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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Creepy Crawlies

No trip to Australia is authentic without an up close and personal encounter with the astounding Antipodean fauna. There are a number of places in the greater Sydney region which will grant you this opportunity, such as Featherdale Wildlife Park near Blacktown, which I monitored once as a Cumberland journalist. For sentimental reasons, however, I would recommend the Australian Reptile Park above Featherdale, if you have time to visit only one menagerie while you are in Sydney. Featherdale Wildlife Park might have all the cuter-than-cute animals that tourists just love to cuddle in front of the camera -- but the Australian Reptile Park has a creepier, more eccentric edge... (For more on the Reptile Park and its tactile treasures, click here.)




Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Regaining My Hope in Sigur Rós

I must confess that I had lost hope in Sigur Rós after () came out. In comparison to Ágætis Byrjun, Sigur Rós' first major release, the () album was harder to get into: austere, funereal, blank as a pair of empty parentheses. While Ágætis Byrjun grabbed you from the get-go, and took you on a glorious adventure, () was downbeat, and deliberately intimidating. Not only did none of the tracks have names, but they all kind of sounded the same. It was disappointing, because I fancied that I had finally met my kindred spirits in this Reykjavík quartet. I feared that the Victorious Rose had withered, and died, just as I was starting to dig them. That was two years ago, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, to abuse an old cliche... I have been to Iceland, and discovered plenty of fresh talent in that creative powerhouse. Sigur Rós had played their part in my life, or so I thought, but now I required them no more. How wrong was I: all of a sudden, Sigur Rós are back, happier and more accessible than ever! Frontman Jónsi Birgisson is actually singing, in Icelandic at least! And in gratitude, I have to bow deeply, and say: Thank you. Or, more succinctly: Takk..., which is the title of their new album.


Takk, the third album released by Sigur Rós.

Last Sunday I bought the latest Sigur Rós installment Takk... and consumed it, captivated, at the old school desk in my sharehouse. It was such an exhilarating experience, I literally couldn't get out of my chair until it finished. From the opening moments of mesmerizing feedback, which suggest a sun rising over a field of lush lupines, you sense that this is going to be an upbeat record. The sun slowly morphs into the sweep of a North Atlantic lighthouse, slicing through the fog. A beam from that lighthouse swivels your way, sending out fluctuating waves that just melt you, instantaneously. All at once, I felt the melancholy of () blown away, and the curtain rise on a whole new act in the Sigur Rós saga. It was an introduction that, for me at least, called for an instant rewind. So let's rewind it, and do it properly, in this review... one track at a time! With the occasional YouTube video or other media file thrown in, once they become available.

Track 1: Takk... ("Thanks...")
Like a ray of scintillating sunshine, Takk... penetrates deep into your soul, to grant you a Higher Grace. I believe there are saints in India who can enlighten you just by uttering a couple of words in your earshot, or staring you in the eye. Sigur Rós also seem to possess this ability, this Shamanic power, and all you have to do is hear their music, and be transformed! As the introduction begins, it feels like a baby is being born, descending into Being (in the fringes, meanwhile, the sonic equivalent of angelic heraldry hangs.) Why do the introductions to Sigur Rós albums always sound like childbirth? I marveled, hearing this tune play out, the second time I rewound it. Not the birth of an ordinary baby, of course, that would be too mundane. Here we are talking of angel birth!

Track 2: Glósóli ("Glowing Sole")
Glosoli carries forward the euphoria of the intro, but the Fafner-frustrated bass, and restless percussion, suggests some discord... it appears our angel child has taken form, but finds her/himself forsaken in this cold world. Inexplicably, the sun has disappeared (then again, it might just be midwinter in the Land of Fire and Ice!) The bass frets round and around, locked in a holding pattern. The strings do manage to lift off though and before too long we have Jónsi ululating too, yodeling almost, his voice higher than I have ever heard before, almost operatic you might say. He sings, sweepingly:

"Nú vaknar þú
Allt virðist vera breytt
Ég gægist út
En er svo ekki neitt..."

Now you wake up, to find all is different. I look out, but see nothing. Tie my shoes so, and head for the door. Outside on the lava plain, a boy stands waiting. He is decked out in period costume, and carrying a drum. Part Pied Piper, part pirate dwarf, he seems like he's on a mission. He is on a Crusade, no less, and he is calling for volunteers. The drummer boy assembles a posse of kids as the song advances, constructing cairns, sleeping on moss beds, traversing the dark and steaming landscape, before the sun is finally located hiding over what must be the black beach of Vík in southern Iceland. The sound wells, bowed guitar building, and surging through it all is an epic feel, an incredibly epic feel, the kind you might encounter in a Homeric poem, or an Old Norse saga.




