Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Geography of Kindness

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama

Joon Keat, Vincent and I have lunch a few days ago in a small and largely unexpected Korean restaurant snuggled in a hidden corner of the town of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. It was a genuine outfit, ran by real Koreans and we went there on the recommendation of the Madam who runs the Cherryton Cottage, a little backpacker's inn our group was lodging at. The cafe had the feel of an apartment in Seoul; cosy dimensions, heavy dark-wood furniture, Korean books piled on a largish bookshelf like layered Vienetta and a single massive but miserly window facing the beautiful Dharamsala valley.

It was from our table which we overheard a conversation in Mandarin between a young, bespectacled monk and a lady possibly in her late twenties who had a toddler with her, a baby girl with prodigious potential for hyperactivity. Mandarin is a rather alarming dialect to be heard in McLeod Ganj because - well - the Chinese were bloody responsible for the existence of he Tibetan refugee settlement in McLeod Ganj in the first place. Further unintentional eavesdropping (it was a weally teeny woom) revealed the lady's concern of a "Ta Shuen" or "General Election" and that dropped several pins at once. With the departure of the monk (who turned out to be Indonesian, by the way) Joon Keat and Vincent scooted over to the lady's table for a spot of conversation with the evidently Malaysian woman. I, ever the private entity, stayed put and listen from where I sat.

She said that she was on a 2 months pilgrimage there at the Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama's temple, to learn what His Grace has to teach about his faith of Mahayana Buddhism - an exercise and experience I hope to emulate in the not-too-distant future.

After a brief exchange of our Indian contact numbers just-in-case, the lady excused herself and her daughter and left the cafe - but not before sending over her practically untouched plate of deep-fried-something to our table. 'Couldn't finish it' she told us and as soon as the door closed in her wake, the waiter bloke said,

"She paid your bill."

What with our special order of a whole chicken dish which required us to wait more than a whole hour for,
our bill could not possibly have been lighter than 700 rupees (RM 60) in total.

We were quite thoroughly stunned. We just sat there with our mouths agape. staring at one another like idiots for several full seconds. Then I reacted; I stabbed my stainless steel chopsticks into my bowl of rice and bolted for the door with a yelp. I nearly collided with her in foyer though as she was heading back to the shop to retrieve her child's sweater (or something of that nature).

We pleaded her to let us pay her back but she refused firmly. As I held the door open and bade her farewell, it struck me that I lacked even the courtesy to go over and speak to her earlier. Neither did I possess the grace to ask her name. The reason for her generosity to us - which I cannot rightly claim knowledge of - probably had something to do with us being Malaysians, as she is. It was with that assumption that the three of us vowed to pick the bill of the next Malaysians we meet on our trip.

Is it true that we are more prone to be kind to people we are familiar with?

Take the Madam who runs the Cherryton Cottage for example; we checked in at about 6 am on the 7th of march, checking out at 12 pm on the 8th. According to standard hotel and guest house regulations, it was quite within the bounds of the hotelier or host to charge us for two nights' worth of stay (which the one in Amritsar did, by the way). Fearing another Amritsar fiasco, I approached the Madam to negotiate the charges. Basically, I hold the job of talking to middle-aged landladies during our trip because they seem to like me a lot). I was delighted to discover that the Madam have already decided on her on to bill us for only one night, and the reason she cited was this; I am the spitting image of her uncle, right down to my hair and the way I smile.

The apparence is staggering; familiarity does breed a disposition for kindness.

Anyhow, the previous two incidents in Dharamsala aren't my motives for penning this entry. The one I really want to talk about is one with a rather more unfortunate and negative nature, and it happened in Manali.

Member of our group have somehow made the acquaintance of a couple of Korean girls while we were on the hellish bus ride from McLeod Ganj to the snow-capped mountains of Manali. I thought them to be immensely scatterbrained creatures - backpacking across India with the woeful smattering of English words they are able to employ, armed only with a rather tattered Korean backpackers' guidebook which was only about a third of the thickness of the ones we were packing and ARRIVING IN BLOODY FRIGID MANALI AT 3.00 AM IN THE BLOODY MORNING WITHOUT ANY ADVANCE RESERVATIONS AT A GUEST HOUSE NOR HAVING ANY BLOODY CLUE WHERE THEY WANT TO GO AFTER THEIR BLOODY ARRIVAL. Naturally, we took them under our wing and brought them to our lodge.

