silver linings

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for about a month to pursue projects and travel. (Lucky for me, slow blogging is in for 2009.) For most of the last few weeks, I have been in Sri Lanka, meeting people and learning about their lives. For its beautiful sunsets, delicious varieties of tea and wild elephants, there is little escaping the fact that this is an island at war. Colombo’s one-way boulevards are littered with army and police checkpoints, where heavily-armed “vigilance committees” question travelers and check ids. Sometimes the soldiers and officers are serious and to-the-point; sometimes they are conversational, like a welcoming committee with machine guns.

On the first day of the new year, even on the heels of a year marred by bloody wars and financial crises, it is customary to look for a silver lining. After all, we have our health. When you are on a tropical island, the impulse is the same. We’re here — why not sun bathe?

One weekend, I was lucky that some friends of a friend took me along to a villa retreat in the south of the island. The drive along the west coast takes you past small towns and resorts and some of the most untouched beaches you can imagine. Our hosts rented out a three-bedroom house, a beautiful property with beach access and a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had strong coffee and grilled fish and lounged in an outdoor living room, where the walls facing the ocean are forgone in favor of natural breezes and a spectacular view. Reading gave way to naps on the veranda, regulated by the rhythym of the ocean. A dip in the pool followed by a glass of chilled wine cooled the afternoon heat.

But on our first afternoon of relaxation, the quietness of our light conversation by the pool was cut by a large crash and the sound of speed breaking through the air. Our heads turned up; I didn’t see anything between the tips of the coconut trees that framed the sky. My better-informed companions said the sound was a MIG fighter jet from a nearby airforce base. Seven minutes later, I read on my phone that there was an air strike up north, where the heaviest fighting is taking place.

While I was in Sri Lanka, beach-going tourists were stuck at Bangkok’s airport, cordoned in or out by yellow-clad protestors, and globe-trotting visitors to Mumbai were struggling with terrorist attacks on hotels. I went for a holiday in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, and ran into some pretty big protests that took place along a row of popular hotels. I watched the crowds of sign-wielding dissentors and riot-gear-ready police with an elderly Japanese woman who had emerged from her hotel confused and scared about the sirens and the surprisingly loud crashes that come from canisters of teargas.

The absurdity of tourists in the middle of conflicts not their own is exceeded only by the absurdity of so many acts of violence happening in the world today. Still, we seek that silver lining, the chilled wine on the patio that gives us respite from a war or a crashing housing market or a political battle. We celebrate a new year to help us get through the serious tragedies or mundane hardships of the last one. And we hope that the next time we celebrate, things will be better.

boating around Borocay

So happy new year, wherever you are. (Boating in the Philippines, around Borocay.)

eight-hour layover

I’m pretty well acquainted with the airports of transportation hub city-states. The airports of Hong Kong and Singapore are well-designed places where travelers can keep living or working or holidaying, instead of just waiting. While I was living in Singapore, the proud little red dot unveiled its brand-new Changi Airport terminal, the enviable T3, where environmentally friendly vines cling to indoor walls and sculptures, waterfalls flow from architecturally integrated fountains, and brides and grooms gather to take advantage of the soft lighting for their wedding memories (no joke — I saw it with my own eyes and discovered later that the airport advertises itself as a wedding venue). I’ve made three trips through the spacious arrival and departure halls of the Hong Kong International Airport, where you get floor to ceiling views as planes taxi in and out against the backdrop of the island’s beautiful, rolling hills.

Airports in Asia compete to be the most beautiful, the best for shopping, the grandest. But my layover in Hong Kong this time around — an eight-hour marathon of aimless walking and bottom-numbing musical chairs — reminds me that a) I can get pretty restless and b) the world is very connected.

The flight boards show many cancellations today. Flights to or via Bangkok are all not coming or going. Flights to Mumbai are delayed. Travelers here watch the news and know people who are or were or might have been in these places, stuck or injured or worse. And its that sense of, “It could have been me,” on such a grand scale that makes geography almost irrelevent. I’m working on the first episodes of a podcast called “Global Lives” — this, I suppose, is one of the drawbacks to the otherwise exciting lives of people who consider the whole world their home.

Gateway of India

On my last visit to India in December, 2007, (correction) June, 2008, the Gateway of India in front, the Taj hotel just across the street.

Election day pre-game

When I lived in Singapore I watched the presidential debates and conventions online. I used to sit in our living room, lounging on the rattan sofa in my Thai fishing pants, and enjoying the wifi generously shared by the fellows downstairs. Sometimes on the Sundays that I stayed in town I would sit there for hours, unaware of time going by, taking in my Americanness and trying to stay connected to home once in a while.

My roommate, who still lives in the flat, would go out in the morning — for muy thai or ballet lessons because she is a very active person in that way — and come back in the afternoon only to find me sitting the same place, mugs and plates for snacks piling up around me. And I would absently make a comment — “That was a really solid speech,” or “I don’t think this is true,” or “What do you think of their approach to Asia?” — to which she would blankly stare or just continue with her activities.

Sometimes though, when I wasn’t spacing out, we had really interesting conversations. It’s really interesting to think about American politics from international perspectives. My old roommate is from a town outside of Hiroshima, Japan. Politics in Japan are very different, she told me. She was baffled at Americans and the way they watch politicians and listen to them speak.

Japan has had four prime ministers in the last three years; after the charistmatic Junichiro Koizumi’s almost six years in office (which is three terms in Japan), Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda took the post and then resigned under political pressure before their terms ended. The current Prime Minister, Taro Aso, just postponed until January a general election in which he and his party would have to defend their position. Add to this the financial crisis, and it seems like a good time for political news in Japan.

But young people in Japan and the mass media don’t give politicians the airtime that American politicians get here. They are not seen as the people who directly affect lives, and since Koizumi, they are not particularly interesting to watch. The dynamism and hustle of this year’s political race in America was something new to my roommate.

So we watched the conventions together, testing my ability to explain some of the more absurd elements American politics and punditry and my roommate’s ability to follow some pretty complex English.

Now that it’s election day, I wonder what she would think of the campaigning and media duke-outs — even I am a bit in awe of the Superbowl-like energy, even though I am really excited (I voted!). I’ve never seen CNN get so excited about a multi-touch screen (they need more applications for that, so its not John King doing the same demonstration over and over again), and The New York Times plug its own tech-saavy so heavily. Even the Japanese press are getting excited.

So here’s my election night game-plan: 4pm, CNN and local news on television. Online, I’ll be following the Los Angeles Times for my local fix (see this interesting graphic on the historic fundraising for Proposition 8 campaigns), The New York Times and their ticker that shows when major news outlets call races, and some papers in Asia. Many are relying on wire service reports or The New York Times, but I’m finding interesting real-time perspectives so far in the Straits Times of Singapore, the Jakarta Post in Indonesia, and The Times of India. In social media, I’m looking at Global Voices’ special election section and Twitter’s election ticker.