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
The first addition of the Pilgrim’s Diary all composed in Southeast Asia.
Spent early morning at Killeney Kopitiam (Kopi=coffee in Malay, tiam=shop in Hokkien) having kaya toast, jam (kaya=coconut jam) and butter between pieces of toasted bread—mmmm, good. Had two soft boiled eggs broken into a bowl and seasoned with black sauce (soy) and a salty pepper, too; to drink, what I know as café con leche.
A Chinese man offered us seats at his table (on the sidewalk again) and we chatted with him for awhile—he knew the etymology of Kopitiam and waved a hand when I tried to show him my map of the US to explain Minnesota’s location: “Yes, yes. 50 states. Like Hawaii.”
Mary went to work and I wandered on down Orchard Road (think France Avenue with several shopping centers scattered along the way—and with sidewalks) to Lucky Plaza, a decidedly down scale shopping center. Shopping center here means shops in one building, so they have vertical rather than horizontal layouts, somewhat like the Mall of America.
There I bought tennis shoes, $16 US, which I plan to give away before my flight home. Shoe size 6.5. The difference in sizes made the process strange. I also picked up a great day pack which slings over the front, the better to protect you with my dear. I bargained for it. Got some deal. Not much.
After, I hunted for t-shirts, but had trouble finding all-cotton. My packing plan included buying pants, shoes, and shirts here. A Columbia shop sufficed for a pair of shorts and a cotton t-shirt. I plan to have a couple of shirts made in Bangkok, and maybe a pair of pants.
Further on down the street I went to a Borders; today was its seventh birthday, so, guess what? A sale. 20% off.
The clerk at Columbia told me he’d worked in Australia and they paid him better, 3000, where he gets only 1800 here. “I can’t even pay my bills!” Singapore is great for the oligarchs who run it, but the money is made on the backs of working people. They did not invent this strategy, but they put a lot of energy into making it work.
Another instance. Taxi driver Took Chan had three rules for life:
Oh, yes, Took. Right again.
MRT back to Bukit Timah Road. Past the bullfrog grasses. Mary and I experienced last night on the way home from Arab Street; these frogs sounded like cattle mooing. Unexpected.
Waited for bus 170. No rain this morning, all sun. Heat plus humidity, wow.
The heat tires you out, saps your energy. Only mad dogs and all… I now understand the noon day sun. Lahaina (the most important town on Maui), is an old Hawaiian word which means “merciless sun.” Works here, too.
Mary and I stayed close to home tonight. I took a brief lie-down at 1:30 pm and got up at 5:00 pm. Jet lag and my beta-blocker is a potent combination.
Within a block of Mary’s apartment is a huge drainage system, like the concrete rivers in LA. When I first came, it was dry; today there was enough water to cover your knees, and this system is, oh, a good 150 feet wide.
Religious news from Singapore. A lot of the culture’s vibrancy comes from the obvious presence of so many of the world’s religions. Yesterday, deep inside, the Straits Times reported on a Hindu temple inside a railway station. RR workers had had a lot of accidents and decided to erect an image of a god who specializes in removing obstacles (not Ganesha). Since the image came, “Accidents have been reduced,” one devotee said.
Part of their worship for this guy is to plunge your hand in hot oil. “I’m not afraid of the oil. It’s a matter of faith.” Another devotee.
Two other big religious events right now: Ramadan and Deepavali. We’ve already experienced Ramadan fast-breaking with hookahs and rugs, next we plan to Little India during the week to look at the lights, eat, and shop.
Deepavali is the Winter Solstice celebration, only the darkest night of the year here, calculated by somebody, falls in October. I’ve not done the research to know how that’s possible, but the holiday comes then. We went past Serangloon Road the other night in the taxi on our way to Arab Street. It has lights rivaling any Christmas decorations in a city. Deeps are small lamps lit at this time to chase away the evil darkness and encourage the triumph of light, thus Deepavali, Festival of lights.
