Chinese New Year celebration with our new friends at the Chinese Assembly Hall, KL
Then we took a trip to Penang (as the rest of Malaysia calls the city of Georgetown, which is the capital of the island of Penang, just off the northwest coast of the country). Penang was a British colony starting in the 1700s as they attempted to horn in on the far eastern trade. While touring Fort Cornwallis, the colonial era fort and now museum, we were struck that in many ways the story of the colonization of the far east is a parallel story to the American struggle for independence from Britain. While the British were struggling to hold on to the American colonies, they were beginning to get a strong foothold in the far east. For example, Fort Cornwallis was named after the British general who surrendered to end the Revolutionary War and Georgetown is named after King George III.
History aside, the food was the highlight of Penang, which has a distinctive cuisine that mixes Chinese, Malay, and Indian influences to create a superb dining experience. Our final night in Penang, we ate at a local food market that was filled with stalls serving a variety of tasty dishes. As Jed went on a mission to try them all (unfortunately, it turns out even he can get full) we sat and watched the crowds celebrating the New Year and felt very lucky we had been in Malaysia for this event. Unfortunately, it also meant our time there ended early as the ferries and hotels in our intended destination in Malaysia were all full because of the holiday. Instead, we took a bus across the border to Thailand, sad to be missing out on more of Malaysia, but very excited for some much anticipated Thai food!
To Bali or Not To Bali? This was the question we asked ourselves repeatedly when planning our trip to Indonesia. We hadn’t previously thought much about our time in Indonesia, as we figured it would come at the end of our SE Asia stint, as initially we relegated it to the “if we have time at the end” category. However, when we suddenly reversed the order of our entire Southeast Asia itinerary (to visit friends in Singapore before they moved), we realized that it probably made sense to hop down to Indonesia before heading north. And that’s when we started with the question of “to Bali or not to Bali?”
Throughout this trip we have tried not to stick to the typical tourist trail (with the exception, of course, of places such as the pyramids and the Taj Mahal which we obviously couldn’t miss). Instead we have tried to find places a little off the beaten track. However, at the same time, at the price of a $40, 2-hour trip it seemed a little strange to skip Bali —a destination people (including us) dream about going their whole lives. With some great advice on people experienced in Indonesia and it being our honeymoon and all, we ultimately to go for it and take the Bali plunge. Though of course, we mixed a little bit of non-Bali Indonesia as well.
After a little bit of last minute switching (we arrived at the airport to find that the flight we planned to take from Bali at the end didn’t actually fly the day or time it was scheduled for- and why would it?) we started in central Java in the town of Yogyakarta. This was a great place to start and our first impression of Indonesia was incredibly positive as Yogyakarta is full of very friendly people (during our first afternoon, multiple locals went out of their way to direct us to various sights without looking for any personal gain)- though this is somewhat offset by the incredibly hot weather and somewhat bland food.
On the recommendation of several people including Jed’s aunt and uncle, who lived in Indonesia for a time, we went to the magnificent Buddhist temple at Borobudur and the equally impressive in grandeur Hindi temple complex of Prambanan. Both of these were real architectural and spiritual achievements. We could understand why Jed’s grandmother catalogued them as the best places she visited on her around-the-world journey as a young woman (which was something more of a feat when she did in the 1920’s). Reflecting upon these centuries old structures and imagining what visiting them in the early part of the 20th century (talk about off the beaten path!) was real joy.
Then, bowing to our modern, tourist path instincts, next we set off for Bali. Our initial reaction was disgust (though a large part of this was due to our flight schedule which meant that we had spent the night in Kuta). Kuta is the worst kind of example of a western tourist town run amok. With no zoning to speak of and unchecked western influence, Kuta (in contrast to Singapore) reminded us of many of the worst aspects of home (picture the strip malls of Myrtle Beach or the cheesy-ness of Jersey shore picture, only worse). While this image was redeemed later in the week when we returned to Bali for a stay in the non-touristy highlands, we were still glad to depart for Lombok and the Gili Islands.
