Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Last night I took an Ambien to help cope with jet lag. Boy did that work. Out like a light at 2 AM here. Roughly noon back home. A very good deal.
Up at 7:30. Since I got a bit of sleep on the flight, I felt rested.
Mary left for a full day of educating young Singaporeans, Burmese, and Thai leaving me on my own.
About 9:30 I walked across Adam Road to the Adam Food centre (think Festival of Nations permanently in place, though smaller.) There I purchased my meal, the Full House, from a rotund Indian man with a white cloth cap and black clothing.
The full house (a breakfast item I think) had two chicken wings, a scoop of white rice, some little fish things, cuttle fish salad, and a spicy chutney plus ota, which came in a ti-leaf and I have no idea what it was. I ate it all. In Asia if you leave food on the plate, the rice god cries. (the rice god works as a shill for weight watchers in America, but here sensible eating seems to keep most folks trim.)
After ota I wandered off through the Singapore Botanical GardenÖ a large well-kept showplace for tropical plants. I got some ideas about garden design, but the plants will not work in our Zone 3 garden. The gift shop had a great four volume series on the Ecology of Indonesia. If they werenít so thickÖ
Caught the Singapore Hop-On Bus at itís #8 stopóthe Botanical Garden. $S6 gets you a full day pass and this bus goes to all the main tourist sites. Apparently, in Singapore shopping centers are important tourist sites they get pride of place from the mechanical lady who tells you the features at the next stop, 12 in all.
I rode the bus past the great white hotel, Raffles, and past the Esplanade where theatres rest by Singapore River (the building looks like a silver hedge hog.) until the stop for the Asian Civilizations Museum. Yes, my first two tourist events in Singapore were: a botanical garden and an art museum. Same old me, new place.
Oddly enough, as the Middle Border museum had the Bodmer exhibit which I had seen in New Harmony, Indiana; the ACM (as those of us in Singapore call it.) had an exhibit of treasures of the Ottoman Turks, many of which Kate and I saw in their Istanbul home.
From a pilgrimage perspective, Iím getting warmed up. At the ACM an exhibit on Taoism as a living religion, rather than a distant, but interesting perspective made me want to meet some Taoists while Iím here.
Also, there is the perspective of Singapore as a holy city for Capitalism, an Asian mecca like the City of London and Wall Street. (I suppose Hong Kong and Shanghai get in there, too) You should see the shopping centers and skyscrapers; they have distinct temple qualities. Great staircases, monumental architecture, precious metals and fine stone, even feng shui all in service of MONEY. In fact, the Fountain of Wealth claims status as the largest fountain in the world and its point was to contribute mightily to the feng shui of its shopping/trade center.
Mary and I plan to go to the American Club to watch election returns over breakfast. This should be a fascinating opportunity, to see the electoral process in this most divisive election from the perspective of Americans intentionally overseas. Many of whom, I imagine, are business types in favor of the Bush.
Iím getting tired now and my focus has a fuzzy quality. Most of the day I felt slightly off, not quite able to get with it. My body wants to work like it does in Minnesota, but it canít and its confused; therefore, so am I. Iím gonna sign off for right now. More tomorrowÖthe 29th here. Iím writing this, by the way, from the future.
Friday, October 29, 2004
Again, thanks to the miracles of psychopharmacology I got six plus hours of sleep and I got up at 4:30 AM, my body ready for a Minnesota afternoon and therefore fully alert. So, here I sit; Maryís balcony door open, mynah birds calling as the dawn comes. Night and day share equal billing here. At least for now it makes me much more aware of both and their shared role in nurturing life.
Motor bikes and trucks buzz and whoosh by on Adam Road and on the big artery headed into downtown Singapore. The night cools down to about 80, the day will reach mid-80ís plus with equal or greater humidity. I managed to sweat yesterday standing still.
Pilgrimage thoughts. Pilgrimage gets press as a spiritual experience, but right now Iím experiencing it primarily as a bodily process. Iíve not reached any enlightened perspectives yet, but my body has new information to relate to constantly: time zones, food, microbes, smells, types of bathrooms (squat for the most part), night and day, humidity and heat, even the scarcity of similar others since so many bodies here have cafť au lait skin, gold burnish, fawn, tan, creased yellow-brown and the hair is so often black. Not like my old Scandinavian home.
Here, people are not above average. There doesnít seem to be an average to use for comparison. Here people are as they come: Malay, Filipino, Fukinese, Hokkinese, Karen, Thai, Burmese, Khmer.
What Iím trying to say here is that the pilgrimís vehicle is not separate from the pilgrimage. What happens to the body effects the pilgrimís spirit, or the part of the Self we call spirit. Self=body+mind+soul all in a particular moment. Be here now. Or, said another way, Self=whole, undivided entity bodymindsoul.
