The term “social portraiture” turned up in something I read recently and it has stayed in my mind ever since. I think of Tom Wolfe, for example, and his Bonfire of the Vanities. What is most fascinating to me is human behavior in the context of our society. I guess I always felt that way, which is why I loved Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, among others. As more exotic societies become more like our own–thanks to globalization, the internet, and easy travel–new writers are emerging who provide insights into the human behavior of those cultures. The differences are delicious, but the overwhelming commonality of drives shared by all members of our species becomes even more obvious. Now I know this isn’t an original thought but as I just finished reading Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga this fact hit me in the face like one of the unexpected monsoons described in the book. Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, is one of the best books I have read in the past ten years. I’ve come to think of Adiga as India’s Tom Wolfe. These authors, among others, paint verbal portraits not only of their characters but of the societies in which they live.
Last Man in Tower has particular meaning to me as it is about a real estate developer in Mumbai. If you change the name and location he could be any one of my clients in New York. He is trying to buy out the residents of a building called Vishram Society that seems to be structured similarly to a New York co-op. There is a hold-out, a retired school teacher named Masterji, and the story revolves around how his neighbors and friends of thirty+ years react and take action as their potential fortunes are threatened by the obstinate Masterji.
Not as good as The White Tiger, not as much passion or anger, but a convincing glimpse into the changing landscape of Mumbai and the behavior of humans whose goodness and self-interest battle it out.
Worthwhile read: 6
Ever hear the expression “Shanghai’ed or Chaing Kai’d”? The correct expression is “Shanghai’d.” It was coined to describe what happened when drunken sailors in the port of Shanghai passed out, were kidnapped, thrown into the brig of a merchant ship, and put into slave labor– more or less.
I sort of got Shanghai’d for a day because the weather was so bad the port was closed, and we had to stay in Shanghai an extra day. And because there were no bus tours we hung our with our new friends from Boston. We had a blast, walked around for miles, did lots of shopping, and ended up at the bar at the Peninsula hotel where we had three Lychee-tinis each! Slept like Ayer’s Rock (oops that was the Australia trip) but IF someone wanted to “Shanghai” us it would have been NO PROBLEM.
Never had such bad weather on a vacation before. It’s miserable to go sightseeing in freezing rain. But we’re having a blast on board where we eat, drink, read and make merry, play bridge, eat and drink, and did I mention eat and drink? There’s a gym, which we have not spent one minute in, and a spa, which we have spent very little time in.
Tomorrow at sea then back in Japan where communicating is forbidden .
NEWS FLASH! There are 1.9 billion Chinese and they all smoke! Buy PM, MO, LO and any other cigarette stock you can find. They smoke in office buildings, restaurants, stores, bathrooms. I’m getting some of those surgical masks but not to protect me from the chicken flu…to save me from second hand smoke!
Shanghai has changed so much since I was last here in 2006. Gone are the picturesque alleys with silk ties for $1.00. Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton have taken their places…for twice the price and half the size (dress size…the stores themselves are 10 times as large). There are more skyscrapers than in NY! In fact, Shanghai looks like New York. I’m also surprised that in 10 years English hasn’t taken off. In Moscow, everyone speaks English…
Well…now it’s 2 am and, despite a wonderful dinner with wine, a hot steam bath and a massage my eyes are as open as a Starbucks before the morning rush hour. Yesterday we visited the bird market where old men stroll with their pet birds in cages and chat to catch up. They believe they need to “walk their pets” to take in the fresh air. I’ve got pictures of the bird market and flower market I will send next. We went to the old Jade market in search of a Jade elephant for Olivia, and other presents for the rest of you, but our impression was that the trinkets there were no more jade than my plastic chopsticks are sterling silver.
We stopped for a dim sum lunch, basically dumplings, then visited a Buddhist nunnery after lunch. I must say this old atheist was mighty impressed. Buddhism promotes love, serenity, peace and eradication of suffering. No vengeful gods or Jihads. And those Buddhas are awfully cute! No personal trainers for them for sure.
Took a rest in the late afternoon then Dad and I went to Hutong for dinner. It looks like the Spice Market in New York but we had views of Hong Kong island and the nightly light show. The food was divine – it was the Beggars Chicken that we ordered in advance from the US and it was worth every effort. Very “in” restaurant and best chicken ever! Dad was a little scared to smash the clay with the duly provided mallet but once he got into it his aggression and his ancestors aggression were released! Amen.