There was room for them there but they considered the rates to be a tad too pricey for their budget (a really pathetic creature it was indeed, this budget of theirs). They decided to go out and search for accommodation elsewhere in the morning instead. Pope Vincent the Benevolent suggested that they could hang out in one of our rooms while waiting for daybreak to come, which was due to make an appearance in 3 hours or less anyway.

As little love I have for fools, 3 hours seemed little enough a charity to give to a couple lost Korean girls to me. A female member of our group (who was a Korean drama addict, incidentally), who I shall name here as Tee, led the Korean girls to her room which she was sharing with two other girls; Jay and Dee. To Tee's surprise and quiet disdain, Jay pointedly refused. This I learnt when Jay came to my room to complain about it.

"How very Buddhist of you," I commented dryly. Jay is the only other member of our group who is a badge-wearing Buddhist.

"That's not how I was brought up," she replied curtly and I prudently said no more.

It appeared to me - if you can forgive the bluntness of my sensibilities - that Jay wasn't brought up to be kind enough to a couple of fellow backpackers by putting up with them for a 3 measly hours. Had I been met with the same request in her stead, I would have found it impossible, this I say as a human being, to refuse it. I do not want to appear as if I am badmouthing my friend here but her adamant refusal to help shocked me - and it shocked me precisely because I have always considered her to be a generous soul, one who have helped me out many times before. Who am I to pass judgement? But still, we judge and are judged by our actions every single second of the day whether we deserve to or deserve it, or not.

I disturbed me deeply that something as elementary as the difference in nationality would cause a person of known good character to be discourteous and to deny asylum for an insignificant amount of time to a couple of persons in need of it. There is no question of mistrusting the Korean girls' character as Tee would have been in the same room with them for all 3 hours to keep an eye on them. There is no excuse I can find by which I could justifiably say no to them. Em (another girl) and her boyfriend apparently had the same mind as I did, and volunteered their room instead.

I was never brought up to show kindness to two weary and cold Korean girls either (even if they didn't have two brain cells to rub between them) - but still, it's a feat which I feel I can achieve with no great difficulty.

I cannot insult my own upbringing quite that way.

P.S. Beve just posted not too long before this. Go check out her awesome post.

P.P.S. Isn't it the recent Malaysian General Elections just glorious? I think so.

Believes in mettā,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Only the Beginning

"No, it's messy! You can't come over now..."
My Mum

"No not now lah, sometime in the future when you've got the house cleaned up -"
The wife of my dad's friend

*just clued in on the conversation*

"Hmn? Clean? o.o" It's
always going to be messy."

*blank stare*

Hello! Guess who? I know la, if it's not Po then who else could it be? Besides which, who else calls K0k, Po? And uses emotes in quotes for that matter. Hmn.

Today is a very special day.

Today marks the first day I vandalise Po's blog.

And up till now I had nothing to blog about that would interest you guys even after thinking and thinking (coz seriously I'm never gonna be as good as Po right no matter what I blog about) so I thought I'd go ahead and bore you all to death and scare more readers away blog anyway.

Newly named Kero Kero, previously known as Calvin, said I should blog about my parents. Can't blog about my dad for several reasons, so here's my mum.

Face censored due to privacy obligations

Her hobbies include ironing

and cooking.

*thinks* "Cook for yourselves, damn children." >_>

I sometimes wonder if she really likes her hobbies.

Every now and then, about once a month, she brings back sweet things.


Oh yeah! She also has a couple of children.

Numbers possibly fabricated.

But sometimes it feels like there're so many more.

We are her SPAWN! *rawr*

She nags sometimes.

Sometimes we nag back.

We love her anyway.

All one hundred and one of us.

I wonder if she loves us. o.O

Happy early/belated Mother's Day!

p.s. Early for Malaysia, belated for London.
p.p.s. Pictures look pixelly because blogger reduces the size and makes them look ugly.

At the start of her reign and craving carrot cake,
(pronounced Beh-vee)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

North and Northeast

"Don't eat the yellow snow."

This turned up while I was googling for tips directed to folks travelling to wintry places.

Big friggin' hello from the northerly city of Amritsar (which means "The Pool of the Nectar of Immortality" by the way) in the Indian state of Punjab, a veritable Mecca for the disciples of Sikhism. It is the home of the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, which is supposedly even beat the Taj (that one lah)in terms of the number of visitors it attracts on a daily basis.

