Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.
I never really understood what it meant when my yoga teacher said to clear your mind and be present. During that time, my mind usually sounds like this:
“How long have I been in this class? God, that guy next to me smells. Why don’t yoga people shower? This whole class smells like feet and nachos. Maybe I’ll have Mexican for lunch. I love avocados. Maybe I’ve burned enough calories to have a burrito for lunch!! God, my arms hurt. How much longer do I have to hold this freaking pose?”
But this is going to change!
Vin and I are heading off to a 10-day Vipassana Meditation course where we’re going to learn how to be silent and zen out. There will be no talking, not eye contact and no food after 12:00 noon.
We headed off on a Malaysian nightclub adventure with our fabulous new friend William. We’ve been in Asia long enough to know that ‘nightclub’ really means ‘karaoke bar’ and includes high decibel soft rock renditions of Britney Spears.
William promised us a “very good, have fun” night and explained that we were going to listen to Thai women sing in English, Chinese and Thai. It was going to be a great time even though William himself, “no understand Thai, I not know what they sing.” We were pretty sure our signals were crossed when William began to explain how a Thai man is going to take off his clothes and show us his dick, “not real dick, fake dick. Real dick still inside pants.”
How could we refuse?
This is William's "having fun, having happy times" face
The night began on a high note, literally, and only got better. A live band played along to the canned pop music as a trio of leggy professional karaoke singers took over the mike. The louder and shriller they shrieked, the more the crowd went wild. Huge garlands of flowers were bought by the men in the audience and placed around the neck of their favorite singer. In between each song the women changed clothes. As the night went on the shorts got shorter, shirts more transparent and the men in the audience bought more and more flower garlands.
The women in the audience had their own strip show too. William’s favorite Thai man did indeed have a fake dick and took all opportunity to shock the audience with it’s size.
Note: This post is about two very different concepts and at first may encourage you to grab a bite to eat. Don’t do that because the second part of this post may make you want to throw up. Also, if you’re a weak person, you may not like these photos.
San Francisco has nothing on Asia when it comes to street food. Every country we visit has their own twist on outdoor dining: Korea serves street food inside orange tents, China fries bugs and bats, Taiwan has streets that come alive with night markets. But the king of street food, by far, has been Singapore.
A whole VILLAGE of street food
On our first day I discovered that Little India was celebrating the Thaipusam Festival right down the street from the Tekka Hawker Market and took this to be an omen from the heavens above. A parade AND Indian street food? Yes!
Most of my Indian holiday history comes from Kelly’s explanation of Diwali or the vague recollections of paint being splattered on Stanford students during Holi day. I thought it might be like on ‘An Idiot Abroad’ with Indian Babas who do crazy forms of devotional yoga and acts of faith like holding their hand above their head for 12 years.
Really my expectations of this Thaipusam Festival were pretty mild forms of needles coupled with some interesting babas and possibly some paint throwing. If I had been expecting some serious SMBD shit, I would have chosen NOT to dive into a huge Styrofoam plate of Chicken Biryani. With extra Sauce. Plus Lentils. With more extra Sauce.
But dive into the Indian food deliciousness we did.
Chicken Biryani - yes please!
Members of the Clean Plate Club
The heavens opened and rained down a delicious combination of grease and goodness that we soaked up with ever last bit of Roti. This was swiftly followed by a strong chai. Happily in addition to outstanding street food Singapore also has spotlessly clean bathrooms that cost 30 cents.
From the Tekka Market we rolled outside and joined the growing number of people who were lining the street for the parade. We slowly ambled in and out of stores. I even managed to make room for some gulab jamun as we waited in the sweltering heat for the festivities to begin.
Get your own gulab jamun!
As I put the last bite of sugary deliciousness into my mouth, the music turned waaay up and the first devotee marched into view.
Kavadi offering cage - with spikes!
Pierced tongue and cheek
Yes! Bondage! Men on spikes with pierced tongues and cheeks! It turns out that the Thaipusam Festival is more along the lines of the Catholic Opus Dei than happy Hindu Babas. The people celebrating this festive fast and meditate for weeks before subjecting themselves to physical pain, a method of asking for help from the God Murugan.