At 3:47 the bass guitar grinds into a countdown, lead guitar joining in, cascading into a crescendo which can only be called Heavy Metal, Iron Maiden in slow-mo. Jónsi rides atop the sonic blast, rejoicing:

"Og hér ert þú, fannst mér!
Og hér ert þú, Glósóli!"

On cue, the kids charge up a steep grassy slope, overtaking gulls which bob on the breeze, to the high cliff which towers over the sunlit beach.  As Jónsi hollers they leap off the edge, one by one -- not to fall to their grisly deaths but rather to soar, angelic, into the citrine sky. There is an angel inside everyone of us, that is one of Sigur Rós' recurring motifs... and these kids have lights in their soles. We are Homeric heroes all, living in our own personal saga. Therefore, everything we do is worthy of epic treatment.

Track 3: Hoppípolla ("Jumping in Puddles")
In an interview recently aired on MTV Japan, band members declared Takk... to ne their "happy album". Critics have been predictably quick to label the record as too optimistic and orgasmic, and to question the band's sincerity. I think they are missing the point: the thing about Sigur Rós is that they do emotional music -- their range encompasses everything from ecstasy to sorrow and existential dread. That said, Hoppipolla manages to push it to 11 on the ecstasy scale, which is no mean feat. It is, allegedly, the story of some kids splashing around in a puddle and having fun (once again, a simple theme turned into an opera of epic proportions.) The result is the most beautiful song on the album, or at least one of the most accessible. 




In the video posted above, homage is paid to such juvenile pursuits as tagging buildings, throwing water-bombs, and playing knock-and-run. Typical of Sigur Rós, normal roles get reversed, and the perpetrators of said acts are senior citizens, while the victims are young dudes played by the members of the band (at 1:19, for example, you can see Jónsi working behind the counter in a shop.)

Track 4: Með Blóðnasir ("With a Nosebleed")
The continuation of the previous song by other means, this is also a very inspirational piece in its own right. According to an interpretation I have read online, one of the kids splashing around in Hoppipolla has injured himself/herself and gotten a nosebleed, but nobody cares because everyone is having so much fun. Loops of guitar, keyboards and glockenspiel are tossed around, with Jónsi surfing over the top. Casper on the Sigur Rós message board said: "Með Blóðnasir is just wild! if it were an actual song it'd be the best thing they've ever done!" I just wonder whether by separating this and Hoppípolla into two units, Sigur Rós have deliberately tried to make it harder for both to get commercial radio playtime. Instead of selling out, the band seem to be trying to goad commercial radio into breaking a few of its own rules, and become a bit more experimental.

Track 5: Sé Lest ("Train")
Building straight off of Með Blóðnasir, the glockenspiel is isolated, playing a repeated melody that moves up in fifths all while bouncing in 16th notes. A whimsical vocal line comes over and is followed by bass, percussion and feathery strings (apparently provided by fellow Icelanders amiina). At this stage it is all starting to sound very mid-1990s Björk, as soothing as a lullaby. Near the five-minute mark, multiple tonal instruments balance against each other, with on odd bowed instrument over the back. At 6:30, curiously, we are full-fledged into a night-time polka. That's right, a freaking polka! This is cool -- only Sigur Rós could pull off a transition like that. It leaves me wondering: Is there anything this band can't do?

Track 6: Sæglópur ("Sea Nitwit")
After the whimsical folly of Sé Lest, Sæglópur erupts with a surprising force...  you could describe it a power ballad with its piano intro, geyser blasts of bowed guitar, multiple climaxes, and the endless cries of "þú" ("you"). The trademark Sigur Rós strategy of old was to build up songs over a long time to a devastating climax, like an Mid Atlantic cataclysm. Usually they would start off sluggish and serene and at the 6th minute mark or so, the breakout would take place. That was well and good, but with this new album they have taken things to the next level. Instead of sprawling songs which turn hyper at the end, Sigur Rós have amped up the intensity... they can now pull off multiple climaxes. 11 out of 10, in the Spinal Tap tradition. And as any pornographer will tell, nothing beats milking that money shot multiple times...






Track 7: Milano ("Milan")
Listening to Sigur Rós, you might find yourself wondering: What planet does this music come from? I met an American in Mumbai this year who joked that Jónsi's voice was "out of this world." I agree with him -- Jónsi is indeed an alien, an emissary from another galaxy... but that ain't surprising considering his pedigree. The truth is that Iceland itself is an alien and otherworldly place. Going to Iceland is in fact the next best thing to visiting another planet. It is built atop a dimensional fault line, a gateway between the 'branes. What happens then when Sigur Rós leave their homeland, and vacation in, say, Milan? Well, this song could be the result! It starts off slowly, as you might expect after the dramatic heights of the previous track. There is tender strings action, and a bit of piano too, revolving like a music box. As in Með Blóðnasir  there is a circular structure to this song, each bar measured by a Fafner bass, which ever so slowly accelerates. Tension accumulates, as tension is wont to do. At 3:45 we finally reach bursting point, guitars thrashing, but this is a minor eruption. I guess there wasn't that much energy to release after Sæglópur. All that climaxing will exhaust you, sometimes.

