Sunday, August 31, 2014

Malaysia: Beyond the Myths

Over the last week, I traveled across Malaysia, the second time in two years, but this time, we managed to go beyond the typical touristy stuff and discover a totally different facet of the country that continues to amaze me with its sheer diversity. While our last trip two years back was along the popular KL-Penang-Langkawi route, where we soaked up the sun in the beaches of Langkawi, enjoyed the seafood and the old world architecture in Georgetown and window shopped and partied in Kuala Lumpur, I knew it was not exactly my way of exploring a country, as much fun as it was. Even before I had boarded the flight back home, I knew I would be back in no time.

And last week, it was exactly what we did, and this time, I can proudly claim that we did some justice to the country. Traveling on a tight budget and without the luxury of economies of scale (last time we were five while now we were just two), we walked our way through the trip, taking advantage of the excellent public transport system (including the free GoKL buses within the city centre), putting up at budget hotels which just about covered the bare minimum and surviving on street food. Along the way, we broke some myths about the country: KL is really NOT all about shopping and there is much more to Malaysia than Genting or Cameron Highlands (Make My Trip, are you listening?).

Our trip began in the picturesque little town of Malacca (or Melaka), halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. After the first couple of days in Singapore, we took a bus to this UNSECO world heritage site with a rich historical and cultural background from previous Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, ensconced in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, next to the Straits of Malacca. Traveling across the border turned out to be quite smooth, with a couple of stopovers for immigration formalities.

Staying right across the colourful Jonker Street in an obscure family-run hotel, we had all the benefits of a house guest and none of the frills of a luxurious resort. Over the next couple of days, we explored the Heritage area which houses some impressive historical and architectural wonders like the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia), Christ Church (oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia), Dutch Square, Maritime Museum, Islamic World Museum, Sultanate Palace, Porta de Santiago, Stadthuys, not to mention the breathtaking view from the St. Paul’s Hill and the river cruise across the Melaka river, while enjoying the local Malay food in a quaint little restaurant overlooking the river.

In the evening, we would walk through the vivacious night market (only open on weekends) in Jonker Street, trying out the extremely appetizing street food (I tried everything from fried oysters to pork dimsums to chicken satay), listening to the local music and buying knick knacks at throwaway prices.

From Melaka, we made the epic trip to Taman Negara, the world's oldest tropical rainforest, estimated to be more than 130 million years old, covering an area over 4000 sq. km. To put some context, our very own Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is only 100 sq km! But reaching the place was no mean feat as we used every possible mode of transport: taxi, bus, train, shuttle and boat. After traveling for eight hours, we reached the secluded rainforest in the village of Kuala Tahan. On our way, we realized this was a backpacker’s paradise with plenty of overseas tourists, but hardly any Indians on a family vacation.

As far from civilization as it was, we still managed to catch glimpses of a Jennifer Aniston movie on the only channel the TV offered and listen to Bollywood music in the shuttle. As for Shahrukh Khan, he is a popular figure even in Kuala Tahan! While the village itself was isolated, the jungle trek was as adventurous as it gets.

The permit to the national park is fairly easy to obtain and just a short boatride away. The experience of walking across the long suspension bridge overlooking the forest (Canopy Walk) was quite out of this world: scary at first, exhilarating in the middle (when you realize there is no turning back) and satisfying in the end after you have survived the urge to scream your lungs out.

Following the Canopy Walk, we trekked to the top of the Bukit Teresek Hill which offered a bird’s eye-view of the entire rainforest, but somehow paled in front of the Canopy Walk. For all our sedentary lifestyles and comforts of the corporate world, the jungle trek can be quite a test of stamina, but at the end of the day, it was worth all the huffing and puffing, especially if you had the surreal environment around you: the sheer isolation, miles of dense forest ahead of you, the eerie sound, the various types of birds, insects and small creatures which casually come in the way, not to mention the complete lack of any human contamination. We did not take a guide and it made us more acutely conscious that getting lost in the long winding trails can prove to be life threatening.

In the evening, we splurged on hiring a boat, just to cruise through the river across to Lata Berkoh, from where we again trekked to the waterfalls and cascade. On our way, we were lucky to spot a giant iguana, casually resting along the river, like it’s nobody’s business (and it wasn’t).

At night, we went for the night safari, and no, it was nothing like the nigh safari in Singapore! This was so much more natural and primitive, with ten of us, piled on the top of a jeep, driving through a rough trail through the thick forest in pitch dark with nothing but a torch to guide us. While we spotted some monkeys, owls and some other nocturnal birds and a couple of leopard cats, it was more the experience rather than the sighting itself that could make your quiver.

We simply didn’t have enough time/money for the camping, rapid shooting or visiting the Orang Asli tribal settlements, but someday I hope I could go back for these. Oh, and the food at our resort was mind-blowingly awesome. For a buffet which served a wide variety of local cuisines, I did not hold back and even had the fish curry, which I would have avoided under different circumstances.