I look forward to the time there.
Another aspect of Deepavali is fire-walking at a Hindu temple in Chinatown. This happens early in the morning, devotees begin to gather about 2:30 AM. Public welcome. I’m going to use my 4:30 AM Minnesota wake up call and go. Mary, too. She’s never seen it.
The fire-walking, like the hot-oil, is a test of faith. One brochure I read indicated “trial by fire” comes from this event. Maybe.
Ate dinner last night in a wine-bar/restaurant that could have been anywhere in the world. Like that fancy place in Stillwater, Mark. It’s close by Mary’s place. Instead of Chinatown we went to the Cellar Door. I could have ordered spatchcock, if I’d wanted. “A small bird,” the waiter said.
Any of you wise to big cities know the effect rain has on taxi availability and it rained buckets yesterday. Why we gave Chinatown a miss.
Put my debit card in the ATM and it said, “Hi, Charles P. Buckman-Ellis.” I’ve never felt more warmly greeted by a machine. So far from home and it knows my name! (Yes, I know, the info’s on the magnetic stripe on my card, still, it felt like this machine cared.)
Secret police. You don’t see many police here, yet it feels safe. Is safe. How can this be? A police chief from a big city, eating with Mary’s friend said, “The only way a city this size can be so safe with so few police visible is: the police are here but not visible.
Turns out in elementary school the most rewarded students are little police. They get buttons and uniforms—very cool. Over time the police force identifies those with promise and recruits them. Then, they go undercover.
The result, I’ll admit, I like. I would love to feel as safe in Chicago, New York, or even Minneapolis. Plus, it felt good to me to see women walking alone at night. The night belongs to women, too, but it’s harder for them to experience it in most major US cities.
Yet. Fascism is not too far from what we have here. A friend of Mary’s refers to it as dictatorship-lite; I’d say fascist-lite. As long you are not proscribed, it’s helpful, makes life easier. Part of the issue is: who makes the laws? Who polices the police? What about deep-seated racism or class or gender or sexual preference bias?
I spotted one guy who showed up in several different places. He blended in, a Chinese guy in a green print shirt, but he seemed attentive in a cop kind of way. Creepy to me. Not knowing.
This little anarchist likes to see his foe.
The mynah birds have begun to sing. The sun, the sun. It’s come again. Wake up. Wake up. 6 and 1/2 have been trimmed from your life already. Be happy. Watch out for undercover police. And spatchcocks.
OK. Now it’s later. Mary and I had a busy, busy day. A lot of pilgrimage fodder in amongst the tourist stuff. We started with buffet breakfast at the Fullerton Hotel on the Singapore River. Our outside table overlooked the river and its bumboats. Gunah and Indirihan took care of our needs. Several of the servers fasting for Ramadan. (Mary pointed out yesterday that the Malays with white hats were Hajji, that is, they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and the black hats had not.)
A buffet in Singapore is far from obvious. At this one there were Chinese, Japanese, English, and American specialties (streaky bacon—our bacon among them.) Had dragon fruit; it has white flesh with black seeds, but the outside looked like a red kohlrabi stretched out and a bit plumper.
Wandering along the river bank I began taking digital pictures for the first time. I bought the camera for the trip, so I’ve only used it a bit. Fun.
After some initial confusion Mary and I secured a seat on a bumboat, a thirty minute tour on the Singapore River. The driver, a Singaporean Chinese, helped me get good spots for pictures and provided tips on Chinatown and local sights.
We disembarked on the opposite side of the river and went down past the Asian Civilizations Museum and alongside the Supreme Court Building with its friezes of colonial masters caring for their less competent fellow residents (soooo racist).
We were on our way to see a rugby match. As we approached the cricket pitch on which the ruggers played, a rugby ball sailed over the stands and into the arms of an elderly Indian gentleman who caught it, then handed it to a boy to return.