Sigur Rós, somewhere in Iceland.

Track 8: Gong ("Gong")
Mournful strings commence this journey, which are presently joined by guitars, drums, bass and finally a frantic piano. Jónsi is like a wolf howling at the sky, supported by a ghostly choir (quite probably, a choir of one.) Grapevine considers that this is "close to a melodic rock song, until it breaks into the big drama after the four-minute mark." In my own opinion, Gong is one kick-ass track -- a new direction for the band, a climax upon a climax, and another highlight of an album so crammed full of highlights.

Track 9: Andvari ("Zephyr")
Reviewers haven't cottoned on to it, but I swear this is another version of the same dirge which dragged on eight times on the () album. This is the 9th rendition of the song if I am correct, and I in my opinion it is the best. It is also the most moving moment of an already powerful album. As Gong retreats, guitars, music box and glocks pick up a sentimental melody, joined by the bass. At length Jónsi enters the fray, droning in what, suspiciously, sounds like Hopelandic, Uh-oh! you might think, remembering the bleak days of ()... Are we back on that kick? To be honest though, you don't need to understand Sigur Rós' lyrics to feel the meaning, and there sure seems to be a lot of emotion crammed into his wailing. At 1:50, Jónsi surprises me by singing (in English!)  the short phrase, "I love you." Hackneyed perhaps, but it brought tears to my eyes on the first and second hearings, for there is a gratitude in his admission -- I could imagine that he was addressing me personally, or at the very least the loyal fans of the band. Giving thanks, in the true spirit of this record. I might be wrong... others claim this is a love song dedicated to his new boyfriend. I didn't even know he was gay!

Track 10: Svo Hljótt ("So Quietly")
As its name might imply, Takk...'s penultimate track starts off restrained, with somber aspirations. but soon builds into one final banger -- a tornado, geyser, or the tractor beam from a UFO in a cornfield somewhere (draw your own allusions here.) The rock bible NME claimed: "Choice cut Svo Hljótt sounds like the bit in Lord Of The Rings when Gandalf dies reinterpreted by operatic mythical winged beasts." Translated into English, the lyrics are more prosaic, but also quite revealing: 

"I thank you for the hope you gave me
I thank you for the hope..."

When we are lost at sea and the sun refuses to shine, we embodied beings need a guiding star. Suddenly I realize that () was our communal long night of the soul, the wilderness we had to traverse in order to arrive at Takk..., this oasis of plenty. With Jónsi as our mad Pied Piper (or the drummer who can shatter glass with his voice.) As the magnitude of this revelation sinks in, my only rational response is to bow low and proclaim, "Thank you Sigur Rós, for the hope you gave me. Thank you for the joy." I leaned on you, and you leaned on me. What goes around comes around, and every tribute is returned.

Track 11: Heysátan ("Hay Stack")
Heysátan unfolds like a hymn, each note constructing a church stone by stone, wall by wall, pew by pew. Inside this sacred place, the atmosphere is that of a wake (albeit a rather jubilant one). Jónsi is either playing the role of a priest, or a demonic choirboy. Grapevine has the last word on this fitting finale: "A refrain of key notes of one chord, we hear horns, plucked guitar and keyboards all combining for airy but understated effect. Jónsi is most clear in the vocals here, sounding, dare we say it, like an Icelandic Billy Corgan..." 



Takk... is one serious mindtrip, more of a drug than an album, and it is reminiscent of the Múm works that I have reviewed on this site. The cover of the CD (pictured above), designed to resemble a yellowed Victorian novel, also recalls Múm's album covers. Difficult to say though whether Sigur Rós directly imitated Múm in this respect, or whether both bands are merely reflecting the current trends in Nordic graphic design. Whatever, this is a very Icelandic album, and for lovers of Iceland such as myself, it is great to notice all the indigenous touches on this production.
  

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Little India (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Kuala Lumpur is unusual in that as well as having a large and flamboyant Chinatown, it is also blessed with a bustling Little India neighborhood to complement it. The only other city in the world that I think of which has both a Chinatown and a Little India is Singapore, an hour's flight south of KL. But while Singapore's Little India neighborhood, based around Rowell Street, has become gentrified in recent years, KL's Little India remains rugged and raw. It has an edge, and that's what gives it a charm. I won't say it's dangerous, but it's definitely edgy. It is also home to some of the finest dining experiences to be had in Malaysia, some of the most memorable odors, and plenty of shops. If you want to feel what India (particularly south India) is like but you don't have the courage to go there, visit Kuala Lumpur instead. And if you are an Indian tourist holidaying in Malaysia, it is almost compulsory for you to visit Little India KL. For Indians and non-Indians, Malaysians and non-Malaysians, the place has interest and allure by the bucketload.