I like this city verily, but I can't quite place a finger on why. Maybe it was because I made a stop in New Delhi prior to coming here - and New Delhi has got to be the most unpleasant, maligned and diseased place I have ever been unfortunate enough to step foot onto. If there's ever a piece of real estate on earth that needs a Great Flood v2.0, it's New Delhi - and someone better page God to toss in an oil tanker's worth of air freshener in along with the deluge. Every breath of air is torture and I could quite vividly imagine my lungs blackening with every passing minute. The haze in the air was so... so... so plagued that visibility does not dare venture thirty feet in front of my eyes before it screamed in fright like a Japanese schoolgirl and came running back through my corneas. If the smog gets just half as bad back in Malaysia, the government would probably declare a State of Emergency.

I just returned from the daily (I believe) border-closing ceremony at (where else?) the India-Pakistan border and it was a supremely entertaining experience. Imagine stadia being built around the border gates both on Pakistan's and India's side which (I was told) are capable of seating more than 10,000 spectators between them. Imagine soldiers in full decorative uniform from both sides marching as if they are trying to kick themselves in the face with the grim determination to out-class, out-shout, out-salute, out-scowl and out-every-bloody-thing the other side. Imagine the throng of drunkards patriots watching the spectacle chanting nationalist slogans over and over again at the top of their voices trying to drown out the spectators on the other side (I think on the Indian side, they were chanting "Hindustan, Hindustan; Buy Capathi, Buy Capathi; Banzai, Banzai" - or at least, that's what it sounded like). And the grand finale when the Indian and Pakistani soldiers slammed the border gates in each other's face, the crowd went absolutely bananas.

Seeing how the Indian crowd outnumbered the Pakistani one at least 4-to-1 (and thus having 4 times the lung power), I half expected the Pakistan side to just lob a grenade over in frustration. I know I would.

I love to stick around and chat but unfortch, I - yeap, you guessed it - am on the run again. I'm leaving in less than an hour for Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama. I wonder if he's home.


I blow this way,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Update from Jaisalmer

"I have too much respect for the idea of God to make it responsible for such an absurd world."

Georges Duhamel

The Golden City of Jaisalmer is precisely the sort of stuff fables are made of. A living fort in the middle of the Thar desert where its inhabitants have lived in for centuries; sons and daughters of its narrow, cobbled streets which have felt the hooves of horses ridden by the kings of old and golden stone walls which breathes history from its cracks. My guesthouse is situated right in the heart of the fort, overlooking an ornate Jain temple and sits in the shade of the Jaisalmer palace.
I have ridden out into the harsh dunes astride a dromedary camel and slept under a night where the stars which deserted the metropolitan skies gathered in multitudes - both fierce and divine - and witnessed for the first time, a life slaughtered for my palate, something I have always vowed to do.
Oh, and I have visited this shop in the first picture of this Wikipedia article. I didn't even have to wait till I get to Manali. Long live the Indian Government!

Flying the good times,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Opium Saturday in the Blue City

"Opium teaches only one thing, which is that aside from physical suffering, there is nothing real."

Andre Malraux

I woke up this morning with what felt like several metric tonnes of lead in my head, a couple wads of cotton up my nose and a whole colony of fire ants which have somehow taken up residence in my throat over the night. Step throat, I reckoned, and possibly a touch of garden variety flu as well. It's understandable, considering that the local clime boasts a height of 50 degrees centigrade at its peak with zero percent humidity at its deadliest - and I was breathing dust as much I was breathing air.

I went up to the rooftop restaurant of our guest house for a quiet spot of breakfast (and a small pot of mint tea for my poor pharynx, thank you). Somehow, I ended up with a couple of unlikely table mates - the Swiss couple, Eli and Fabian (Fah-bee-ahn) - and talked about where we all came from, and where we are planning to go after. With the indomitable Mehrangarh looking down sleepily on us from its rocky perch and the incessant burping of the auto rickshaws emanating up to us from the streets below, I felt like a character in a travel novel. It made me forget about my sore throat for a little while. Just a little while.