We watched two rugby matches…7 minutes long. This was an international series of sevens and we saw teams from British Columbia, Singapore, Durban, South Africa, and somewhere else. Sort of a cross among basketball, football, and soccer: some passing, some kicking, some tackling, and, of course, scrumming. I love that word, scrum.
Off to Chinatown. On our way we saw a fashion shoot in progress, and a lion dance performed to no crowd. It was to clear the air of bad spirits as a new business opened. Oranges, a Chinese word close to gold, lay on the side walk in pairs.
Right here last night a combination of jet lag and general exhaustion hit me. My body quit paying attention. It is not fully on the pilgrim trail even yet. Minnesota’s cycles of day and night continue, remembered here in brain cells and eyelids. The body gives up its adjustments with great reluctance.
So, to bed at 7pm last night and…up at 2AM this morning. Not an altogether bad thing since Mary and I head back to Chinatown to the Hindu temple to watch the fire-walking.
The fire walking begins at 5:30 AM, but the devotees gather at 3AM. We went to the temple yesterday. Enough shoes on the sidewalk to open a shoe department in a large store.
The temple itself has several steeply peaked roofs similar in shape to the old style toaster, the one where you placed bread on either side. The roofs have depictions of deities and avatars in bright colors. I imagine they depict stories from the Ramayana or the Mahabarata. Inside the ceilings also have paintings (much like Catholic cathedrals) Various niches have statutes of deities, mostly Vishnu and avatars, Ganesha, Shiva, Brahma, Parvati. Krishna and his cows of course, too.
The temple floor has no objects on it; adherents and their families sat on the floor talking, children ran around, food cooked in metal pots 4 feet or so across and about 2 1/2 feet deep—rice and vegetable stew.
Like a fair, Mary said. Understandable, but backwards; fairs are like religious festivals and originated from them for the most part.
We got out of here at 4AM; hailed a taxi who took us through quiet streets to the Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown. The street leading to the temple had barricades set up and devotees in yellow t-shirts and yellow dhotis, each carrying small branches with leaves and stuck into a lime.
These men (all men, the women devotees had a separate place to gather, more on them later.) chanted, gazed around, and did not seem in a fervor, more like they were about to see a movie. Still, as Mary and I saw as we were let into the temple, their moment would come.
Stacks of dry wood had grown hot, burned in a pit dug out the day before by men wielding small shovels and lines of other men carrying the sand hand to hand in woven slings. At the end of the coals was a pit filled with milk. At the milk pit several volunteers stood ready to assist those who might falter, though none did while I watched.
Some ran, others tried a more contemplative stroll. Still, once finished all seemed pleased, and, I imagine, felt relieved. The crowd inside the temple made watching for very long impossible, so Mary and I went to the women’s gathering place, walking the streets of a quiet Singapore in our bare feet.
At the women’s gathering place, I spoke with one of the women. She had on a yellow sari, like all the others sitting on the ground, 400 or 500.
“Do you go last?”
“Yes. We go last and we only walk around the pit.”
“Would you like to walk the pit?”
“When do you think that will happen?”
We ate breakfast at 6:30 AM at a Mandarin hotel on Orchard Road. I had noodles and barbecue pork, plus rice and wonton like soup.
Later in the day Mary and I met up at the Little India MRT stop and proceeded from there to Serangoon Road. The road has lights up across it, and a huge Deepavali sign at the entrance to Little India.
We wanted to see a parade which began at Sri Mariamman temple and would go to the Ruthrakali Temple. However, after eating a meal (the waiter warned Mary I had chosen a very hot dish. I was ok.) looking at special Deepavali stalls, and a difficult time finding the temple (we made the mistake of following the sign.) the parade had not come,
We asked one of the Brahmins at Ruthrakali (we found it.) about the parade. “We’re wondering where it is, too.”