Before going on too much further, there is a contradiction which needs to be addressed: what exactly is Little India? and where is it? According to Adrian Logan, over the years both the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang area and Brickfields have vied to hold the title of Little India. While Brickfields is traditionally associated with the local Indian population (and has the most personality, in my opinion), the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang area is in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's city centre (and is thus convenient for tourists.) Both areas are a hive of activity during the traditional Hindu celebrations like Deepavali. Many argue that Brickfields should be given the honour to become "Little India", a fact acknowledged by City Hall, which intends to recognize the Masjid India/Lebuh Ampang precinct as a "Malay Street" instead. One Malaysian I encountered online, szehoong, explained it this way: "KL had 2 Little Indias. One is the area around Masjid India which is more of a fusion but then again the area next to it is purely Indian and not Indian Muslims which Masjid India is ;) Brickfields is the closest we could get to the actual Little India. The problem is that Jalan Travers is kinda wide and it separates the place into 2! :(."

Another Malaysian, Argory, argues that there in fact three Little India's in KL! "And if you can't choose either," Argory says, "it's good to know that they're all connected by train. The three Little India's are:

"1. Masjid India -- Lebuh Ampang (Masjid Jamek LRT).

"2. Brickfields (KL Sentral LRT, KTM Komuter and Monorail).

"3. Klang (Klang Station KTM Komuter). The little India in Klang is about 5 minutes walk from Klang Station, so it's quite convenient if you prefer not do drive la. ;)"
But wherever Little India is (and perhaps it is deep down just a state of mind, wherever you wish to find it), one thing is sure: Brickfields is a well cool place, kind of like a desolate industrial town from the North of England in the 1800s, dropped into the middle of the jungle. I once spent a pleasant half an hour or so trudging around a temple I found on the side of the rail line (see here.) This was my dream of the perfect South Asian experience, and one fellow visitor to Brickfields, writing on her blog, apparently felt the same: "Last night, I dreamt that I was in India. My hotel room was facing this massive Hindu temple - gods and goddess in elaborate poses and colours. Looking down, I could watch the busy streetlife: the loud vendors, rushing passer-bys, the congested traffic, the noise, the smells - all were vivid. I wanted to take a couple of photos of the people but whenever I raised the camera up, I was met with angry stares.


Indian deity, as seen in Chinatown Kuala Lumpur, near where I was staying (Malaysia, 2005)
"I think my dream was influenced by the fact that I am currently staying in Brickfields for the weekend. There is a very significant proportion of Indians living here that it's become a stereotype - "you're Indian? Do you live in Brickfields?". For the Indian food lover, it's a delight although I must say that Indian food in KL so far have disappointed me."

Talking of the angry stares -- I must add that I when I spent 30 minutes traipsing through the aforementioned Brickfields Tamil temple, taking loads of photos, I did receive the odd angry glance and grimace. Perhaps Brickfields is not the best place to take happy snaps of folks. I had much more luck taking street photos in Mumbai in India proper, but that's another story.

Anyway, Little India as it is traditionally known, expands around Jalan Masjid India, its heady and hedonic heart. It basically covers the area between Jalan Bunus and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. One of the oldest streets in the city, Jalan Masjid India takes its name from a mosque (masjid) built in 1870. At the time tin mining was booming in Malaysia, and Indian Muslims were swarming to the region for work. Over time, they built up a community around the India Mosque.

Today, the atmosphere is still swarming. If you visit, expect to find plenty of shops selling saris, Indian silver tableware, perfumed oils, sandalwood oil, and so on, and on. Since the majority of the products on sale here are imported from India, the smells and sights are pretty much what you would expect to find in Chennai, although the air is cleaner and the traffic regulations more strictly enforced than they are in Tamil Nadu. And they don't have five foot ways in India, but they are everywhere in Kuala Lumpur. If you want to get your fortune read you can get your fortune read. Indian palmistry is a big deal here, just as it is in Singapore. I once sought the advice of an Indian palmist in Little India Singapore, and some of his predictions have already come true. He told me that I would have two wives, and one of them would always berate me, always shout at me... but would love me very much. She has already come into my life -- the prediction has been fulfilled, and that is why I respect Indian palmistry.


Tamil skyline, Brickfields (Malaysia, 2005)
A name often says so much about the history or origin of a place; Kuala Lumpur for example means "Muddy Estuary", and you can still see the mud in the Klang River today. How do you think Brickfields got its name? Yes, that's right -- they used to grow bricks there! Seriously. Old-time Brickfields' resident Kaulsalya said: "The area was the centre for brick making in the early days when the whole area was a clay pit with cows grazing everywhere. Brickfields produced the best bricks as good quality bricks is made from clay."