Who remembers that joke about the jackrabbit in Wyoming? About all he does is eat, sleep and hop around a bit. Well…that’s us! Weather still dreadful, which does put a damper on things. Today we woke up at 4, ate a huge breakfast, headed out at 7:30 am to explore Taiwan. The residential buildings are quite dilapidated, not at all new and shiny like Singapore as I expected. Reminds me of Moscow. There are beautiful shrines erected for the martyrs of the revolution and, of course, Chiang Kai-shek . I wish I knew more about Chinese history but based on the little I have read I know that the Japanese were quite aggressive in trying to conquer China during the 1930s and 40s. A Chinese Civil War was brewing between the corrupt and brutal Nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek, called the Kuomintang, and Mao’s communist party. Well, we all know who won but the Nationalists fled with 3 million people and most of ancient China’s art treasures when the Japanese lost WWII and Taiwan in 1947. We went to this National Palace museum today in Taiwan housing all the treasures of ancient China and it is astounding. Then we ate a huge lunch, played scrabble, took a nap and will be off to a huge dinner soon.
We’re going to the jade market, an ancient nunnery, meeting a lawyer friend of Eberhard’s for tea, and then having dinner at a famous restaurant called Hutong where we ordered “Beggar’s Chicken” in advance. They bake it in wet clay and you get a hammer to crack open the shell.
Yesterday we were in our first Japanese port, Okinawa. No WIFI or satellite allowed and we were fingerprinted and subjected to a health check. Think they trust foreigners? Okinawa was the only Japanese territory actually invaded by American foot soldiers during WWII except Iwo Jima but it doesn’t count because it wasn’t populated at the time. Of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by American dropped nuclear weapons…surprising they let us visit at all.
The most amazing impression upon entering Japan is how refined, orderly and disciplined the people are. Everything is clean and groomed. In Taiwan and even Hong Kong chaos prevailed. The streets were filthy and people pushed and shoved.
Okinawa was actually an independent kingdom for most of its history. The king kept China and Japan at bay by kowtowing to both sides with gifts and flattery. I think Obama could take a lesson from this history book.
Wayan picked us up at ten to visit the Royal Palace at Menguwi. It is a beautiful compound, long abandoned. Now it boasts decaying structures and intricately carved statues of gods – photos to follow. I sprinkled Eberhard with holy water and then myself. We continued to Bedugul, a lovely mountain lake town, where we had Indonesian tea and visited the Floating Temple called Candi Kuning. Then on to a truly remarkable Botanical Gardens – a spot largely devoid of tourists. We learned that the wild orchids that beget the lovely flowers we buy are really gnarled and hideous tubers, but without them all flowering species would cease to exist.
In this mountain area, the Muslim minority of Bali seems to reside. We passed many road side markets selling fresh strawberries (Pick Your Own) and adorable little bunnies in small cages which, we later learned, were sold for eating not petting. This day is a high holiday for Hindus. The house staff came to work in traditional dress with rice and flower decorations on their faces and necks, like colorful tattoos. We gave all but our driver the day off and let Wayan go as early as we could. We had dinner at The Meridien hotel, on the terrace overlooking the sea and Tanah Lot, a gothic-looking temple on the beach carved from lava stone. We visited Tanah Lot earlier but found it overrun by holiday visitors and tourists, souvenir hawkers and scammers, such as the man in a cave selling tickets to see the “Holy Snake,” which looked an awful lot like the garden variety we see back home. The view from the Meredien of Tanah Lot and the sun setting behind its primitive Gothic outline was much more interesting.
There are fantastic kites here, resembling Rama, Sita, The Monkey King and other creatures of Hindu myth plus eagles, bats and other animals.
It is a beautiful Day in Bali.
I write to you today from Sedona, Arizona. The Red Rocks are famous so we decided to pass through on our way from Santa Fe to La Jolla, where we will be celebrating Lucas’s graduation from UCSD.
Maybe all of you know this already but I finally found the answer to a riddle that has teased me for decades: Why do we have four time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific) but only three times? It’s because in Sedona and, presumably, the rest of the Mountain Time Zone they don’t change their clocks! Sometimes (like now) they’re on Pacific Time and sometimes on Central time. How cool is that? None of that annoying changing of all those timepieces. I love anything that refuses to conform.
The famous red rocks line the canyon roads along the last 17 miles or so on the approach to Sedona. They look more like sugar sculptures colored by iodine than cooled molten ore. The formations appear to have been dripped from the sky, leaving peaks and vertical towers resembling New York’s skyline as if viewed through a kaleidoscope.