So, off to the Komakili Vegetarian restaurant, famous in Asia where we had Indian desserts…and waited for the parade. Hmmm. No parade. And no explanation we could find either. Weird.
I have spent, in succession, Samhain, All Soul’s and Election Day in Southeast Asia. Not to mention Ramadan and Deepavali. The religious fabric of Singapore stands out as much as the temple of capitalism motif. It has so many strands, so many colorful symbols and themes: the dome of the mosque, the bright statutes on the Dravidian style temples, the whitewashed Christian churches, the dragon motif Buddhist temples.
It is one thing to hypothesize about the faith tradition of others from texts; it is another to watch thousands of devotees line up to walk across burning coals. To see the obvious devotion on the face of a man bowing to a statute of Kali, a dead body on her lap and blood dripping from her mouth. To see the many white hatted Malays, indicative of their Hajji status. To watch the joy and community among groups of Muslim teens coming to Arab Street to break their fasts.
These are not ideas, rather, these are living faiths, embodied in devotees throughout the world. I find this affirmation of human religious yearning exciting and encouraging. The urge to reach beyond ourselves or deep within means we share a common core, a dream of our Self embedded in a larger context.
If this pilgrimage of mine has any theme, it is exposure to and the embrace of our religious and cultural diversity. The religious diversity manifests in celebrations, art, and buildings, and in the eyes and hearts of the devotees. Southeast Asia has had many traditions for a long time. It has much to teach us as America changes and becomes even more a religious quilt, say, than a piece of European Christian broadcloth.
Today, I’m tired. Peter, a Cantonese man I met, took me around Little India and explained many things that are not obvious. Music and movies, clothes, and jewelry are sold there—mostly to Indians from India who come in for one night, sleep 10 to a room in a guest house, buy goods, and return to India to sell them. Those who work here can’t take money back to India, but they can wear jewelry so they support a thriving gold market. Instead of money they go back wearing jewelry, then sell it.
Peter and I had tea at the Victor Food Stall and were joined by a Tamil man in package delivery. He felt Singapore “…is full of greedy, selfish people.” His dream, “I want to sell my business, pass my property to my kids and move to Hamburg, Germany. Good technology there. And they know how to organize.”
He had his lawyer over in a nearby court building getting his bid to change locations from Little India to the dock area. “He’ll sort it out. He’s been with me all the way. He was raised poor like me. You’ll hear from him.”
Peter commented on the Tamil man, “Educated Singaporeans have too many stories.” He later led me to a port small business where I bought a kimono for Kate, three t-shirts and three sarongs. I had the uneasy sense he steered me there, though my spider sense didn’t tingle about him at all. He seemed a genuinely friendly and kind man. Who knows?
I don’t care since I wanted to buy these things anyway and I had the time with him, all afternoon. Our conversation with the Tamilese package delivery man ranged over infirmity, health insurance, American politics, and Singapore. In that conversation I realized again how narrow our Minnesota world tends to be though the MIA has a wonderful range of cultures involved as volunteers.
After the visit to Clifford Quay I took the MRT to Newton, got out and got a bus at the Bukit Timah bus stop, came to Mary’s and spent the afternoon writing and organizing.
Later, I ate dinner at the Isola, an Italian restaurant near Mary’s home. There my waiter and I had a nice chat. He’s from Nepal and just started work at the Isola this week after three years at the Singapore Polo club.
We discussed the political climate, the Nepalese Shining Path, the Maoist group and the King’s murdering his family with a machine gun. “Never happened. Nobody can get into the palace. Just politics.” He’s also worried about his mom.
Again, a very human connection. The oven-roasted quail was good, too.
This AM Mary and I attended the function at the American Club. This place costs 15,000 initiation fee and 3,600 a year. It is a “We’re bigger and more powerful than you are.” kind of place. Marble, descending staircases, exotic woods, chandeliers…well, you get the idea. A mansion away from the mansion.