We found Lombok to be a nice change and the Gili Islands to be a low cost tropical paradise. In contrast to the many development mistakes of touristy Bali, the Gili Islands have had the foresight to ban all motorized transport, transforming the islands into peaceful getaways where bicycle and horse cart are the most advanced forms of transport- though Meg had a little trouble with the former:
And finally, we had a wonderful time at a fabulous, relaxing and non-touristy retreat in the mountains of Bail. Here we wandered among rice paddies, biked all the way down to the sea, and enjoyed the relaxed vibe of simple village life. So all in all, we were glad that we decided to go to Bali, though as you can tell, we have a definite opinion about where best to go (and where best to avoid) there.
What’s Up with the Mustache?
Over the past few weeks we received many questions and comments—some unsolicited, some may have been solicited by Meg in an attempt to get Jed to shave—about the evolution of Jed’s facial hair. We therefore figured we would tell the story that Meg would like to call “the month of unattractive Jed.” Jed began growing a beard shortly before the New Year in preparation for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and “because India might be cold.” While Meg understood it would be cold on the summit of Kili (where we stood for a grand total of 15 minutes), she didn’t think this necessitated a beard to keep warm (as she managed to do just fine without one.) She also certainly did not buy the India excuse as cold meant 70s during the day and maybe high 50s at night. (For our readers on the East Coast right now, not very impressive, right?) However, being patient and understanding with her sometimes difficult husband, she allowed the beard for a little while…..
After they arrived in the north of India where even Jed couldn’t argue the cold excuse anymore, he agreed to shave his beard, but pleaded he needed to keep a mustache so that he could “look Indian.” He was convinced that with this mustache, he would avoid being hassled and instead, “blend right in”. Meg told him he not only didn’t look the least bit Indian, he looked like a complete idiot and, in fact, quite creepy……
She let him keep it for a few days to humor him and even put up with him going on and on about the one man who “spoke to him in Hindi in the subway” and the one vendor who told him he liked Jed’s mustache because it was a sign of manhood (note that Jed had bought water from the same man the previous night when Meg was not present and insisted we return…..a little suspicious.) However, before our meeting with the US Ambassodor in New Delhi, Meg decided they couldn’t show up with Jed looking like a total creep, so she convinced him to at least shave off the handlebars…..
As most of you will probably agree, however, this change didn’t result in much improvement. Meg’s brother Josh probably said it best when he wrote Jed "should stop ruining your pictures with his ridiculous facial hair (if he wants to grow a porn mustache he should stay out of the 'picture of the day.' " Finally upon arrival in Singapore (but only after Jed insisted he be allowed to show is mustache to our hosts), the mustache came off and Meg was able to look at Jed without cringing once again!
A Regal Appendage
For many centuries Indian maharajas, princes, and nobility of all kinds have adorned their faces with mustaches. These mustaches have taken many forms: handlebar, trimmed, grand sweeping appendages that occupy most of the face.
Over the centuries, the trend extended beyond just royalty to encompass even the most common of men. Today all men in India maintain a mustache (a few women also do but they are mainly a part of the traveling circus). And if I’m anything it is a man of the people; when in Rome….
I began my training for the Indian mustache weeks in advance. During this time I carefully tended my face and its emerging hair to produce the perfect form. It was clearly difficult for Meg, given that she is unable (thankfully) to grow facial hair of her own, to understand this higher calling known as the Indian mustache, but sometimes the true genius is misunderstood in its time- Galileo anyone?
By the time we reached New Delhi my mustache was in perfect form and I was receiving compliments left, right, and center from Indians in all walks of life: the owner of our hotel, the very wise and fair man that we purchased the water from (despite what Meg might think we only went back to him repeatedly because he had the best prices), the waiters at several restaraunts, and the man on the metro (who even complimented it in Hindi he was so convinced I was Indian!). In sum, what better way to travel than with facial hair that identifies you as one with the common man?