Perhaps I should do a little more research when coupling religious festivals with binge eating.
Ahhh! Salaam and good evening to you worthy friends, please come closer and listen to this incredulous tale of Indonesian intrigue, of mystery, of fleeting fame and yes, it’s all true.
So we booked it out of Jakarta on business class train to Yogyakarta (Jog-ja), the cultural capital of Java. Happily we didn’t have to ride on the roof of the train like some folks but 12 hours on a train is crappy, particularly when you expect the fellow passengers will try to steal your shoes.
Indonesians are just insanely inviting, but you never know if someone is talking to you because they’re crazy friendly or because they’re trying to direct you to their friend’s tourist-trap Batik shop. Walking down the street you hear a chorus of, “Hello, what are you doing? Where are you going?” and if you answer that question, “Where are you from…You’re from US!!!” and now you’re screwed. Sit back, relax, chill out. You will not be moving for at least 30 minutes.
When an extremely gregarious local tourism dude asked us to attend a local parade, we judged him to be the friendly sort and not the buy-my-stuff kid of guy and quickly agreed. He promised us an authentic Indonesian dance show and a small dinner. What reason would we have to say no? Little did we know that we were going to be the main stars of the parade, except for the freaking Sultan of Yogyakarta himself, of course.
That afternoon we met up with a group of other whities who agreed to the same proposal and our guide who arrived wearing his traditional clothes. He also arrived with four bicycles, explained that the eight of us would ride the bikes to the beginning of the parade.
The eight of us – a German couple, the English girls and Vinnie and me – took a long time to process this information. It wasn’t until we were ready to depart, half of us standing there waiting for our bikes, that we realized that we were meant to actually ride in pairs on the back of rickey, rusted peasant bicycles, on the wrong side of the street, through insane amounts of traffic.
We rode our bikes through this crowd
To make it even stranger, we weren’t led to the sidelines, instead we were directed to the entrance of the parade and given signs that we couldn’t understand. I didn’t know if we were protesting, advocating, directing – what the hell are these signs and why are we holding them?
Suddenly everyone wanted to take our photo.
We're big in Indo
And at that point we were told that we would be riding these ricky-ass bicycles onto a stage where we would open the parade festivities. Huh?
So we slowly, with great balance, rode through the streets, waving and smiling at everyone until we reached the red carpet. The crowd was forcibly parted by the green beret guards and suddenly a bevy of photographers descended upon us. We stood with our bikes, and our signs as people started, clapped and the press took our picture.
Once the flashing lights subsided we were led to a tent where we were sat one row behind the city’s Mayor and the Sultan. Around us sat important looking men in their Batik shirts, and women with their heads covered. The crowd pressed in from all sides, trying to get close to the Sultan and watch the events that were about to unfold. We sat there awe struck, wondering why the hell we had VIP seats to watch the Sultan’s address, the gorgeous dance troupes and some fancy signing ceremony.
Kris in the 2nd row at the main event
Once the dancers cleared out and the festival ended, we were paraded around the city and asked to pose for pictures with locals. The Sultan’s personal guard circled in around us, leading us behind the sultan as he inspected the festival grounds.
Finally at the end of this confusing, exhausting day, we were invited for dinner at the Kraton. A huge spread of food was laid out at the Sultan’s brothers house where all the dignitaries and us, the token whities, feasted on Ayam Goreng, fish curry, and fried tempeh.
Dinner at the Kraton
So what the was all of this!?
No clue what's going on
We still don’t know what the hell the festival was for. Some people have told us that Mohammad’s birthday is coming up. Other’s mentioned that it has something to do with crop production. The photo they used in the paper was to show solidarity with the recent earthquake victims.
We all know that mother nature has not been kind to Indonesia during the past decade. And with the occasional tribal scuffle in Kalimantan or the foreign-targeted bombing in Bali, tourists have chosen to spend their vacations elsewhere.
We’ve concluded that our friendly tourist bureau dude was told to provide some white faces to promote tourism during the festival. Instead of asking us to help, he just kind of threw us into the situation where we all played along.
This blog documented our year long adventure as backpackers in 2010 & 2011. We are now living in Singapore and we still travel - but now we have a bit more baggage! You can find us at @Krissymo and @vlauria.