Which reminds me. Orthodox priest from Singapore is incensed (ha, ha) over claims the devil inhabits undecayed corpses. You know, and turns them into Vampires, politicians, insurance salesmenÖ Why? Because in the Orthodox tradition many saintís bodies do not decompose. This is where the odor of sanctity comes from. Literally, their body doesnít stink, after death that is. Good to know though this close to Samhain.
Typing this on Maryís laptop and I feel like Iím doing a midget ballet on the keyboard. Very cramped.
The body must encounter the pilgrim road, and its reactions come first since it supports the intellectual and spiritual labors. In this sense I think asceticism had it wrong. Yes, the body can lead us down paths of distraction: food, sex, illness, but these are normal to the body, not other than it. The question is not control of the body (the opposite, Iím suggesting. is the real truth, the body controls us.) but care for it. Not care for it in denial of death, but care for it in the spirit of having the best vehicle possible for your pilgrimage.
This perspective comes clear in travel to countries very different from the familiar reality of home. A tired body cannot appreciate the spiritual stimulation of a Hindu temple, nor can a disease body concentrate in a contemplative manner. Yes, yes. It can do these things in spite of, but not with the optimal result.
Now, all the time the body adjusts, becomes a vehicle adapted to a different climate, range of foods, light and dark; the mind has data flowing in, too. New colors, new juxtapositions of functions, new building types, new geography, new cultures.
(aside. Saw yesterday a very existential wall. A large white wall at the Asian Civilization Museum contained only these neatly lettered words: one phrase about a third from the top, the other a third of the way up from the bottom in this orderóEXIT, then, below it in equally bold letters, NO WAY OUT. Sartre didnít die; he moved to Singapore and works for the ACM. Thought of the Safe Haven Animal Shelter, Hunterís Welcome.)
The four weeks I have should allow my body to adjust to its temporary home. My mind is already at work, but Iím trying to hold it back, ďJust wait. Take stuff in. Be here now. The time for learning and analysis will come. Now. Be here.Ē
Mark has given me several good ideas on capturing the spirit of a place (HmmÖodd thought.) through copying local clothing designs and graphic arts. Iím going to focus on that today, along with finding some clothes that look better with dropped cuttle-fish stains. Oh, and Iím going to save the hiking boots for Angkor Wats and other outdoor ruins. A bit hot on the steamy streets of Singapore.
For the moment, I return there, leaving Minnesota and all of you who populate my mind as I write this, for this island Nation, home of the Merlion.
Later in the day on the 29th
Shows you what I know. My breakfast yesterday was a classic Malay farmerís breakfast, so the little white hat probably has some Muslim modesty thing going on. Mary told me the names of the things I ate (except for ota), but I canít reproduce them here. And itís not ti-leaves but panadan? Leaves. Other than thatómostly right.
Rained all morning here and I wandered around anyway following my Minnesota winter mantra; if I let the cold and snow stop meÖ.
Found an Auntie Em at the Cornonation Centre branch of United Bank. Got cash and wandered away looking for a place to eat breakfast. Finding nothing open at the apparently very early hour of 8:30 AM, I went back to the Adam Road Food Centre and had another Full House, this time with 2 mugs of ginger tea instead of two extra chicken wings.
Food is one place; drinks another. The Indians make the tea a drama, first they pour it out of the glass from about head height to the pitcher on the counter. Then, they reverse the process. Cools it down, I suppose, and aerates it? Anyhow fun to watch.
After my Malaysian breakfast fit for a farmer, I took off down Bikat Timah Road, a long main drag, away from the city. There I found a Theravada Buddhist temple where the temple dťcorófish, lions, finialsówas made from broken dinnerware, mostly teacups and saucers, sounds weird, but looks good.
The only reason I noticed? I stopped to sketch the gate and, as I hoped, my drawing led me to look closer. To see what was there, instead of what I put there.
Inside the temple, bare-foot, I bought six joss sticks wrapped in cool paper, red and gold with Chinese characters and line drawings. Pressed them into two sandfilled metal bowls, one outside the entrance to the temple and one just inside, went and knelt down in front of what I believe was the bodhisattva Kwannonólots of arms and flanked by two others. I didnít ring the bell, or hit the wood bell-like thing, because I wasnít sure what it meant if I did.
Tried to imagine what an adherent would feel when kneeling there looking up, way up, at the gilded statues in a glass case, about six feet up and fifteen feet back from the kneeler. Hard to reach, but I expect itís something like the Orthodox prayers to Ikonsóyou donít pray to the Icon, you pray through the Ikon. It is a window into the eternal where dwells Yahweh and Jesus and Mary. I imagine here you use Kwannon (bodhisattva of mercy and very, very popular) in a similar way, you see through the veil of samsara into the great void, the arena of enlightenment and nirvana. If not, well, itís a good way to think about it anyhow.
