31 October 2012

The Tissue Sellers

Amongst the madness of Singapore there is sadness. You can see it. Even with one eye closed. If you choose to look. This is a vibrant and affluent country and Singaporeans should be rightfully proud of its status as a global economic power house.

It is affluent. 


It sparkles and gleans with wealth and prosperity. 

See the Ferraris, the Rollers and the BMW's parked at the Fullarton Hotel. Watch the gamblers throw down $1000 chips at the Marina Bay Sands. They throw these chips like confetti at a wedding.

Singapore is however not a welfare state. Nothing is for free. No work no pay. Poverty exists but it is hidden in the cracks. It is the moss on the rock. It is the elephant in the room. Peek up occasionally when sipping your champagne. Pause when shucking those oysters. Have a respite from spreading that foie gras. 

On brioche.

You might get a glimpse of some tired and often elderly locals and immigrants shuffling between tables at our favorite eateries and bars. Thrusting small packages of tissues your way. 

Not begging. 

Never begging. 

They are humbly offering their wares with their last shreds of dignity. Trying to earn a couple of dollars to pay for a days meal or for some shelter for the night. They are down but not out. 

Spare them your sympathy. 

It's not what they are after. Reach instead into your Versace wallets. Open your Prada purses. Give them a little cash. 

It won't hurt you a bit.

30 October 2012

Nepal. A country in the clouds

I ventured to Nepal for the first time three years ago. I keep going back. I can't get enough of it. 

It is one of my favorite places in the world. 

Nepal is the polar opposite to Singapore. 

Perhaps that is the attraction. 

Singapore is affluent. Educated. Opulent. Extravagant. Staid. Opportunity abounds. Money is worshipped. 

Nepal is impoverished. Straightforward. Simple. Spectacularly beautiful. For the majority in Nepal survival is a daily battle. Nothing is taken for granted.

Nepal puts my life into perspective. I often need that jolt. A wake up call. A slap in the face. In one fell swoop it takes the petty out of Peter. I like moments that take my breath away. These are many in Nepal. Flying into Kathmandu you see no less than four peaks burst their way through the clouds. 

It is majestic. 


The temples of Kathmandu were constructed long before Christianity was born. Or invented. They were built to last. They are architecturally splendid. It is a joy to meander the tiny alleyways of Thamel. To get hopelessly lost amongst the Surdu. Hindi holy men who emerge from their caves after years of meditation high in the Himalaya. They are a bit dirty and are very smelly. They are however enlightened.

You need to stoop to get into tiny craftsmen stores where the art of stone and wood carving has not been lost. There are four Durbahs in Kathmandu. These are ancient palaces which were once individual kingdoms ruled by four brothers. They strove to outdo each other in their devotion to Hindi gods and goddesses. 

There were no winners in this game.

Nepal is principally a Hindi population although there are also many Buddhists. A lot of the Buddhists are from Tibet. They fled to Nepal when China occupied their country. The Chinese are invaders. They are intruders. Unwelcome occupiers. They don't belong. Nepal is the only country in the world where Hindis and Buddhists share the same temples. They practice peace. It is divine. In the truest sense of the word.

If you wake early enough in the morning in Kathmandu you will hear the monks chant the mantra "om mani padme hum". It is entrancing. 


It is beautiful.

The lord Buddha was born in Nepal and he died in India. It is said that he was born as a grown child and as he took seven first steps seven lotus flowers bloomed from each of his foot fall. 

I think this is beautiful. 

It is also taught that Buddha once fasted for three months eating only one grain of rice and drinking one drop of water each day. He nearly died of starvation and realized he was both human and fallible. This was one of his steps to enlightenment. 

I think this is beautiful too. 

Humanity and humility personified.

I go to a village called Katunje. It is only 100 kilometers or so from Kathmandu but it takes more than eight hours to get there. The road is only open for a couple of months each year. Don't think road as in bitumen. This is more of a track. It is very windy and wild and rough. The road was only constructed 8 years ago. Before then one had to walk to get to the village. 

Walking is the most common form of transport in Nepal. 

It is a very steep country. 

The Nepalese people are tough. Many of Katunje's residents have never been to Kathmandu. They are sustenance farmers. They eat what they grow. They grow what they eat. 

And so it goes.

Walking into Katunje is like stepping back in time. There are tiered gardens of rice and lentils there and clusters of mango trees. 

Think of Babylon. 

Imagine Shangri La. 

The water and air is sweet. Sweeter than sugar. There is no crime in the village. The village reeks of respect. Dignity. Unfathomable beauty. I am in awe of the simplicity and decency of the place. They are by far the most happy and contented people I have ever met. When I am in Katunge I often just sit. Time passes. I get lost in nothingness. The silence is golden. I gaze at the Annapurna ranges that soar eight thousand meters into the sky. That is nearly three miles high for you non metric types. 


Very big. 


When I leave Katunge I immediately miss it. 

I yearn for it now.


I love Singlish. 