White linen table cloths. Linen napkins. An American buffet—bacon, scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, pancakes. CNN on Big Screen TV’s. Lots of scrubbed white faces, a few Chinese and Indian faces. All watching TV together, TV recording events occurring at night at home while we sat, in the AM, curtains drawn, the electronic hearth flickering nearby.
I’m still absorbing the election, trying to fit it into my frame of reference. Right now the dominant emotion is sadness. I’m not sure whether I’m so out of touch that I don’t get it—it being what the vox populi has said—or, whether it is truly a time for prophets, for those willing to stand outside the consensus and plead with the people to change their ways. All my instincts say the latter. But humility requires consideration of what the people have spoken.
Is terror so terrifying that we must mortgage out future to purge it from our world? Is the threat more real than is apparent? Is Bush, like Reagan, a mysteriously attractive man? Or, is he, as I still suspect, a shill for radical ideologues?
Denial. Then, acceptance. OK. If Bush and the neocons will inhabit our world with their hands on the keys of destruction, does fleeing make sense? Does organizing? Does writing, trying to sort out liberalism for a new era?
Anger. Who said the order has to be right? Yes, I am angry our country will continue to have a bellicose, arrogant presence in the world. Yes, I am angry. But…will the anger lead to depression, or will it lead to action?
I visited, only yesterday, the temple of Ruthra Kalimman, an avatar of Kali. The information below about Kali helps me understand what we need now. We need Kali,
“…the crude powers to fight…evil, the core strengths required to battle your enemies.”
This thought comes from the Temple of Ruthra Kalimman website, and helps point a way forward: “According to the Hindu tradition, we are living in the Kali Age; the time of a resurgence of the divine feminine spirit.”
I returned to Little India today after the American Club and found some small items of popular Hindu faith, prayer pictures of Kali, Ganesh, Krishna, and decals of Kali. Each tradition has a way of opening us to potentials within us, and within our communities, I find the metaphorical richness of Hinduism a new way to see the world and to see the possibilities within.
With even this modest exposure to Hinduism as a living faith tradition it has come alive for me in ways it had not.
Goddess Kali has always enjoyed a significant presence in our culture. She appears in various forms as an embodiment of Shakti, the eternal energy and cosmic power. She is also believed to be the eternal cosmic strength that destroys all existence. Her facial expressions depict the extent of her powers of destruction. The heads she holds in her hand instantly arouses mortal-fear in everybody and her protruding tongue symbolizes the mockery of human ignorance. She is also the Goddess of Tantrism or the Indian Black Magic. Beneath Goddess Kali's feet one can figure Shiva. Mythology says that Shiva and Kali are the originating couple of the universe but Kali even mocks Shiva, as if she herself is the unique source of everything. There are several other Avtars of Kali also. One such is a striking contrast is Kali represented as the Benevolent Mother where she is the personification of Eternal Night of Peace. From the canons of orthodox Hinduism Kali, Durga, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati are all different forms of the Ultimate Power that are revered on different occasions. Kali represents the crude powers to fight the evil, the core strengths required to battle your enemies. According to the Hindu tradition, we are living in the Kali Age; the time of a resurgence of the divine feminine spirit.
The streets of Little India have stalls set up only for Deepavali. It was there that I purchased the small items, but it was also there I inhaled the essence of Indian culture. The smells created by the unique spices, wet cloth, leather, human sweat, and rain falling on canvas combined, a perfume.
Later, Mary and I talked, wondered about Mark. The rain came again and pounded the awnings. I wrote. The TV and news made me hear what I did not want to hear, see what I did not want to see.
On Friday, I leave for Bangkok. I will send these messages as intermittent e-mails rather than a whole, because I will not have access to Microsoft Word on the same computer night after night, as I have here at Mary’s.