We’re staying at a place called L’Auberge de Sedona, in a cabin set amid lush and varied vegetation. We dined last night al fresco by a creek. I wish I could eat every meal for the rest of my life in the open air.
The sun rises here at 4:30 AM (due to the not changing the time thing), which gives the locals a head start. Many of them use the time for journaling, or yoga, and I’m thinking maybe herein lies the answer to finding that extra time we all wish we had!
Of course we brought Daisy, our Jack Russell terrier, along for the ride. She sat under the table last night mesmerized by the life on the creek. The hotel had a dog bed and bowl waiting, along with a picnic basket filled with biscuits and a roll of those little blue plastic bags. It seems like yesterday that instead of Daisy, it was Lucas and Olivia the hotels were fussing over with their names in sponge letters lined up on the bathtub ledge or an invitation to the hotel’s Kid’s Club. We took them everywhere, too…and now they embark on a journey of their own. Sigh.
Sunday was a very exciting day in Bali. We drove to a mountain town with white-water rafting and elephants. We rode an elephant named Donnie – coincidentally the name of Olivia’s boyfriend and Lucas’ kitten – who then rode us right into the pond he uses as a bathtub. We came home late to a dinner of beef, pork and chicken satay (no rabbit!). My friend Jeff wrote back that if massages cost $13, rabbits must be really cheap, so I should have bought them all and released them into the wild. Wish I had thought of that. Just as dinner was served the area experienced a complete power outage. It is an odd feeling to be in an isolated villa in a remote part of Bali without power but Sri lit candles everywhere so we celebrated Halloween a few days early. Must be getting old…there was a time when I think we would have viewed the circumstances as “romantic.” The next morning, we left very early for the airport. On the way, we saw the rice paddies full of workers, hoeing and weeding before the island really heated up.
Then we flew to Singapore.
The last time I was in Singapore was thirty years ago. I came here on a business trip for a couple of days and remembered the Raffles Hotel as surrounded by gardens with a clear-to-the-water view. Now it is the only Colonial vestige in a sea of skyscrapers, but it is still beautiful and we ate Australian rock lobsters in the courtyard on our first night in town.
There are certain well publicized facts about Singapore, especially about its stringent – for lack of a better word – Parliament. They have many rules and fines for just about everything (kind of like our condo building). They stamp your passport to let you know that the penalty for illegal drugs in Singapore is death. It is a progressive and free society, contrary to some impressions and reports by the US media, although they do restrict certain liberties that Americans believe to be their God-given rights. For example, at least I believed there was no freedom of speech here (frankly, we have a bit too much of it in the US and it is a freedom abused, i.e. Fox news) but this is not correct. The right to free speech is encouraged with the exception of public speech about race or religion. Because the Singaporean population is a mélange of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian practicing four religions, Taoism (Buddhism), Islam, Christianity and Hindu (there is also a prominent synagogue for a Jewish minority), the government restricts open criticism of race and religion to protect its people from discrimination and harm. Sounds like a good idea to me. If we did this in the US maybe all those heinous hate crimes could be nipped in the bud. Now, of course, I have no idea if this is the true motivation of the Singaporean government. But what is important to me is that the people who live here believe it is true. The Parliament is comprised, in representative percentages, of all four ethnic groups. Of the 87 members only two are from the “opposition” party. I guess I’m writing all this to illustrate something I have learned in my travels from Chile to China – just because a government doesn’t function like our own doesn’t make it wrong, especially for its own citizens. Now genocide is morally wrong and there can be no excuse for that. But the people here is Singapore are happy and free, prosperous and peacefully coexisting (and assimilating – many new cultural groups of Chinese/Malay, for example, are growing here – without discouragement or bias – creating, in effect, hybrid races) despite what Americans might feel are “oppressive” rules. I cannot for the life of me understand how our country can support owning guns as a “right” when school children are regularly killed by citizens bearing guns but, hey, that’s me. Anyway, Singapore is spotlessly clean, completely safe, well-organized, beautiful to look at and the fully-employed people seem happy to me.