For those interested in spirituality and a higher meaning to life, you might just find your salvation in Brickfields. One of the streets here, Jalan Berhala, must rank as one of the great centers of Eastern religion. On Jalan Berhala you will find the Buddhist Maha Vihara Temple, the Arulmegu Sree Veera Hanuman Temple, the Sri Sakthi Vinayagar Temple, the Lutheran Church and the Three Teachings Chinese Temple. For an excellent and photo essay about the Maha Vihara Temple, click here. The temple is located at 123 Jalan Berhala (phone: (03) 2273 0150, email: bmvhara@po.jaring.my.)

At nearby 2 Jalan Chan Ah Thong in Brickfields can be found a Buddhist institution called WAVE -- that's short for the Wisdom Audio Visual Exchange. WAVE has an extensive catalog of Dhamma books for free distribution, with titles by such authors as Ajaan Lee, Ajaan Chah, Mahasi Sayadaw, and many others. If you want to get in contact with them or see what they do, phone them on (03) 2274 9509 or email them at hockchai@tm.net.my.

One of the great shopping institutions in Malaysia is the ubiqitious pasar malam, or night market. Naturally, there is one in Brickfields which you ought to check out if you have the chance. Usually held once a week, the pasar malam starts at about 6pm and goes right up till 11pm. This is the archetypal Asian bazaar, dominated by incredible bustle, vibrant sights and tons of interlocking scents and smells. Basically what happens is this: little vans and trucks pull up along a designated street, unload their wares and spread them across several makeshift tables. That is it. You want something on the cheap? You'll find it here, from groceries, clothing, toys, food, accessories, CDs, household items to the latest fads. Naturally, bargaining is mandatory, if you want to get the best value for your precious ringgit.


Holy pantheon, in Little India, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia, 2005)
Virtual Malaysia reports: "One of the best reasons to come here would be to savour the various Indian snacks, such as vadai, stringhoppers and appum, all freshly made on the spot. There's even a Punjabi food stall with authentic, freshly made chappati, prata and sweetmeats. Not everything at this night market is Indian, though. You can still get your Malay and Chinese food fix with delicious char kueh teow, yong tau foo, tau foo far, lol-lok and nasi lemak.

For a detailed account of the Indian dining possibilities in Kuala Lumpur, click here. There are Indian eateries scattered across Kuala Lumpur, but here we are concentrating on the Indian restaurants in Little India. And the selection is:

Restoran Gopala: 59 Jalan Thambypillai, Brickfields.
This is a Hare Krishna joint in the heart of Brickfields. The cooking rules are so strict here, no onion nor garlic is allowed. And while there may be items called sambal fish, mutton masala and spicy stir-fried chicken on the menu, there is no actual meat anywhere on the plate. That's right, it's all soy. This eatery is located at Jalan Thambypillai, which is one row behind the Post Office in Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
Open daily from 7am to 1am.

Vidya Curry House: Brickfields.
This place serves any number of authentic Indian dishes including chicken, mutton, vegetable and fish biryanis. You can also dine on chicken 65, chilly chicken, black pepper chicken, black pepper fish, cauliflower Manchurian, deep-fried chicken and fish, squid masala, prawn and egg sambal, omelette, fish head curry, chicken curry and mutton curry, and so on, and on.
Lunch and dinners range from about RM4.50 to RM8 per person.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Kanheri Caves (Mumbai, India)