It is brilliant. 




I am hopelessly and helplessly addicted. Amongst my favorites is "can" and it's counterpart "cannot"

They are diametrically opposed. 

When asked if you are going out for a drink tonight one can simply reply "can".

Alternatively you can include it in your own question. "Drink tonight? Can?"

I overheard a Singaporean colleague on the telephone the other day. I was eavesdropping. It was at least a five minute conversation where the caller was - I assume - asking many questions. My colleague replied "can" no less than 17 times in a row. 

I was counting. 

He terminated the call with a resounding "cannot'.  No other words were uttered. 

It was magnificent.

With Singlish one can also add colour with the use of "la". It has no meaning.

The enquiry "Drink tonight? Can?" may be responded to with a "Can la" It adds emphasis. 


Another popular piece of Singlish that I adore is poetically polite. It is beautifully Singaporean and is only uttered between noon and 2pm. It is time sensitive.

It is the question "Have you taken your lunch?"

When I first arrived on this wonderful island and this was asked of me I was perplexed. 



Was there somewhere I should be physically taking my lunch? Where do I take it? I didn't bring any in! 

Now I ask it with abandon. 

And when put to me I now reply as a matter of course.

I say, "Taken" or “Taking”

Whichever the case may be.

29 October 2012

Mumbai Madness & Magic

I am an Australian who lives now in the ordered life of Singapore. It is uber ordered. Singapore runs like a well oiled machine. It hums with efficiency. Although nothing is broken much needs to be fixed. My working life takes me to many places in Asia. I often flit through countries and when I wake up in hotel rooms I sometimes forget where I am. Occasionally though I have the opportunity to stay for a while. 

Amongst my very favourite cities in the world is Mumbai in India. 

It was once Bombay. The name changed but the place didn't. The magic of Mumbai always gets my heart racing. It is almost mindboggling how this city of nearly 20 million people (a shade under the population of my entire home country) manages to function. Despite the chaos that prevails at almost every single turn the city functions. It throbs. 

It Pulsates. 

There is a vibrancy and potency in Bombay that is unique to Asia.

The sounds of Mumbai are overwhelming. It seems no driver can resist honking his horn. I'm not sure if the honking is to warn of an advance or it is just to announce the driver’s presence. Each morning I cross the main road adjacent to my office in the Worli district to buy myself a cold drink. I drink a freshly squeezed lime juice. Hold the ice. There is no pedestrian crossing – such luxuries do not exist in the city of Mumbai.

A very large, imposing, and heavily-mustached policeman seems to delight in assisting me. He boldly marches through the teeming traffic, both hands raised with great authority - all the time blowing on a large brass whistle. Upon reaching the centre of the road he holds up his enormous mitts. Each wrapped in snow white gloves. 

He commands the traffic to halt. 

He then gestures to me to cross the road. He does this brazenly and with authority. Every step I take is accompanied by a loud toot of his whistle as he keeps rhythm with each pace. I've tried the brisk walk, the quick step and the slow crawl. 

Miraculously and musically his whistles match each of my treads. This morning I paused mid-stride. I was hoping to catch him out - just to see how he would handle it. A momentary look of puzzlement crossed his face before he broke into a broad grin. He quickly become attuned to the game that I was playing. 

I’m not sure who was the more delighted.

My drive to and from the office each day is an experience for all the senses. It certainly wakes me up. I have quickly learned that red lights mean much the same as green ones here in Mumbai. One just blows their horn with a little more urgency when dashing through the reds. Amber does not exist. It is pointless.

The line markings on the roads are simply wasted paint as every driver tries to create six or seven lines of traffic even when only two technically exist. Signaling for turns is achieved by flapping one’s arms wildly out the window. 

Sometimes legs as well. 

Rickshaw drivers in particular sometimes appear to be doing the splits as first one sandaled leg shoots out the right side of the vehicle and then, almost simultaneously - when U-turns are undertaken - the left leg shoots out the left side. It is like a body disconnected. It is not uncommon to see a family of three or four perched on a rickety old motorcycle weaving in and out of traffic. 

Yesterday I saw a little boy sitting on the rear of his father's motorcycle with a plastic whistle in his mouth. His father nudged him gently with his elbow to blow on the whistle whenever they turned corners. I assumed that their horn was not functioning.

The surviving chrome on the banged up old yellow and black Ambassador taxis is polished to a high sheen by the drivers. Their taxis are obviously a source of great pride for these men who drive them for up to 16 hours a day.

At 4 pm sharp each day Bolah the Nut Boy sets up shop on the curb at the front of my office in Worli. Bolah is one of tens of thousands of such child merchants in this city. He is no more than 12 years of age. Bolah squats on the dusty ground and he perches a rusty old oil can atop some burning embers. He then gently roasts a pan of mixed dried nuts that he sells to passersby. 

