism. This variety explodes in your head but works perfectly (at least on the surface) in everyday life. Tolerance and understanding is absorbed with sun beams and fresh air here. It may look like chaotic demographic kaleidoscope ready to collapse with any hint of a social unrest, but in Penang and KL Indian restaurant overlap with Chinese shops, mosques face Hindu temples or share courtyard with Chinese pagodas, you can hear 10 different languages in one place but there is a mysterious balance, sealed by universal currency of smile and kindness. Malay are politically privileged but they don't take it for granted like Emirati people. You start understanding this jigsaw puzzle when you read history - Malaysia was always amalgam of separate states stapled by introduction of Islam in XII century, exposed to Portuguese, Dutch, English and Japanese occupation without holding a grudge to this day. It's hard to swallow for us, used to national uprisings, country borders and patriotism. Is it a weakness or sign of a higher consciousness, more virtual identity not desperately attached to the history and occupied land? It's hard to find more friendly and eager to interact people in all Asia. Hordes of tourists infesting like a locust Taman Negara, Perenthian Islands and KL every year seems to not spoil their open mind and natural curiosity  Curiouser and curiouser like Alice in Wonderland would say...

What is more fascinating is a contrast between ultra modern transport system, shopping malls and highways and ram shackles just behind next corner, food stalls neighboring expensive restaurants, black-ties seating on a bench beside homeless bums and eating with their bare hands from a shiny, silver plates. This is especially striking feature of Kuala Lumpur, modern yet chaotic, clogged in traffic and humidity capital city (and one of the three federal enclaves) of Malaysia. The only thing that makes you more confident is language, Bahasa Malaysia which uses the same alphabet - great relief after impossible to break enigma codes of Thai, Cambodian and especially Lao. It looks like a child mumbling though, like somebody randomly put English words into sentences - it seems to be familiar but your optimism collapses once you start deciphering it. Some words are hopefully taken directly, just spelled phonetically. Another benefit of colonialism and latin alphabet is that English is widely spoken, making it even too easy and definitely not truly Asian...No more french fried,berbecue or mistakes in spelling their own city names that corrupt your language skills when you spend too much time in Thailand. Suddenly you don't have to analyze information boards - you just read and it make sense!

One thing that Malaysia is definitely famous for (if not tolerance and Petronas) is food, taking the best from Chinese, Indian, Thai and European and putting it together into another unique mixture. Penang laksa, Koay Teow (equivalent of Pad Thai), Nasi Kandar, Wan Tan Mee, of course all types of Goreng (noodles or rice) and snacks like Roti Canai or Chee Cheong Fun can convince your stomach (great place to try it all is Gurney Plaza in Georgetown or Central Market in KL). Shopping is also rewarding as you get better quality stuff than anywhere else in Asia in a still great price (especially on a duty free Langkawi). Malay worship Western food to the higher extend than other nations though. It's cool to visit KFC instead of having sushi. Sitting in a night market, surrounded by traditional food stalls gets you rather American songs from 60's and 70's (echo of Saigon?) than local music - you feel bizarre, like staged in a Tarantino burlesque set, but muezzin call still penetrates cultural background reminding you of where you are or maybe adding another dimension to this postmodern, homogenized cocktail.

I came armed with reserve towards Muslim country labelled as too-developed to be backpacker's dream, but Malaysia just got me by surprise. It's a leisure time compared to Laos logistic trauma, Thai bargaining or Vietnamese scams - you don't need to be vigilant, fully focused or ready to defend your pride and wallet 100% of your time. People are honest, friendly and ready to help without expecting financial benefits. They will even chase you out of the shop if you forget your change. Striking kaleidoscope of nations, religions, traditions and culinary treats living in one place. It seems like a quintessence of Asia ready to become Europe. Truly Asia? I don't think so, but what an amazing and varied compound, an experiment initiated by a mad alchemist and then left alone to grow and it grows magnificently...