While we wait here in Mersing for our VIP 28-Seater Superbus to take us to Kuala Lumpur, I'm going to recount some more of our adventures from the past few weeks. I've been sticking Joe with the brunt of the blogging, and it's high time I pull my weight around here. Lets travel back a bit, to the bustling metropolis of Singapore (From where I thought my Ipod had been stolen, but found it yesterday deep within my luggage- hooray! Still so far on this trip, nothing stolen, nothing lost! But I have ruined two different red "Gucci" watches by jumping into the ocean with them on. Both the original and the replacement met their demise in the exact same way. I digress... back to Singapore!). I'd like to revisit the Hindu temple Joe mentioned in a previous blog, in greater detail. This place was freaking fantastic. By far the most vibrant and alive place of worship I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Short, chubby, multi-colored statues of people in skimpy clothes decorate the roof and entryway, lined up in a kind of conga line, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone takes their shoes off before entering: flip flops, sneakers, shiny business loafers, and high heels all decorate the path leading up to the big green, pink, orange, and red wooden doors. There's no front or back of the temple, just shrines of varying size and significance in every direction. Also, there's not one central service going on, with rows of audience members gathered around one speaker, but instead many different holy activities all going on at the same time. Women in business attire kneeling down before a serene, robed, silver-plated figure, sweating as they carve out the insides of halved limes, then fill them with what looks like lard from a big metal tin. With greasy fingers they push wicks into the centers and light the lime peel candles, then carry a tray of 20 or 30 candles (this work takes hours- I watched) around the temple, placing a few at the feet of each technicolor god or goddess. All through the streets of Little India we passed vendors selling what looked to me like Hawaiian leis, long looped ropes of beautiful fresh flowers. I wondered what on earth anyone would want with a heavy flower necklace in the sweltering city heat. I found out. The faithful buy them to bring to the temple, where they are given to one of the many temple holy men who pile them higher and higher around the necks of certain statues, set back from the rest of the shrines and accessible only to the priests. Along with the flowers, worshipers also give the holy men a small yellow piece of paper, handed out upon entrance, on which (from what I could gather) they write their prayers. The holy men (almost universally tall for Indians, handsome, with kind, calm faces, long hair piled into high buns, decorated with big metal earrings and beaded necklaces, white and red pigment covering their brown faces and bare chests, wearing only white sarongs folded and gathered around their round bellies and between their legs) take the prayer paper, read it, and carry the message up a few stairs to the gods, to whom they relay the prayer and give the offerings. From this same elevated shrine they also give out white rice to those who gather around with open hands, banana leaves, plastic grocery bags, or newspaper to receive it. Some of the rice is placed in pockets and handbags, while the rest is redistributed among the surrounding shrines, alongside the dripping lard from the lime peel candles. One of the corner altars, made of brown stones, with a door in the side through which the holy men come in and out waving smoke from bronze teapots, serves as a kind of kitchen. One of the priests stands over a large wok, stirring veggies and spices into yellow rice, for which, again, the Hindus line up with open hands and leaves. Upon receiving the rice, they turn to the next bejewelled holy man who anoints their foreheads with a cryptic combination of red and white dots and lines, both horizontal and vertical, the pattern for which I was completely unable to discern. Other holy men roamed around the temple, engaging neighbors in conversation, laughing, listening to the live band, chanting quietly cross-legged at the foot of a statue (My favorite statue was a huge bright blue woman, with her cleavage bulging out of her rhinestone-encrusted bra and her fat tummy squishing and bulging over the waist of her poofy genie-style pants. She had 10 arms, stretched out with grasping long, red, pointy fingernails in all directions and sharp white fangs protruding over her plump purple lips. In one of her many hands she held a dagger dripping blood, and her eyes and nostrils were stretched wide in horror and rage. Beneath her heavy feet lay crushed a dead or dying man, a mere mortal, only a fifth of her gargantuan size.) The holy men also walk around dispensing goodies to the gathered crowds. Although we tried to stay out of the way, we were offered and accepted warm milk from a teapot, which we drank from our open hands, and green grapes which we plucked from a large platter of assorted fruit (I forgot and used my left hand. They probably had to throw out the whole bunch of grapes.). The patrons don't say thank you, but just like we've read about, waggle their heads to show contentment or gratitude. The people inside this temple were waggling like crazy. Even Joe and I were waggling by the time we left.