The trip to KL was yet another long drawn battle with public transport, luggage, heat and our fast dwindling money. Further, the realization that this was the last leg of our vacation made us a little sombre and the very thought of the impending Monday morning was a bit dampening. But once, we had made our way to Bukit Bintang, the busiest and most happening part of the city, we cheered up considerably. We checked into the hotel which was again, a no-frills budget hotel, run by some migrant Bangladeshis who were extremely pleased to note that I came from Bengal and spoke fluent Bengali. It just took a few pleasant exchanges to ensure that we got our room upgraded at no additional cost and the manager was only too happy to help us for the privilege of speaking his own language for a couple of days.

While my last trip to KL saw me spend most of the time in different malls and the popular tourist attractions (Bird Park, Aquaria, Orchid Gardens), this time we stayed away from these. All I have to show for shopping are my cute 7 RMB (Rs. 140) pink slippers which are extremely comfortable, especially given the state of my fragile feet right now, thanks to all the trekking and walking. Of course, we were quite broke after we splurged close to Rs. 2000 per person to go up the KL Towers for a view from the open deck.

We reached the top around evening and stayed till after 8 p.m. just to see the city skyline in daylight as well as after sunset. The view was undoubtedly breath taking, especially of the lit-up Petronas Towers, but the facilities did not quite justify the obnoxious ticket prices. The open deck had no telescope or audio guide or even chairs/benches. Further, there was construction work going on and it all seemed too primitive for such an important tourist attraction. The Observation deck (the lower deck which is accessible at half the price) was more tourist friendly, but the view itself left much to be desired. However, as we sat in front of the Petronas on our last night, watching the fountain show and just soaking in the atmosphere, we were overcome by a feeling so powerful that for that moment, nothing else mattered in the world.

We traveled all the way north to Batu Caves, hopping across different railway stations. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, it is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, located amid the imposing limestone caves which admittedly take some climbing, especially in the humid weather conditions. But this was one place infested with a lot of Indians, and for the first time in our trip, we felt distinctly at home, or South India to be precise. We even witnessed a Tamil wedding being conducted in the temple, and didn’t miss the chance to gorge on our favourite South Indian dishes in Restaurant Rani which proudly claimed that it served Jain food as well.

From Batu Caves, we took a long train ride to the southern part to the Shah Alam district, to visit the Shah Alam mosque, the second largest mosque in south-east Asia with a capacity to accommodate 24,000 worshippers at any one time. While it’s quite an impressive structure, with its blue dome (the largest religious dome in the world) and four tall minarets, it pales in front of the actual Blue Mosque in Turkey, the memory of which is still vivid in my mind even after three years. But the funny part of our visit was that they wasted no time in covering us up in burquas and a headgear, even though we were anyway dressed quite conservatively. As non-Muslims, we were only allowed to enter the premises with a guide assigned to us for free. Omar was an elderly man, extremely articulate and well traveled, who was a pilot for 18 years, before hanging up his flying boots. As he told us about the mosque, its history, architecture and customs, he also slipped in stories of his own.

Later, we visited the National Mosque in the city centre, very different from a conventional mosque in style and construction, and noted for its bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of a then newly independent Malaysia. However, it was as conservative as the Shah Alam mosque, given the pace at which we were again covered from head to toe in a flowing gown which was way too big for me. But as far as experiences go, visiting these religious monuments was right up there with my trips to the temples in South India or the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Vatican City in Italy.

On our last night, we decided to finally explore the much-talked about nightlife of KL (which was the highlight of my last trip). While the notorious Beach Club Café was too pricey and too crowded for us, we still managed to find a decent pub close by, where we sat facing the Petronas, nursing our only drink for over an hour.

At the end of the week, I felt like I have really experienced a fair bit of the multi-faceted country and gone beyond the myths associated with it, even though I would like to come back again some day…

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Little Spark of Madness

This week marked a tragedy for all of us and no, I am not talking about Independence Day which is only a painful reminder of yet another year of freedom but not much else in terms of progress. On August 11, Robin Williams, one of the best loved actors all over the world passed away, leaving behind memories of sheer brilliance and light-hearted laughter. Ironically, for someone who made millions of people laugh, he died after a prolonged battle with depression and addiction.

Like most of the 90’s kids who grew up in the age of satellite television boom in India, my earliest memory of the actor was of course his role as the estranged husband who disguised himself as a nanny to be close to his kids in Mrs. Doubtfire. I have seen the movie multiple times and each time ended up with tears in my eyes (ok, that is not big a deal given that I cry easily). But not only did I fall in love with the character, it also marked the beginning of my obsession with the funnyman who was not exactly the conventional preteen heartthrob. While he wasn’t a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt, he held his own and managed to enthrall audiences across age groups. Over the next few years, I watched him play a variety of roles in movies like Jumanji, The Birdcage, Flubber, Patch Adams, Nine Months, Dead Poet’s Society and of course, Good Will Hunting. I just couldn’t have enough of him as I then turned to reruns of Mork and Mindy every afternoon after school. It was his comic timing and onscreen antiques that heightened my respect for a generation of actors who were actors in the true sense of the term: Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis or Michael Douglas. At an age when I should have been drooling over Backstreet Boys or Justin Timberlake, I was watching movies starring middle-aged men playing the father of the bride or a mental institute patient or a greedy stockbroker.