The first on the day's itinerary was the Umaid Bhawan Palace. commissioned by the Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur as a drought relief charity effort for 300 of Jodhpur's local inhabitants - paid only with food and water. It took 15 years to complete and if I may be honest, it's not worth the bother (or its price of admission for that matter) to see. Less than a quarter of the sprawling complex was open for visitors while the rest of it had been converted into a luxury hotel with "No Rabbles" practically etched over every entrance in the physical form of turbaned guards. Then again, it could just be my uncooperative nose, throat and cranium which disposed me to foul moods.

I took in the Jaswant Thada next, a beautiful marble monument built by the queen for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II after his death. It is in effect, a smaller, reversed version of the Taj Mahal. Halfway around the memorial, I felt near-death and I wondered feverishly if they would erect a cenotaph for me if I die on site - like they did for the rest of the not-so-recently departed royalties.

By the time we were seated within a cafe inside the Mehrangarh at mid noon, I was quite inclined to ask for an ambulance from the waiter standing by to take my order. I settled instead for a glass of orange and a tomato-and-cucumber sandwich. When the rest of my group wanted to start their guided tour around the fort, I insisted that they should go without me. A nap in the cool, shady cafe seemed a heavenly prospect indeed.

I only woke up again when a mustached and portly Indian gentleman tapped me on my shoulder - introducing himself as my group's guide. From his pocket, he produced a small packet filled with the broken pieces of what used to be a rather large pill, telling me that it would make me well again within the next five monutes. "Paracetamol" he proclaimed cheerily, and from how quickly it kicked in, I'd say it was an industrial strength one. You just got to love the lax dosage regulations in India.

Mr Suresh (whose name might or might not have been changed to protect his identity) is one of those rare individuals who can make historical narratives a pleasure to listen to. Sure they have this audio tour thing as well where you tote around a bulky player and a set of headphones as you explore the fort but nothing beats a real live human guide, in my humble opinion. It cost a little bit more but it was well worth it. Besides, having Mr Suresh on board came with a certain extra something which would not have come with a talking device.

I spotted this bearded man with a hookah sitting in a niche in a wall bordering the coronation courtyard and Mr Suresh said it was for some opium ceremony.

"Opium is an important medicine in our culture," he said "we used it for weddings, religious ceremonies and a lot of other things."

"May I have a go on the pipe?" I asked, not without hope.

He said yes, to my surprise - but not immediately so. He told me that he would introduce a man to me who eats a kilogram or more of the stuff every month who would have been happy enough to give me a taste. If there's ever one thing which I can say about Mr Suresh, it's that he's a man of his words.

At the end of the tour in the middle of the women's palace, he beckoned an elderly, turbaned, pot-bellied man wearing the uniform of the fort guards to join us. He hobbled drunkenly towards our group and looked as if he was liable to keel over at any given moment. After a rapid exchange in Hindi, the Opium Man (which henceforth is what he shall be known as in this journal) took a small, dirty plastic bag filled with some black goop from his pocket while taking great care not to be seen doing that.

"This will make you strong," he said in broken English with a smileful of opium-stained teeth

Two of my travel mates dipped their fingers in first, and I went last - digging my finger deeply into the disgusting concoction, instantly drawing forth cries of "That's enough!" from both Mr Suresh and the Opium Man.

I found it to have a bitter smell and an even bitterer flavour - and it left a thoroughly unpleasant impression on the back of my tongue long after it went down. We each handed the Opium Man ten rupees for the sample - pretty cheap for a once in a lifetime experience, I opine.

5 minutes later, the remainder of the dull ache residing at the back of my head have completely dissipated.

10 minutes later, I felt healthier than I have ever felt in years, I kid you not. I feel light in the head both my nostrils were unblocked (which is saying something since I suffer from chronic sinusitis), and my sore throat was a vague memory belonging to another lifetime. In fact, I felt so good about myself that I went and bought an overpriced souvenir T-shirt from the gift shop for myself without even thinking about it. Potent shit, that was.

Fearing that the sensation of wellbeing would eventually wear off, I had a sudden small urge - a jolt, really - while I was leaving the fort to try to buy some for the road. I managed to check myself, of course, but not without some small measure of regret.

Oh, drugs are bad by the way, kids. Don't try this at home.

Try it in India.

Just kidding

Really kidding lah.

P.S. I heard marijuana grows wild all over the countryside in Manali.

No stranger to strange experiences,
k0k s3n w4i