PS To rebut some of Meg’s specific inaccuracies above:
- On top of Kilimanjaro, where it was snowing, Jed had a nice warm face and Meg was wearing a hood, a hat, and a scarf to try to keep her face warm. While we may have only been on the summit for a brief time, several days of the trip were very cold.
- It was actually cold in northern India; in fact, New Delhi reached an all-time low temperature days before we arrived. During our trip to Pushkar, Meg was wearing all of her clothes while my face was nice and warm
- Our Singapore hosts, along with many friends in India, complimented Jed on his fantastic beard and mustache
Meg's last word (because she is the wife): I assume you all will agree the "cold" argument is absurd and that Jed did indeed look creepy. Finally, if you take a look at the picture below taken at the Taj Mahal, you'll notice Jed looks nothing like the other people in the picture and only two of them have mustaches.
Overnight flights are often disorienting but our arrival in Singapore after an overnight flight from India was particularly disorienting. Our time in India ended in typical Indian fashion. After spending a few days in the southern part of the country (visiting Jed’s friend Sanjeeth in Bangalore and spending al lovely day in Mysore) and squeezing in that final Indian meal, we set off to take the bus to the airport. There were so many obstacles in getting to the airport, it’s hard to describe them all:
- finding someone who spoke English (which hadn’t been a problem in India until, of course, we really needed it to leave the country)
- finding out which bus to take and where that bus picked up passengers
- ignoring the rickshaw drivers who gave us erroneous information so we would use their (not needed) services (well, mainly ignoring since we did end up taking one rickshaw that dropped us off at the wrong bus station),
- navigating traffic (both car and pedestrian) with our luggage while traipsing all over town
- being asked again and again if we wanted the new airport or the old airport; the old airport is now closed so it is unclear why we would want to go there. One gentleman was so insistent in his belief that we wanted to go to the old airport that after giving us directions there (which, by that point, we knew enough to ignore) that when he passed us again five minutes later, when we were (finally) waiting at the correct bus stop, he tried to give us directions to the old airport again thinking we hadn’t understood the first time; it took Jed pointing at the (huge) sign that said “Express Bus to the Airport” to convince him that we knew where we were going
- and finally waiting an hour for the bus that “comes every 30 minutes.”
(And, of course, the money we saved by taking the bus, Jed promptly spent on Indian scotch as a “gift” for our Singapore hosts- he really bought it because he wanted to try it-but it turns out that Indian Scotch is one step below straight rubbing alcohol.)
So when we stepped outside in Singapore, after the initial disorientation passed, we realized we were not only in a different country, we were in a whole new world. With an efficient and orderly taxi line (a line!), a new taxi cab with a working meter (that the driver actually used!) traffic rules being obeyed (cars staying in their lanes!), sidewalks being utilized (by people walking not by vendors or farm animals), and, of course, trash cans, it was truly an amazing experience- who says that travel doesn’t change the way you view the world? We saw more trash cans in our first 10 minutes walking in Singapore than we saw in many of the countries we have visited.
It really was like being in the US- so in many ways we spent a lovely few days back home in the US during our stay in Singapore. The main differences were that beer was much more expensive (one bar advertised a “deal” where beer was only USD$8) and the food was unique and fabulous (we were fortunate enough to be staying with our friend Sarah Peterson who not only knows the best local restaurants, she knows exactly what to order.)
Singapore’s order and efficiency was best highlighted at the Urban Planning museum where they illustrate in great detail the “plan” for the city—very methodical with every building, neighborhood, and street mapped out. And they have an almost unhealthy adherence to the rules (and people say extreme punishments aren’t a deterrent!). People actually wait for the light when crossing the street (even if there are no cars in sight). Cab drivers wouldn’t pick us up because we were standing in the wrong place (some system of roadway markings that we still don’t understand).