Not many tourists know about the 109 Buddhist caves hidden in lion and tiger country north of Bombay and that is a real shame, because they make for a fascinating day-trip from the city, and shouldn't be missed if you have the time to see them. Don't come here expecting another Ajanta or Elephanta Island, but the 109 Kanheri Caves do possess their own somber, spartan charms, and provide an intriguing insight into the Buddhist history of west India. I must admit I didn't visit the Caves by choice, but was rather hauled out here by my thuggish guide and his driver, who had abducted me on my first disoriented morning in Mumbai, and refused to let me go. The pair had latched on to me literally the moment I bundled out of my taxi at the Gateway of India, blinking in the sunlight and looking like a full sucker; for the past 24 hours they had been leeching me for all that I was worth, US$100 a pop plus tips, and my travel funds were dwindling at a dangerous rate. I would have been happy just hanging out in Colaba and eating some wicked cheap food, browsing for obscure books, or maybe catching a ride on a suburban train... these sharks had other ideas. They had whisked me off on a city tour, found me a hotel to stay in, and even threatened to plan a itinerary for my entire Indian vacation, all in the first couple of hours of my arrival in Mumbai. For some reason I didn't think they were quite serious about the itinerary, and as I bid my adieus and checked into my hotel, I kind of expected they would just forget about me, and move on to the next victim. How foolish and naive was I? how little did I understand how the Indian hard sell worked? They weren't going to let me go that easily! When I stepped outside my lodgings the following day, just up the road from the Taj Hotel, I was alarmed to see them lurking at the gate, paparazzi-style, their tour car parked beneath a tree. "We've been waiting here all morning," the guide said, a grimace distorting his face. "You get up late." He went on to insinuate that they would be really offended if I didn't take another of their ridiculously overpriced tours, to complement the rip-off tour I had taken with them the previous day. This should have been a lesson that politeness gets you nowhere in India, especially when dealing with touts; this should have been my cue to toughen up and act more assertive. I should have raised my voice with them, told them to piss off, and stormed off into the maelstrom, melting into the crowds like Johnny Depp escaping the paps. I have lived in Japan for the past five years, however, and life in Japan has made me soft. I am just too damned polite these days. Biting my tongue Japanese tourist style, internalizing my rage, I acquiesced to their demands, and let them take me out to the Kanheri Caves, the destination of the day. The Caves lay beyond one of Asia's largest slums, in the depths of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Driving through the dry woods of the national park, hounded and surrounded by monkeys and scavenging children, I fretted about how I was going to escape the clutches of the malevolent duo I had fallen in with. Could I give them the slip at the next toilet stop? I wondered, but then realized that wouldn't work... they knew what hotel I was staying at. To take my mind off things, I focused on the scenery passing outside. It was actually quite beautiful in a wild Indian way, and I started to feel like I was Bungalow Bill without his Mum, off on an expedition through the jungle. The feeling perked me up; I would have totally missed this if I had spent the whole day in the city! I'll finish this tour, then, I thought to myself, but tomorrow I am ditching these bloodsuckers for good! Even if it meant finding a new hotel. We passed the edge of a Lion safari park not far from the Caves, and then drove straight through a Jain community full of smiling, waving children. My guides, I noticed, were Muslims, and there was a gold-plated reading from the Qur'an hanging from the rear-vision mirror. I wondered what Islam would say about hustling poor tourists like myself... I mean, wasn't it kind of haram? I'd heard it said that cheating wealth made you a sinner in Islam, and was going to say something along those lines, but then decided now was not the right time. I was stuck in a car with two thugs in the middle of a tiger jungle, on the edge of a lion safari park. I was totally at their mercy. For the second time today I bit my tongue, and internalized my rage. But at least the scenery was nice.

Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Christians... India is a religiously polyglot nation, packed full of density. That's one reason I traveled so far to get here; another is that I heard it was the land of spiritual asceticism, but I hadn't seen much evidence of that thus far... I hadn't seen much spirituality at all to be honest, and this disappointed me. Therefore I was delighted to learn, as we sped through the woods of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, that the Kanheri Caves was actually a Buddhist monastery, constructed during the golden age of Buddhism on the subcontinent. Mumbainet.com claims: "The complex contains more than a hundred tiny cells cut into the flank of a hill, each fitted with a stone plinth that evidently served as a bed. There is also a congregation hall supported by huge stone pillars that contains the dagoba, a kind of Buddhist shrine. And if you pick your way up the hill you will find channels and cisterns that are remnants of an ancient water system that channeled rainwater into huge urns..."

That sounded cool, but what was even more surprising was the realization that this vast Hindu realm was once almost entirely Buddhist... for a fleeting moment of time, at least. When Ashoka the Great Unifier ruled India, back in the 3rd century before Christ, Buddhist doctrine was exported as far afield as Greece. In his efforts to propagate Buddhism, Ashoka built shrines and monasteries all over India... my Soka Gakkai friends in Japan would call him a legend! He inscribed Buddhist teachings on rocks and pillars in many places. At Kanheri these engravings can be seen, written in the ancient Brahmi script, as well as Devanagari and Pahlavi. The empire ebbed, as all empires do, and all that were left behind were the deep-sea fishermen called Kolis, whose stone goddess Mumbadevi gave her name to the modern metropolis of Mumbai... and the ruins at Kanheri.

According to the Mahaarashtran Tourist Information Site:
"The viharas at Kanheri indicate a large monastic settlement which probably began in the 1st century AD when the bhikshus followed the austere Hinayana tradition. The settlement grew into a scholastic centre with a large library and continued through generations of monks for several centuries. The cells are provided with stone beds and cisterns for storing water, and are connected by walkways.


"Over time, the bhikshus enlarged their rock-cut Caves and in each group of viharas one was set aside as a chapel for meditation and the performance of prayer rituals. A stupa, now a votive memorial, was carved at the inner end and the arrangement of columns allowed a circumambulatory passage around it. Over the entrance was the characteristic arch in the shape of a pipal leaf. Originally simple and even severe, as at Bhaja, the chaitya developed into an impressive shrine like the magnificent Karla chaitya of the 2nd century AD -- an inscription here claims that it is the finest in ancient India..."

