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.)

sad posters in Kuala Lumpur

In yesterday’s general election, the ruling coalition party in Malaysia lost control of Kuala Lumpur. And Penang. And Selangor, Kedah and Perak.

kl-newspapers.jpgAnd I know it’s big news because I couldn’t find an English-language paper anywhere in Chinatown — all of the newstands were sold out. And last night, as election results began coming through at about 1 a.m., opposition and alternative media websites were near impossible to load. The main page of Malaysiakini and Jeff Ooi’s (now MP Jeff OOi of Penang) Screenshots blog were completely stalled, and Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s Malaysia Today was very slow. I found my hotel’s last remaining copies of today’s paper in the business center.

The Barisan Nasional has made its worst showing since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Including Kelantan, which has been lead by the Islamic Party of Malaysia since the 90s, five states and one capital city are out of ruling coalition hands. This is the first time since 1969 that the coalition has not held a two-thirds majority in parliament. With only a simple majority, the party will no longer have as easy a time changing the constitution.

But why change now? Different media are giving a lot of reasons — the Asia Times ran a good pre-election article summarizing some of the major issues; long-time government leader Dr. Mahathir, according to Malaysiakini, can think of at least one reason for the turnaround.

There’s something thicker in the air though — the Malaysian Indian Congress, which is under the umbrella of Barisan Nasional, lost many seats in Parliament and state assemblies. It’s president, S. Samy Vellu (on his birthday), and major leaders were all dethroned. Meanwhile, a protest leader from the Hindu Rights Action Force who is currently detained under the Internal Security Act won a state assembly seat in Selangor.

Kuala Lumpur is still aflood with Barisan Nasional posters and flags and fliers —  I wonder how the city will (or won’t) change as the fliers come down and new leadership comes to town.

Big caves and big protests

I took a trip to Kuala Lumpur this weekend. It was a long, eventful two-day sojourn.

I left with some friends on Friday night on an overnight train — that’s my storybook beginning. It’s almost Harry Potter-esque, isn’t it? Sleeper trains are a great way to travel.

When we got to the city, we went to a hostel in Chinatown, which I found to be a pretty convenient location for seeing the sights. The Backpacker Travelers’ Inn was also like a storybook. It’s one of those place you can tell has been around for a long time. There were posters from the 80s on the walls, and a shelf where backpackers can buy and sell used guidebooks. The receptionist seemed to have too many people — too many storybook characters, maybe — floating around in his head. He had a lot of stories to tell — not that his guests should necessarily believe them all.

Batu Caves

That day we took a trip to the Batu Caves, about 20 or 30 minutes north of the city. Inside the caves are simple South Indian-style temples. The main temple is devoted to Murugan, a god of war who comes to the aid of those in need. It’s hard to imagine a place that is better for prayer. The caves look up to the sky — and forgive me for being a bit cheesy here — and you almost feel like you’re getting a glimpse of heaven.

Then there was shopping — I discovered, as my backpack got heavier, that it is not a good idea for me to be around so many reasonably-priced textiles and shawls.

The next day, Kuala Lumpur and the area around the Batu Caves were consumed by protest. I wrote a quick post for Global Voices, but I’ll just add here that I was on the fringes of the protest. There was some really courageous journalism and blogging happening around this story — some reporters got right into the tear gas. Some got close enough and were patient enough to get amazing shots.

I woke up in the morning planning to go to a large shopping mall near the Petronas Towers. I went to the train station — the two stations near the centre were closed and there were police officers observing travelers at both entrances to the station. I tried to hail a taxi — it took me four tries to find someone to take me near the shopping centre. They all explained that the traffic was too bad and roads were closed.

I could see groups of bewildered South Asians walking around Chinatown trying to find a way to get to the protest. Many of them, I found out later, went on foot, walking as much as 5 or 6 km in pretty serious humidity. I discovered that I can pass in many situations — I can be Indian, some thought I was Malay, some just saw me as an American. I think this helped me get a taxi to drop me about half a mile from the protest.

I got to the protests and watched for about an hour and a half. There was a lot of tear gas — I could smell it even though I was about half a city block from where it was being used. The protesters had come from all around Kuala Lumpur and were very persistent to get there. They clearly felt strongly for their cause. When it was time to leave, I walked for about 45 minutes before I could get far enough away from the protest to be able to get a taxi. I was lucky to get one — I didn’t see any other taxi stop to pick up anyone up who looked like they were coming from the protests.

I got back to Chinatown, had a good lunch and a good look at some more textiles (luckily I was too exhausted by that time to indulge any more). We waited for the charter bus back to Singapore for about an hour and I was asleep as soon as I found a comfortable spot in my recliner.