Friday, February 27, 2009

Grand World Voyage Part 4: Asia Continued

Singapore was a place that intrigued me, having heard much good about it from a friend who was a missionary there for a long time. We knew they had strict laws regarding littering and drug possession. And Singapore is beautiful. Our time there was heavily scheduled, with three excursions planned over two days.

Our first tour showed us highlights of the island, and included a lot of interesting architecture, a mosque, and the merlion fountain/statue. We also walked through Chinatown, which was much like Chinatowns everywhere. The landscape was always well maintained and neat, but we did see a little trash along the roadside. The part I liked the best was the orchid garden, which is part of the botanical garden. The orchid is the national flower of Singapore, and the garden was spectacular.

That evening we went to the night zoo, where we first saw a show with some of the animals, and then took a train ride through the park to see vignettes of wild nocturnal animals. This was quite enjoyable and we thought it was a pretty neat variation on zoos.

The next day we went on the best of the excursions we had planned, to the Jurong Bird Park. That is an incredible place. We have never
seen such a variety of birds anywhere. Tina and I got permission to leave the group and walk the park on our own. We agreed to meet up with the group for the show at the end of our time there. Because we were on our own we were able to see much more than the group did. The best was seeing the hornbills and toucans being fed. We saw huge blue pigeons, many kinds of kingfishers, and birds from places like Bali, not forgetting, of course, the colorful parrots and two flocks of flamingoes (different species). The show at the end was spectacular. They had a hornbill flying up into the audience, a parrot that flew through hoops, and a small parrot that was able to sing "Happy Birthday" in three languages - Chinese, English and Malay. My familiarity with two of the languages was enough to convince me that the bird really was singing in those languages.

After all was said and done, about the only thing that would draw me back to Singapore is the Jurong Bird Park. The atmosphere there has no life, no heartbeat. The heartbeat has been squelched by the overly controlling law there. Most of the countries we went to, despite financial poverty, had a lively spirit about them that was almost totally missing in Singapore. The only places we'd been to that were deader than Singapore were Petropovlovsk in Siberia, and Brunei. Physical beauty can never make up for a lively spirit.

Chennai, better known to most as Madras, was our introduction to India. The dock area was covered with a thick layer of black mud. The band that was there to greet us put out a wonderful effort, but the people who were playing could not produce good music. This was our first time seeing such masses of people in such deep poverty, living on the streets and performing all of their bodily functions right there on the streets. We saw a beach area that had been hit by a tsunami, where people were living in makeshift shelters. There were plenty of goats and cattle around in most places we went.

Our tour included a set of miniature temples carved from a single piece of sandstone, the church where St. Thomas (the doubter) was reportedly buried, and a couple of other temples, one of which was carved into a cave in sandstone, with bas relief carvings on the outside which told about the gods. We had lunch at a nice resort way out in the country. The food was quite good. One thing that was interesting was seeing a lot of vacant properties that were walled or fenced. Apparently the owners do that even when they are not planning to use the property any time soon to keep the squatters out. No property is safe from squatters unless this is done. Many of the walls were covered with graffiti, in Tamil, the native language of the area. Even though the e
xcursion itself was quite nice, seeing how the people live there left me in a state of shock. The shock was bad enough that I was not sure I'd ever want to see more of India.

After the shock of Chennai, I was not quite sure what to expect in Mumbai. At least the dock area was in much better shape than in Chennai. Our berth was opposite a naval yard, and our closest neighbor was an old ship that was serving as a museum, and which included old aircraft. We were once again greeted by a band; this one was pretty good, although nobody could do better than the Filipinos. We did a panoramic tour of Mumbai on the first day, and what we saw felt much more normal (by my definition). There were still incredible numbers of people everywhere, and there were cows. Some wandering alone, other oxen pulling carts. Our tour included a photo stop for the gorgeous Victorian train station and a visit to a Jain temple, as well as the hanging gardens.

One thing that helped to relieve my shock was that Deepak, one of our dance hosts, who is from Mumbai, took a group of single ladies to dinner at his club. He chartered a bus that allowed us to have additional
views of the city, including the Queen's Necklace at night. The food at the club was outstanding, and the atmosphere nice. Knowing him, and having him show us more of what we would consider normal really helped my equilibrium.

For the second day we took a trip to the Elephanta Caves, which are at the end of the string of islands that a
re part of Mumbai. It was a long boat ride over there, but the scenery was interesting. There was a long flight of stairs up to the caves, and there were sedan chairs there for those who couldn't do steps. The ever-present vendors' stalls lined the way. The caves were carved out of the sandstone mountain - everything about them was handcarved, from the support columns to all the depictions of the Hindu gods. The sad part is that apparently the Portugese soldiers, when Portugal was colonizing that part of India, used the relief sculptures for target practice, so many of them are badly deformed. Fortunately it was still possible to see the beauty of the carvings. We also saw monkeys near the entrance to the caves. The final part of the trip was tea at the Taj Hotel. We were very lucky to have seen it when we did, because it was subsequently the target of terrorists.

I must say as a post-script that in the aftermath of that trip, especially after reading an old National Geographic article on the Untouchables, I have found compassion for those people, and would be interested in seeing more of India.

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