Thinking about these monks living out here in the oppressive heat with nothing but a stone bed and some robes to their name, I couldn't help drawing a contrast with the crass materialism of modern Mumbai, my guides with their gold-plated Qur'anic scriptures and their air-conditioned car, everyone clutching for money money money!, me me me!, more more more! If you do get out to the caves please don't be so gullible as I was; feel free to ditch the guides, and do the journey by yourself. It will end up being cheaper and a lot more fun, as well as more in fitting with the original ascetic aesthetic of the site! I've read somewhere that visitors can take the train on the Western line from Churchgate to Borivali station, and then an auto-rickshaw to the Caves. On Sundays and public holidays, a bus service runs from Borivali station to the Caves. If I had my time again, that is how I would do it... by public transport. India is great when you break free from the touts, and there is still plenty of spirituality to be found, Gods be thanked!

Monday, May 2, 2005

Bewildered in Bombay (My First Day in Mumbai)

This is a first-hand account of my first day in India, a day I had been both longingly anticipating for a long time, and anxiously dreading, simultaneously. I took a punt by coming here with no accommodation arranged, which probably wasn't such a smart move, considering. After spending 18 hectic hours in the west coast city of Bombay/Mumbai, I have to conclude that India is a land of contradiction, and duality. In one sense it is heavenly, otherworldly, exotic -- the dream destination for the curious traveller. On the other hand, I haven't been to another place (excluding Vietnam) which is more taxing on the visitor. India is Heaven. India is Hell. There is not much space in between. That is the Indian polarity. Let us move on!


India is Heaven, India is Hell. Let us move on (India, 2005)
Last night I flew from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to the subcontinent, leaving the semi-developed world of SE Asia behind me, with its monorails and humid heat, its muddy rivers and bustling night markets. I had been apprehensive ever since my arrival in KL a few days previously, wondering if I had made the right decision by launching this whole expedition, aiming as it was for Mumbai on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Lying in bed in my hotel room near Chinatown, I had watched some Indian movies on TV, and they had lightened my mood, somewhat. Wandering around on the streets outside, I had consumed Indian food (Tamil, mostly), and been mightily impressed. Exploring Indian food had been a big goal for this journey, and I was lucky that I had selected KL as a stopover on my way to the subcontinent, for it is a perfect bridge. There are Indian people everywhere here, and even a Little India packed with colorful temples! Nonetheless, I was worried (maybe I am a worrier by nature?), and I lost just a tiny bit of sleep. Malaysia was easy, comfortable, a delight to explore... but I had butterflies in my stomach regarding what awaited me on the next step of the journey, in India. I thought to myself: Maybe I could just cancel my flight to Mumbai, and stay here instead? But that would be wimping out, like I wimped out of my first trip to Vietnam in 1995, and wimping out had never really served me in the past. What if I missed out on a great experience, simply for being too cautious? I'd never be able to forgive myself for that. Anyway, I am no travel virgin: I have been to Nepal before and am also well acquainted with Egypt and the Middle East... I've had my hands splashed with cologne on the buses in Turkey, and been seized by security in Spain. I have been around the block, so to speak. I've lived in Elephant and Castle in London, in a hardcore housing estate and all, the corridors smelling of piss. Nonetheless, there is something especially forbidding about India for the first-time visitor, no matter how experienced you are... there is something particularly frightening about the reputation this country has. Maybe it stems from all those traveller tales we have been told on backpacking routes around the world... "If you think things are crazy here, let me tell you about my trip to India." Those tales had me troubled, but I was also exhilarated by the thought that I would soon be visiting a new part of the world, an integral part of the world, and the spiritual heartland of Humanity: India! I had always wanted to go there, and here was my big chance! So, I kept on watching those Bollywood movies on TV, and held my nerve. In due course, the day of my departure arrived, the sun burning fiercely outside, the usual ruckus in my hotel. I headed out to the airport clutching my florid Lonely Planet guidebook to Indian cuisine, feeling like a condemned man. My anxiety increased when, arriving at the departure gate, I realized just about everyone on my Malaysia Airlines flight was Indian. Some of them were looking at me kind of funny, like I was the outcast, the intruder, the foreigner. As we headed out on to the runway, I began to feel like I had made a mistake. I began to wish I had remained in Japan, hanging out with my new girlfriend, going out for a bite of something Korean, or just staying home to watch TV. I had booked this flight before I met her, however, so I was kind of obligated to carry through. I had secured my Indian visa one sleeting morning, during our courting days, just across the road from the Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社), where all the war criminals are interred, and I couldn't allow that cold trek out there to have been in vain. There was no turning back. I'd made too much of the whole thing. I'd be letting myself down if I didn't go. Failure was not an option.

As we taxied out to the runway, the air hostesses came around to confirm which passengers had requested vegetarian meals, kosher or halal, etc, which is of course standard procedure when flying. On a normal flight there are just a couple of vegetarians scattered around the aircraft, and they always get their meals served first, lucky devils they! On this flight, however, it seemed like half the cabin was vegetarian. I had to laugh -- my vegetarian friends would have been in Heaven! And so, for a moment or two, my mind was taken off its plight. But it only lasted a moment or two, because India still awaited, and it was getting closer by the minute!

