Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Somewhere Between the Good and the Apathetic

A long time ago I started collecting tobacco pipes. The first pipe I bought was an impulse buy in Belize.  It was $3 and carved out of smooth stone. I thought it was kind of cool and so I bought another one in Mexico. So now, collecting pipes is kind of a thing.  Whenever I'm walking by one of those tiresome trinket stalls, I have something to look for.  Pipes are cheap, lightweight, sold everywhere, while also being regionally unique, making them ideal souvenirs.  Now I have dozens of pipes, big ones and small ones, made of glass, metal, stone, wood, bone, ceramic, some plain and some ornate.

I found a few pipes in Myanmar that were unlike anything I already own so without thinking, I bought them, wrapped them in a plastic bag and dropped them into the bottom of my backpack. I had almost forgotten about them by the time I arrived in Singapore.  After dropping my bag on the x-ray machine, the Customs officer asked to see what was in the bottom of my bag.  No big deal, I had been through this routine before. Customs wants to make sure you're not carrying any drugs. You know, the kind of drugs that could be smoked in a pipe.

Singapore, by the way, doesn't  have much of a sense of humor when it comes to illegal drugs. Right on the customs form, in big bold letters, is a warning: Mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. This is a promise that the government has made good on to many people, including foreigners.

The customs officer asked me where I was flying in from.  When I told him Myanmar, I was escorted to the security office.  Knowing that it's illegal to bring in chewing gum to Singapore, I was suddenly afraid that I had unknowingly broken a law, perhaps being in possession of drug paraphernalia.  In the customs office, the officer informed me that since I was coming from a country that is infamous for opium, my pipes needed to be inspected for any trace of the drug.  This was bad news.  After buying the pipes, I had barely looked at them, and certainly hadn't done a full-barrel inspection.  They looked like they had been sitting in the bottom of a box for a few years, unused, but not new and shiny.  As I stood there, trying to get a read on the situation, I really started to wonder if my life was about to take an unfortunate turn into the Singapore justice system.

Now, obviously, I'm not writing this from a prison cell, awaiting the gallows.  After 15 minutes of consultation, I was sent along the way with stern instructions to not sell or give the pipes to anyone in Singapore. Crisis averted. This little episode got me curious about the drug laws so I did a little research.

The good news is that there would be no way for me to convicted of trafficking.  I would need to be carrying a minimum of 100 grams of opium for that to happen. The bad news is that any amount, however small, is still illegal.  Sentencing guidelines range from a nice caning (24 strokes) to life in prison. Yikes.  I didn't find any stories of foreigners getting punished for unreasonable offenses in Singapore, but the U.A.E. is another story.

Along with Singapore, The United Arab Emirates have extremely strict drug laws. Drugs found in your blood or urine count towards "possession".  Electronic screening equipment has made it possible to find trace amounts of illegal substances.  In 2008 a British man, father of three, was convicted of possessing 0.003 grams of marijuana.  This was found on a cigarette wrapper, stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Just to picture it, 0.003 grams of marijuana is smaller than a grain of sugar. He was sentenced to 4 years in prison.

Another UK citizen, a 43 year old woman, received a shot of codeine at a Dubai hospital for her bad back. When a visa discrepancy led to an interrogation and a urine test, the positive test got her immediately thrown into prison.  She was stuck there for over 2 months before being let out on bail, contracting dysentery and head lice in the process.

Even more dumbfounding is the story of a Swiss citizen, who ate a poppy-seed bread roll in London Heathrow Airport before arriving in Dubai. Three poppy seeds, stuck to his clothes, where enough to land him a 4-year prison sentence.

It's hard to know what kind of lesson you should take from these stories, other than making a point to avoid the U.A.E. It's easy to see how people get screwed over, just for being unlucky. You can be sure that I'm going to be more careful in the future.

After clearing customs, my experience in the Singapore airport got much better.  The bathrooms have a touchscreens, which prompt you to rate your bathroom experience. Coming from Myanmar, it seemed a bit surreal. I had to wonder, when will electronic-bathroom-rating-technology make it into Yangon?

It's impossible to visit Singapore and not be impressed by the careful attention to design.  Signs along the sidewalk point to the nearest metro station, and they don't just tell you which direction to walk, they tell you how far it is.  So simple, but so helpful.  The train platforms have lines on the ground, allowing people to line up just to the right or left of train doors.  When the train arrives, everyone can exit without running into people trying to get on. It's all so orderly and functional. In Washington DC, I know most commuters fantasize about implementing this sort of common sense.

There are a lot of things to like about Singapore. The result of culture blending and geographic location means that food is fresh, delicious, and cheap. It's difficult to find a bad meal.  We stopped by the Aquarium, which is incredible, and the Botanical Gardens, which are sublime. But at the same time, Singapore is a little boring.  It feels buttoned-up, like the fun-police just did a thorough sweep of the entire city. Everyone is dressed to conformity.  There seems to be very little social interaction between people.  I've never seen so many people walking while playing silly games on their phone. Alcohol is heavily taxed, making it outrageously expensive.  Street vendors are non-existent.