But for me, brought up on a healthy dose of Bollywood where heroes typically have a larger-than-life aura, be it in terms of physical appearance or qualities, Robin Williams was the first actor who transcended all stereotypes. Here was a guy who was probably shorter than the average person on the street, who looked like the average working class executive and who never beat up any bad guys to pulp, and yet managed to command a huge respect in Hollywood. Not only did he carry several films on his shoulders, he did it so naturally, that you would never even imagine him as anybody else but the character he portrayed.

For someone who immortalized the saying, “You are only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it”, it’s a tragedy that the little spark of madness claimed a life which made alive so many characters on the silver screen…

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Solitary Reaper

As a society we are terribly cruel to single people, especially those on the wrong side of 25. A generation of entertainment and literature has thrived on this topic alone, i.e. the stigma of singlehood. Even the most pathbreaking of movies which are otherwise funny, entertaining and enjoyable give in to the temptation of placating the conventional audience and end up rehashing the “happily ever after” climax that has been fed into our systems ever since we were kids.

But let’s take a moment to celebrate that phase of life which is almost like a nemesis for every human being, so much so that many of us would hold on to an abusive relationship or an unhappy marriage, just to avoid being alone. And believe it or not, being single has nothing to do with your personality, your looks or your paycheck, so each time we are tempted to blame ourselves or we are at the receiving end of some unsavoury judgement, let’s remember that more often than not it’s a personal choice.
Unless of course you are Raj from BBT. In that case, it’s just social awkwardness.

Granted there is a Bridget Jones in each of us, a Bridget Jones who fights multiple battles every day: the battle with age, the battle with those annoying extra pounds which refuse to go away, the battle with wrinkles and the battle to be taken seriously. But within each Bridget, there is also the strong and silent Solitary Reaper, who is capable of rising above these petty concerns and holding her own.

“Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.”

-The Solitary Reaper, William Wordsworth

Because, for the Solitary Reaper, the world is her oyster: she can have it and eat it too…

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rotten Tomatoes

It’s been a while since I talked about one of my pet peeves on this blog, i.e. my love for lists. So my regular readers (all five of you, or have you also disappeared?) would already know some of them, like my favourite tourist spots/books/music/movies/sportspersons/actors/TV shows and so on.

But let’s do it in a slightly different manner this time and focus on what I DON’T like instead.

Places: Being an Indian, I might be committing a national heresy here, but I really don’t like visiting religious destinations, which are usually overcrowded and reeling with various types of crooks who make a living by ripping people off and exploiting their weaknesses. While I have visited places like Angkor Wat or The Vatican City, the key drivers of these trips were purely history and architecture rather than religion.

Books: I don’t like the Harry Potter series. There I said it. Kill me. And of course, contemporary Indian literature is a strict no-no. In fact I can’t even consider these books as ‘literature’. I also don’t like the mushy stuff marketed as chick-lit. So no Mills and Boons or Fifty Shades of Gray or P.S. I Love You.

Music: Call me old fashioned, but I still like the 70s and the 80s stuff and none of the current hip-hop or pop music. And definitely no Honey Singh.

Movies: No Salman Khan movie please. I get no kick out of them, nor do I like the 100 crore blockbusters. But I am no intellectual either, so keep those sci-fi movies away (Inception included). Also super heroes mean nothing to me. So all your movies on the Batmans and Spidermans and Supermans or any other hero who is so insecure about his manhood that he has to keep it as a title can take a hike.

Actors: I like actors, not heroes. So give me a Rahul Bose or a KK Menon or a Nawazuddin Siddiqui any day over a Salman Khan or a Shahrukh Khan. And no, pulling weird expressions faces doesn’t necessarily make you funny. Jim Carrey, are you listening?

TV Shows: Ok I admit it, I haven’t watched Game of Thrones yet. And oh, I am not a fan of Modern Family either, especially Gloria. She is too loud for my subtle Bengali sensibilities.

Sportspersons: I have said it before, and I shall say it again, even at the risk of endangering my life. I have never been a big fan of Sachin Tendulkar. And Luis Suarez, I love your game, but please get some psychological help. I also didn’t like Pete Sampras though I don’t deny that he was one of the greatest tennis players of all times. Just that I preferred the volatile brilliance of Agassi over the clinical robotic precision of Sampras. In sports, I have always been on the side of the exciting and flamboyant underdog.

Food: I avoid vegetarian. As much as I can. And I can’t drink beer. It’s my biggest failure till date.

But what I hate the most is pretentious affectation and I stay away from all things which have the slightest hint of it, no matter how popular.