We took off, the jungle receding into a green and cloudy blur. I got myself acquainted with an Indian man named Ibrahim who was sitting in the window seat beside me. I asked him where he lived and was astounded at his reply: "Nagoya." I couldn't believe it but I found out he would actually be returning to Japan the following weekend, on exactly the same flight as me! Perhaps we could even sit together. At that revelation I started feeling more confident, and Ibrahim promised he could help me get through the airport and find a hotel, and whatnot. See what happens when you go with the flow, I thought to myself, Destiny steps in to help you! I started to relax, we had some good in-flight food (chicken tikka), and I watched a good Bollywood movie. Everything was gloriously colored, the chicken tikka, the movie, my Lonely Planet guidebook in my carry-on, and the general atmosphere on board the plane. It was like the sun was shining even though it was dark outside. I drank a little, slipped into comfort mode, feet outstretched, shoes off. Ibrahim pointed out there were a couple of Japanese businessmen sitting behind us, on their way to their subcontinental presence. He went back to chat with them for a while (what a good networker he!) I stayed in my chair, the hours passed, and my excitement grew. Following our progress on the on-board navigation system, I smiled as we hit the shore of Tamil Nadu, then dropped over the heart of southern India, lit up like a Christmas tree. Before too long, I spotted the tropical city of Bombay laid out before me in the humid night, a vast saucer of light. It was, in short, a vision of Paradise, inverted, because it was beneath me, and not above. But whatever: I was so glad to be finally landing!


A vision of Paradise, complete with chunky clunky old Tata cabs (India, 2005)

Bombay Airport looked old and dirty but charming in a faded, retro fashion. There were plenty of angry police in green fatigues, and Indians pushing and shoving to get to the head of whatever queue was happening at the time. While I was waiting for my bags to come off my Nagoya friend Ibrahim disappeared on me, and I couldn't find him again! Perhaps he got sick of waiting for me... it seems that patience is not a strong Indian virtue. So, the upshot was, I was on my own after all! Stuck in a strange airport surrounded by palm trees in the middle of the night, in a country renowned for its hassle, and its hustle. And the vultures were closing in. Oh God, were they closing in!

It went like this: after I was abandoned by Ibrahim, I approached the accommodation counter outside, just as my florid Lonely Planet guidebook had recommended. I told them there that I wanted to stay at a cheap hotel in town, so they booked something that sounded fairly decent (the Imperial Hotel or something like that), and then I got a ride with a driver to the hotel. I was fairly sure that it was a hotel downtown, but not really knowing where downtown was, I was in no way to judge. We pulled out on to the road, in some old Tata (or something). In Japan, they would have called it a ponkotsu. Outside the airport the traffic was thick, and almost medieval, dusty and heaving  and medieval. I noticed the portrait of a Hindu god rearing over the hubbub, like an image from a dream. How exotic... this was the India I had dreamed to see! I kicked back in the back of the Tata, settling in for what I assumed would be a long and fascinating drive. And then, all of a sudden, the driver pulled up on the side of the road, turned off his engine, and announced that this was my hotel. I couldn't believe it... we were scarcely outside the grounds of the airport! Perhaps just two blocks distant, surrounded by slums. I didn't know much about the geography of Mumbai at the time, but I knew that this couldn't possibly be down town. My hotel it was, unfortunately. For some US$45 per night the dirty room was mine, complete with a TV that didn't work, cold shower and an air-conditioner that shuddered and shook all night long. I passed a very uncomfortable night trying to sleep under a dirty flimsy and dirty blanket, shivering because the air conditioner was too cold. I kept thinking to myself: What am I doing here? I could have been back in my crib in Tokyo, snuggled up with C. I waited for sleep to descend upon me, and transport me back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Perhaps it did descend, too, for a brief stretch or two. But I never got transported.


Driving through the slums of Mumbai, on the way downtown (India, 2005)
Let this be a warning to those wanting to stay at a hotel near Bombay Airport -- the airport is built right in the center of one of Asia'a largest slums. If slumming it in the slums is your style, go ahead and stay there -- but I would prefer somewhere with a little more atmosphere. No, I will take that back... I would love to stay with the locals in the slum, provided I am not being ripped off for doing so, or taken for a fool. I would love to live like the local families, eating their food, sharing their lives. And as I would later discover, there is something warren-like about the Indian slums, something warren-like and magical, which suggests you are part of a new kind of organism. If I could have stepped outside my fears that night, and dreamwalked the neighboring streets, I might have had a more enjoyable night. But my fears, as usual, kept me grounded, somewhere between Heaven and Hell. Which is the place I usually reside, unfortunately.
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