We stayed with a friend, Eric, who had been working in Singapore for the past year.  It was interesting to hear his perspective on the place. For him, the Singaporean culture is driven by money and conspicuous spending. Flaunting success is a way of life.  He also thinks that Singaporeans can be a bit isolated when it comes to social interaction.  As an example, he said it's a common occurrence for people in his high-rise apartment building to use separate elevators, just to a avoid having to awkwardly share the same elevator space with someone.

As a comparison, one night in Bangkok, we were eating outside on a lively street when a troop of teenagers broke out into a well-choreographed break-dance routine. Even I was moved to a donation afterwords. These moments of surprise are what I love about cities, and this dynamic quality remained elusive in Singapore.

I guess the perfect city is full of fun, dynamic interactions, and is also orderly, clean, safe.  Of course the perfect city doesn't exist, but it's interesting to see how different places try to achieve slices of perfection. The one fact that is always repeated about Singapore is how clean everything is, how it's the cleanest city.  Well, it is definitely clean, but it's not immaculate. The stiff laws have not created a cleanliness utopia.  There are lots of plastic wrappers on the sidewalks, or piled up under bushes. Lots of places are just as clean, without the draconian laws looming over everyone's head.

Friday night would be our last night in Singapore, before heading onto Malaysia. Eric, who stayed late at work each night, promised to be home by 7pm so we could have a night on the town together. We went out to one of the hippest neighborhoods, sat outside and watched beautiful people walk by. We were joined by Eric's date, a sarcastic Singaporean girl with a great sense of humor. As the night wore on, and it being our last night in town, we decided we should make a go of it and check out the "Four Floors of Whores". This catchy moniker refers to a sort of red-light district contained in a couple of high-rise office buildings. After a week of straight-laced nights out, my interest was certainly piqued.

The two towers are packed with hole-in-the-wall bars, accessible only from the interior of the building. Girls in short skirts are conspicuously hanging around.  Nothing too exceptional, except for fact that we were in the seedy belly of the city, in a nondescript office complex. It's a little weird.

The next day we were on the bus to Malaysia.  We meandered our way up the west coast, stopping in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and George Town before heading to the eastern Perhentian islands. Malacca and George Town are supposed to have some old Dutch and old English colonial charm.  For me, it was all just OK.  Perfectly pleasant, but I never found myself thinking that it would be really nice to spend more time there.
George Town - Malaysia
This sort of apathy followed me around the entire country. I found the Malaysian people to be kind, but also a bit un-enthusiastic. It's hard to put my finger on it.  I can't think of even one instance where someone was rude, or tried to overcharge me, or was anything other than helpful. But I also can't think of a time when I shared a laugh with a waitress or had a meaningful conversation with someone.  I don't know, maybe I was just doing it wrong. I suppose that when it comes to travel, you want to either love it or hate it, to feel some intensity of a place. Malaysian cities consistently felt like just another place.

Kuala Lumpur is a huge city, known for the flashy Petronas Towers (Petronas being the state-owned oil and gas company). These twin towers are the tallest in the world and indeed, it's an impressive sight.  But my big gripe with the city is that it's just not fun getting around.  Outside of the newly-developed commercial center, the city is full of grimy, broken concrete.  Sidewalks become useless when they are turned into parking lots for motorbikes.  At night the streets feel darker than they should. The train system is an un-integrated mess, which is operated by competing companies with no apparent planning to use a common station at intersecting lines. It all adds up to apathy.
Petronas Tower - Malaysia
Let's take a break from apathy and talk about Mulu. Tucked deep into the Borneo rainforest is Gunung Mulu National Park. This tropical rain forest has evolved, undisturbed, for 130 million years.  Underneath the forest, water draining through the soil has steadily erroded away the underlying limestone, creating one of the largest cave systems in the world.
Mulu - Malaysia
Mulu - Malaysia
Getting to Mulu isn't difficult, but you have fly in, as there are no roads for getting there.  This has kept any kind of development at bay, considering that a lot of food and manufactured goods need to be flown in.
Mulu - Malaysia
The density of the rain forest is almost suffocating.  It's nearly impossible to capture the layers of foliage in a photograph, as it just ends up an incoherent tangle of green. Staring into the jungle from the well-maintained trail, I tried to imagine navigating my way through the forest. It would be like navigating your way though the white-out conditions of a blizzard.  Every direction looks the same, the totality of your view is never more than a few feet in front of you.  Mind boggling.  The sounds of birds and insects play on an infinite loop.  But to see any animals, you must be very lucky. During a guided night-walk it's a little bit easier to spot the reflective eyes of spiders, lizards and other alien insects.
Mulu -  Malaysia