For those of you waiting for the travelogue-blog, here you go:
Chinatown is by far the most interesting neighborhood. It retains a lot of the original colonial buildings, although completely renovated and clean. 77% of the Singaporean population is Chinese, so Chinatown is more of an attraction and historical site – where the original immigrants settled – than functioning ethnic neighborhood. But the markets and small streets are fun to see. Little India is similar as a cultural district. The smell of jasmine flowers and curry powder is intoxicating. There is Arab Street and a Malaysian district but I haven’t been to those yet.
200 years ago only 500 people lived here. These were Malaysian. The British explorer, Sir Stamford Raffles, cut a deal for a British trading post (great excuse for colonialism) within a month of his arrival in 1819. He was a naturalist and planted an experimental garden, mostly of spices, a lucrative commodity in England. Of course, he was successful but the site of this original spice garden is now one of the most gorgeous botanical gardens in the world. The orchids are amazing.
Also world famous is the Singapore Zoo set in a natural rain forest. I enjoyed it, especially the exotic animals indigenous to the region, but I guess I’m spoiled by both the Bronx and San Diego zoos back home. However, tonight, we are taking a guided tour through the Night Zoo – a zoo that exists only for nocturnal animals. I’m really looking forward to that!
Singapore is surrounded by the South China Sea and the beaches are built around a lagoon. Sentosa beach is lovely and the water is warm. In the distance, everywhere, are container cranes and lifts reminding us that Singapore is a crossroads, especially for shipping to and from Asia.
Near the beach is Underwater World, where I particularly enjoyed the Pudong , supposedly nature’s inspiration for the fictional mermaid, and the leopard ray.
I had five suits made by one of those famous Singaporean tailors (Eberhard said: Couldn’t you have done with just three?) for the price of one in Italy. And it took me days to figure out what was striking me most peculiar about Singapore all along – no ads! Yes, the buildings are branded with a tasteful sign or name. But no, billboards, neon signs, graffiti, posters – how pleasant! Actually, there is one wall near Chinatown where posting is allowed – but why, I ask, would any one bother?
First order of business today, I think I should call my scribbling a Bloglet, as in Booklet, not Blogette as in Crumpette – what do you think? I devised this new line extension of a Blog because I have been reading that writers should Blog daily for practice but I’m just too private to open up my innermost thoughts to any old surfer of the Internet. I await your feedback on the name of this new writing form – Bloglet vs. Blogette – or Blog by selection.
Yesterday our driver picked us up at 8:30 AM and took us to a theater where the parking lot was filled with tourist buses – VERY BAD SIGN. We sat through a traditional Indonesian play about good and evil (Barong vs. Rangda). Good and Evil is so predictable since good always wins. I’ll have to try a novel where evil prevails.
Today is a Hindu holiday in Bali. We woke up with offerings on our doorstep. I’m not much for organized religion but I am greatly moved by the philosophy behind the Balinese Hindu philosophy, called the Tri Hita Karana Doctrine, based on three harmonious relationships:
1. The Gods blessed life and created nature and all its contents
2. Nature offers sustenance to support the needs and activities of human beings
3. Human beings have an obligation to establish a traditional village structure, to build temples in which to worship, to hold various ceremonies, to make daily offerings, to preserve nature and to solve problems together
If one thinks of the family as a village structure, the home as a temple, the ceremonies as the milestones of family life, i.e. births, graduations, weddings, the love of nature and daily solving of external problems within the family then I am that kind of Hindu! As for the daily offerings…well maybe that’s what is collected by the IRS.
After the Barong Theater, we visited Ubud, with its many art galleries. We then went to the Sacred Monkey Forest with its many Monkey Temples and…well…monkeys. The monkeys who live here are long-tailed Balinese macaques. They are a colony of 35 males, 95 females and 170 young. Macaques are the most successful of all primates, after humans, although the latter premise is sometimes questionable. Males often act motherly and protect the young – for example – I got a bit too close to an adorable baby and a gigantic baboon-sized Alpha male chased me around. Believe me – that was scary. Death by Monkey – maybe a good title for a novel?
Our friend Eduardo Ramos-Gomez recommended lunch at Viceroy, outside of Ubud. The restaurant was suspended over a valley of rice paddies and palm trees. The food was delicious but, since it was 1 AM in New York, and the cool valley breeze relaxed me so, I fell asleep in Eberhard’s lap right there at the table. I’d probably still be there if I hadn’t been curious to see the volcanoes – last erupted in 1993.
We then went to see the beautiful volcanoes in Tintamani and the crater lake Batur.
Back at 6:30 pm – mangoes for dinner and another fantastic $13 massage.
Life is good. Selamat tinggal.