I have gotten past the jet lag (really body reluctance) and now sleep the whole night. Even after the awful news. I’m going to rely on you all to ponder this for the next three weeks since I’m focused on Bangkok and Angkor Wat, or Thailand and Cambodia which have monarchy’s with power passed down through dynasties…oh, wait a minute…
I have gotten used to the daily rhythms here. Morning comes with an announcement by the mynah birds at 6:30 AM. Their cries, rough and loud, are an avian get up, the day has come. Get up, prepare. Here comes sun!
Then the sun, ready and eager, leaps into the sky. Night and day pass quickly. Mornings in this season (wet, monsoon) are dry, storms come around 1 PM and last off and on till 4 PM or so, then the evenings cool down and are dry.
It is cooler till around 10 AM then heat dominates and the afternoons become very humid. The heat lingers into the early evening, then begins to dissipate. (sort of) Like Central America. A person could adapt by remaining indoors throughout the midday. Back to mad dogs and Englishman.
Had a taxi driver yesterday who was quite vocal in his opposition to the oligarchic rule here. He said Singapore was “…a Communist country.” “You have free speech, Speaker’s Corner (2 years old), but you sign up.” (Singapore, like London’s Hyde Park, has a Speaker’s Corner where rabble rousers can speak. But…with a difference. You have to sign up at the neighborhood police station—which sits right next to the corner.)
I felt encouraged by this man’s opposition. He also said, “They (PAP, the ruling party) make it impossible to run against them. I can’t vote in my town.) The PAP has routinely sued opposition leaders from unions, churches, and the communist party as I said earlier. Now, no one opposes them in the elections. Oh, wait a minute…no, it couldn’t come to that. Could it?
Tomorrow I leave for Bangkok. In the morning Mary and I plan breakfast at Raffles, then a taxi to the airport so I can get in line early for my flight to Bangkok. I’m going by Tiger Air ($60.00!) and they seat according to the time you check-in.
This pilgrim has spent the week adjusting to the road, getting my SE Asian land legs and letting the climate and its rhythms soak in and change my northern latitudes adapted body. I’ve also begun to adjust to different cultures and customs though the language here is English for the most part.
In Thailand the road becomes less familiar and the language, including script, indecipherable for me. I also won’t have my guide, Mary, who has helped me with her travel insights and her knowledge of Singapore.
Also, Thailand is less diverse, predominantly Theravada Buddhist and Thai, though in the north the Hill Tribes: Karen, Hmong, and others bring cultural diversity to the nation. Cambodia in its turn, also Buddhist now (Hindu long ago in the time of the devarajas, the God-Kings, who built most of the temples in and around Angkor Wat) is Khmer. These two countries then are truly foreign to me.
Singapore, as a former English colony, and created by Lord Raffles in 1819, has a distinctly British feel; but Thailand has never felt a foreign hand, it is a kingdom as old as unified Thailand. Before that it was ruled by kings, too, though with smaller kingdoms, much like, say Germany, before the creation of the modern state.
Cambodia, of course, was part of Indochina—Indochine—with Laos and Vietnam, under the rule of the French. Still, France did not interfere with local culture and custom in Indochina as much as the British, at least that’s my impression right now. I may discover something else in a week or so.
Pilgrimage has many facets, not all, perhaps not even most, accessible to consciousness. The mynah birds I hear in the morning, the sudden heat blend with Malay, Chinese, and Indian faces and smells of curry, jasmine, and wet earth.
Batik and silk, Hindu gods and goddesses, temples and mosques together create an environment for pilgrimage much different from the north woods. Now, the spirit needs to catch up, to grasp in a deep way the Hindu with folded hands before the Vishnu image, the Malay muslims with their hats and hijabs, the Chinese Taoists with their curbside crematory and bright colors, the spirit, my spirit, needs to open itself, to receive in an open, non-critical way the perspective created by these faiths, and, by the land itself, with its heat and its equal portions of day and night.
I await this moment on the pilgrimage with eagerness, though I am prepared to wait…perhaps weeks or months for it if necessary.