Mulu - Malaysia
A highlight of the park is visiting Deer Cave.  Up until 2009, it reigned as the largest cave passage in the world. To say it is staggering in size doesn't do it justice. The main entrance is just shy of 500 feet tall. The cave itself is big enough to house 40 Boeing 747s.  Once again, photos fail to capture the scene. At dusk, several million bats stream out of the cave in a long serpentine ribbon.  Watching this spectacle, which lasts about 30 minutes, is memorizing.
Mulu -  Malaysia
Kota Kinabalu - Malaysia
The tiny country of Brunei fell right into our route heading east across Borneo, so we figured we might as well stop in and say hi. My knowledge of Brunei was limited to about three words: rich from oil. Hassanal Bolkiah, the current Sultan of Brunei, was the richest man in the world back in the 80's.  Per capita, it's the 5th richest nation in the world, the U.S. comes in right behind at number 6. Despite the small size of the country, not everyone is rich. Just downriver from the royal palace is the worlds largest water village where some 40,000 people (10% of the country's population) live in stilted houses.  It looks like they are barely scraping by.

Brunei culture is dominated by conservative Islamic ideology. The sale of alcohol is completely illegal. The country recently made the news because the Sultan has decided to double-down on conservatism by implementing Sharia law. Now, crimes such as adultery and homosexuality, may be capitally punished by a good old-fashioned stoning. Thieves can look forward to amputations and anyone skipping Friday prayers can be imprisoned. The reasons for implementing this may be more political and economical than religious. It allows the government to crack down on internal instability and may attract banking business from other Islamic countries. The Sultan is not known for being a pious man. He has a reputation for throwing some of the most lavish and hedonistic parties on the planet while employing harems of international women to work in the palace. The hypocrisy is as rich as the oil fields.
According to our guidebook, in the absence of alcohol, dancing, card playing, billiards, bowling and roller skating, the only thing left to do is to eat. You might expect a wealthy country, which has limited entertainment options, to go all-out on the one thing that everyone can agree on.  But alas, the restaurant options are pretty limited. Dining out in Brunei is synonymous with eating at a shopping mall food-court. On prime, river-front real estate of Bandar Seri Begawan  (the capital city), I counted only three restaurants, which never seemed that busy. Walking around after dinner, I was amazed that the city center felt so desolate. Just as I was commenting on this, we rounded the street corner and came face-to-face with a large Burger King. The tables were full and a line of people snaked its way from the counter to the front door.  Go figure.

The Royal Regalia Building is a museum dedicated to the history and glory of the Sultan. There are several scaled down replicas of the palace and various rooms within the palace, thrones, chariots and lots of other stuff that serves no purpose other than to stroke the ego of the Sultan. Much of the space is dedicated to countless diplomatic gifts, which inevitably raises the question, what do get a man who already has everything? Jewel encrusted swords and daggers have been popular choices. You also have to keep in mind that this is all the stuff that didn't find a permanent home in the palace. It's kind of like an overflow room for priceless gifts. I felt a small twinge of pride when the only gifts from the U.S. were a few plaques, of no material value.  Photography was of course, prohibited.

In the world of diving, Sipidan island consistently makes the list as a top destination. The island was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcano cone where over 3,000 species of fish have been identified. In 1989, Jacques Cousteau said, "I have seen other places like Sipidan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art." Getting to Sipidan takes some work though as the nearest port city is in a remote corner of Borneo.  The island itself is protected and uninhabited.  A strict permit system limits the number of divers allowed per day.   The nearest island with accommodations is Mabul, a ramshackle island, home to the Bajau people, who are commonly referred to as sea gypsies. Many of the Bajau live in their boats.  The Bajau spend so much time at sea that some of them experience a nauseating "land sickness" when coming ashore.
Mabul - Malaysia
The simple dive shops on the island are built out over the water on stilts. Sitting out on the docks, watching children paddle by in small wooden canoes is not a bad way to spend the afternoon. The surrounding ocean water is so clear that it defies expectation.
Mabul -  Malaysia
The diving was, of course, incredible. There are steep coral walls, full of color, where you can just drift along to see turtles, reef sharks, manta rays and a bazillion fish.  My favorite dive was at Barracuda Point, where two currents come together, which brings in lots of food for large schools of barracuda.  The underwater current is quite strong so the best way to dive the site is to swim near the ocean floor and coast along until you are directly underneath the barracuda, which are swimming at a standstill, into the current.  At that point you just grab onto a rock, look up and enjoy show. Then you let go and the current whisks you away and lets you fly superman-style over endless coral formations.  I parked under some large table coral to hang out with a sea turtle that easily outweighed me.
Mabul - Malaysia

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