We spent the past couple weeks in Pulau Tioman, off the southeast coast of Malaysia, as I think Joe may have already mentioned. It's a tiny little island, a ring of white sand encircling dense, green jungle rising up in the middle. Looks a lot like the island in Lost, minus the polar bears. We would have liked to stay even longer, but the monsoons are on their way, soon to chase both locals and tourists off the island for the next couple months. We spent the days diving, lounging in hammocks on the beach, playing volleyball, dodging ferries to swim out to small surrounding islands, and trekking through the jungle between the scattered villages. The two towns where we spent most of our time both have a few restaurants and guesthouses, a couple dive shops where an international group of dive instructors has come to sun and swim away their late twenties with the sharks and turtles, and one beachfront, thatched-roof bamboo bar, serving Tiger Beer and Bob Marley all night long. The trek between the two villages is 7 miles following the power lines through the dense jungle, popping out at intervals to swim in gorgeous, isolated, picture-perfect, white sand, blue sea coves. Monkeys chatter overhead, 6 foot lizards slither through the fallen leaves, and long-nosed squirrels hop from branch to boulder over the path. I learned a good deal about Malaysian culture and laws sitting around the bars at night, discussing religion and politics with Westerners, Filipinos, and locals alike. In Malaysia, while there is an official separation of church and state, Muslims have to answer to both religious and state law, each of which has its own police force. For crimes that fall under both categories, such as theft (which is both illegal and morally wrong), Muslim citizens are tried and sentenced both in state court and then in religious court. Normally, the Muslim penalty is five times the state sentence (so if the Malaysian government gives a thief a year in jail, and the Muslim courts give an additional 5 years, a Muslim Malaysian is serving a 6 year sentence, while a Catholic Malaysian is only serving one). For things which are against Islam but not against the state law, such as drinking (there's a big sign in Air Batang that says any Muslim caught buying, selling, or consuming alcohol will receive no less than 6 lashings or 1 year in jail!) Malaysians have to present their ID cards, which have their religions printed on them. If you're born Muslim, you can NEVER renounce your religion. Whatever your parents are, you are, period. I met a Catholic Malaysian who lived with a British woman, and he always had to show his ID card in order for them to get a hotel room together on the mainland, showing neither of them to be Muslim. If two Muslim Malaysians are married, they get new ID cards, allowing them to share rooms. More interesting laws include that a non-Muslim cannot file a lawsuit against a Muslim, but must find another Muslim to take on the grievance on his or her behalf.
Joe counted that I have 121 mosquito bites on my body. I itch all the time. Even now I have to stop typing intermittently to scratch my arms and back. I wear loose linen pants so that I can scratch right though the material, and reach up my pant leg all the way to my lower thigh for a good knee scratching. It's a very inefficient way to walk down the street, pausing every few feet to scratch my toes and ankles. My calves look like I was attacked by a large cat (my normally short nails are thriving in this humid climate, and I have no self control). Up until now I've remained relatively sane by keeping myself always mildly sedated with Benadryl oral tablets. But now we're down to only 7 left, and Joe needs at least 4 if he gets stung by a bee (as well as the big scary epinephrine shot he carries around) so I'm left with just the cream, which doesn't work nearly as well and is too time consuming to bother with during the day. Before bed, I have Joe cover my back in the stuff, but still I wake up in the middle of the night, already clawing at my skin. By the time I'm conscious its too late to turn back.
Otherwise we're wonderful, happy, fabulous. We ate at KFC last night, where the women wear head scarves tucked into their collared uniform shirts instead of hairnets. xoxoxoxoxo