Singapore was a brief lovely change after India but in some ways it is almost too perfect-- images of the Truman Show and Disneyland came to mind on several occasions. India and Singapore are studies in the extremes of societal order. While Singapore was certainly a refreshing change from the disorder of India, it lacks the vibrancy that India’s chaos brings to everyday life, where the inefficiencies were minor sidenotes as we developed a great appreciation of the county, its successes, and its potential. Whereas Singapore seems to have reached a near ideal state, India is still on the rise, making a tremendously exciting and interesting place to visit. Indeed, we found India to be a magical place with amazing people, culture, sites, and food; we are already planning and looking forward to our future trips to further explore the country. Thus for all its facilies (which are easy to focus on for comic effect), given the choice we’d actually rather live in India than Singapore. In fact, our (wonderful) Singaporean hosts are moving to Tokyo after a year in Singapore because things are just too easy for real life there.
So after a brief trip home, we too hit the road and headed back out for the inefficiencies of Indonesia (otherwise known as real traveling)….
Like many things in India, the Republic Day Parade was an extreme version of what one would normally expect. Celebrating the birth of the Indian republic (with the completion of the 1950 constitution), Republic Day is the subcontinent’s version of the 4th of July- with orange, green and white in place of red, white, and blue. January 26 is a full-fledged celebration for the world’s largest democracy.
Whereas a 4th of July celebration tends to be patriotism light (with parades tending more towards mobile barbeques than pomp), Republic Day is extra strength dose of patriotism. Perhaps no place is this unabashed patriotism more concentrated than at the Delhi’s official parade, which we were fortunate enough to attend as official guests of the Indian Ministry of Defence (insert invitation pic).
First, the fact that the Defence Ministry is the host of the event (as opposed some more civilian organization) tells you a lot about the nature of patriotism that was on display. To get an image of the parade (since the invitation was very clear about the prohibition on cameras and any other device of any kind inclusive of essentially everything but a toothpick) think of a photo of a Soviet era parade with a missile being pulled down the street. In fact, items on display included a “Smerch Launcher”, a “Multiple Rocket Launch System”, an “Armoured Engineer Recce Vehicle” and an “ICV BMP-II”.
After the armored vehicle and missile display, the parade consisted of troop after troop of military men marching in perfect unison (with their arms also waving backward and forward in perfect time). It was really quite an impressive spectacle. Aside from the BSF Camel Contingent Band, which is literally a band that plays while riding on camel back (we felt a little sorry for the camel that had the big bass drum being banged in its ear), the highlight was the wide array of regiments that marched past- including the Rajputana Rifles Band playing “Gen Tappy”; the Assam Rifles Marching Contingent playing the (aptly titled) “Assam Rifles Song; the Central Industrial Security Force band playing ”Seva Bhatki Ka Yeh Prateek”; and the Delhi Police Band playing “Delhi Police”. Each regiment had more ornate uniforms and progressively more splashy head gear. The hats started with simple turbans with insignias on the front . We thought the headgear had reached the climax when the men with 2 foot high fans on top of the hats marched by, but they were outdone by the addition of troops with 2 foot long ribbons cascading down their backs and in turn by the troop that added foot long tassels of the side that hung over their ears. It really was a Technicolor military fashion of the highest order.
The only thing that could match the costuming was the accompanying narration by the disembodied voice coming from the speakers lining the parade route. The announcer was using 100% pure soaring government oratory (known in non-democracies as propaganda). Some nuggets off his silver tipped tongue included things along the lines of:
- “While there may be fog in the air, our national pride shines like the sun in our hearts”
- “Overhead fly the great planes of the stalwart Indian Air Force, proving that the sky is no longer the limit for our great nation”
- “And there they march, a rejoicing, regal, and resplendent troop that is but a small sign of our nation’s continued strength and endurance”
In all, it was great to join the nation in a celebratory display of their national pride and for a truly glorious parade.