Later, I shopped at the Fair Price Grocery, Singaporeís own. You may not have noticed but Singapore Public Works has broken through in their deep tunnel sewerage project. Fair Price has put on a sale to celebrate. The break through was announced in the Straits Times, too. It will solve Singaporeís sewerage needs for 100 years. I donít know about you, but I think Iíll just wait and see.
Mary and I plan to break the Ramadan Fast on Arab Street tonight. I want to buy some batik there for Kateís Christmas, and see if thereís some nice calligraphy, too. The Arabs came here to join their Malay and (Iím not kidding here.) their Buginese brothers (and, one would have to imagine, sisters, too.) At least thatís what the guide book says.
Will send this to Bill tomorrow (your Friday, my Saturday.) since Iíve pretty much figured out this e-mail thing, at least with Maryís laptop available. In Bangkok, Iíll have to find cyber cafes, but I donít imagine that will prove a problem.
Been musing on the alocality, or the panlocality of the Web. Sent an e-mail today to Mary at her work, she e-mailed back, strange to be communicating with you in Singapore. Yes, but no. There is some profound switch in consciousness involved with all this, different than telegraph, radio, and phone. At least I think itís different. Could be keyhole history, too, and in the long view this will seem like a 21st century version of the International Postal Convention.
On pilgrimage. Pilgrimage exhausts the body if you donít pay attention. In the old days I would feel I was cheating if Iíd flown all these miles and wasnít using every damn minute. You know, ratcheting up my experience per minute to lower the overall net cost of the trip.
What bullshit. I now know I need to rest at least one of the three daily segments: morning, afternoon, evening and all night. This allows the body rest, the mind quiet, and the soul peace. Come to think of it, itís not a bad over all idea. Right now Iím resting, talking with friends.
More after Arab Street. Tomorrow, Rugby and Chinatown. Sunday, breakfast at Raffles.
This is cool. Mary got off work and we went to Arab Street (after the taxi driver took us first to the Albert Hall Hotelósounded like Arab Street to him.
Singapore is a city with a very non-threatening night persona; as a result women walk alone, and the streets have many people out. This was Friday so it was busy, but this underlines our experience in Arab street.
Many of the shops closed for Ramadan and never re-opened. Restaraunts, on the other hand, bustled with business. There were shops and stalls set up a la Taste of Minnesota. The streets have sidewalks of varying heights, shops in buildings only one or two stories high and narrow thoroughfares.
The Sultan Masjid, large with a gold onion dome, had throngs of people performing ablutions and going in and out of the arched doorways. People wandered, buying food from stalls, kids ran up and down. Like the state fair and Christmas together.
We found a small Egyptian restaurant where the ambassador from Dubai had taken Mary a couple of weeks ago. Sheís coordinating a new program for Dubai students who will get teacher training here in Singapore.
As we ate, waitresses kept carrying rugs out of the restaurant, past us, (our tables were on the sidewalk) and down the way. Then, male waiters would come carrying heroic hookahs (glass) with long flexible stems and a fruity smelling tobacco. The waiters also carried hot coals in dippers to other smokers.
The tobacco is placed on top of aluminum foil stretched across the bowl of the hookah. This reminded me of other substances, smoked in exactly the same way, using precisely this device. Ah, the sixties.
Maryís dish of appetizers were wonderful; I ordered a sausage mix and got: Wienies! Not very good and not good looking. Ah, well. Should have gone for the shawirma.
Anyhow, back to the rugs. Groups of folks would show to break the fast, and some of them wanted to sit on rugs and smoke their hookahs while waiting for their food. So, the sidewalk, for a block or so, had tables of folks breaking their fast (mostly young) and, in two instances, sitting on the sidewalk on oriental rugs, legs crossed, jeans and t-shirts, passing the hookah, and chatting.
Later, we wandered the streets. The Parkview, a Chinese tycoonís investment building has an architecture that is off the scale, Itís art deco, sort of 1930ís Shanghai, and really, really big. Plus, it has a sculpture court with statues of (guess the connection): Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Churchill, Sun Yat Sen, Dante, Chopin, Dali, Newton, Jesus, Beethoven and two we couldnít identify. Plus, at the very top of the building are four huge figures holding globes of light. All in all, very meglamoniacal. But, a great building for all that.
Came home on the MRT (subway). Mostly Asian, except for four large, loud Americans. No wonder they donít like us. Anywhere.
Yesterday a thunderstorm. Lightning struck close by; it kills more folks per capita here than anywhere. So, by the way, does the state, which prefers hanging.
Well, done for now. More later. One more from Singapore and then, Bangkok.