I have watched him ever so carefully fold roughly cut pieces of newspaper into long cylindrical cones which he then fills to the brim with his product. He sells these cones for five rupees each. I find it impossible to resist his business endeavour and buy two cones each afternoon and I give him 50 rupees. This is a little over one US dollar. Such extravagance has apparently endeared me to him and last night, before I even realized it - and before his business got busy, he took out a dirty rag and began wiping my dusty shoes. 

I tried to stop him but such a look of hurt and disappointment appeared on his face that I felt obliged to let him continue. An old beggar then appeared with a somewhat crazed look on his face and he was muttering something incomprehensible. Bolah promptly leapt to his feet, yelling and chasing him away. 

The guys in my office have told me that the name Bolah means the "innocent one.” 

While he has the body of a frail and undernourished child, Bolah has eyes that shine with the wisdom and guile of an old man.

Indian men love their uniforms. They are kept immaculately clean and are worn with great pride. The streets of Mumbai are filled with policemen, postmen and other government workers who wear elaborate khaki or green jackets and trousers emblazoned with bright badges and huge brass buttons that are polished to a high sheen. My office has dozens of security guards and is serviced by four lifts. In each lift a uniformed operator is seated. Their sole responsibility is to press the floor buttons to where you need to go. 

On my first day I made the dreadful mistake of actually pushing the button myself. 

I received such a look of hurt and devastation that I haven’t dared to press one since. 

The women of Mumbai wear brightly coloured and beautiful saris. Most have traditional Hindi nose piercings – many of which are ornamented with tiny silver bells. If the road traffic wasn’t so loud, I am sure passersby could hear tiny tinkles as these women go about their business.

No visit to Mumbai would be complete without a trip to a ghat. These are the laundries of Mumbai and they have been around for more than a thousand years. 

Hundreds of these ghats can be found in the back streets of Mumbai where whole families are engaged in a ritual of hand washing, drying and ironing clothes and linen. 

A dhobi is a laundry man or woman. One is typically born into the occupation. Multiple generations live in tight-knit communities. When visiting such establishments, I would  recommend that you first of all ask to meet with the Head Dhobi.

The gentleman I visited at the Saat Rasta ghat – Mr. Dhavala Singh - was a most obliging fellow and he was extremely proud in showing me how the place functions. More than 300 dhobis, ranging in age from 8 to 75 years of age, work and live in his establishment. Labor is divided in teams of workers who first diligently sort the whites from the colours in large piles. Groups of washers then rinse the items while standing ankle deep in long rows of narrow concrete baths. 

When appropriately soaked, both men and women “thwack” the clothing against large “flogging stones.” Looking closely one can see that these are worn smooth from centuries of use. I heard the “thwumping” of the flogging even above the noise of the Mumbai traffic and long before I entered the ghat. The noise was hypnotic and magnetic. It was alluring.

Female dhobis sang as they went about their washing duties, adding an almost poetic beauty to the rigorous tasks they were undertaking. They were most graceful in their labour.

From the washing baths young boys carried the soaked bundles of clothes to massive vats of boiling water mixed with diluted starch. I guess that this is the equivalent of the rinse cycle of modern washing machines. Then the shirts, trousers and saris were hung on long lines to dry in the sun and wind. The sight of colorful saris and pure white sheets flapping in the breeze provided a stark contrast to the drab grey concrete of the washing baths. They were like a rainbow radiating across an arctic snow land. 

Mr. Singh told me that his name meant “pure white” - which was how he demanded that all his linen be washed. Mr. Singh told me that he was most honoured to be washing all of the linen and towels for some of India’s finest hotel establishments.

The final part of the laundering process was undertaken by the ironing ladies. These women went about their jobs using huge metal plate irons. The heat source for these irons is hot coals and charcoals that are carefully layered on the upper plates. Chatting endlessly amongst themselves, the ironing dhobis work tirelessly from before dawn until well after dusk, pressing perfect seams and creases before folding each item and sorting them into bundles for delivery. Small teams of delivery ghats somehow manage to make sense of what to the naked eye is chaos – and deliver the items to their owners. 

Charging them the correct per item fee. 

They hustle. 

They bustle. 

It is a delight to behold. 

“Never an item is lost,” Mr. Singh told me. 

It would be to the shame of the ghat if such an event were to occur.” 

He seemed aghast at the thought. Traumatized. When I asked whether his business is jeopardized by modern washing machines and dryers, his response seemed both angry and concerned. 

He muttered, “Those accursed contraptions will be the end of us all.” 

For all of our sakes I truly hope not. 

I’m taking my washing there tomorrow.

I went to a bookstore this morning to find something to read. Upon seeing Aravind Adiga’s novels "The White Tiger", "Between the Assassinations" and “Last Man in Tower” displayed prominently on the main display shelf. 

I told the proprietor that Adiga was among my favourite authors and enquired whether he had written any other works. 

I received a polite "No," 

I then asked the proprietor whether he had in fact read either book. The Proprietor nodded and wobbled his head in the negative but he asked me what the books were about. 

I informed him that they were beautiful works of literature about the life of the common man in India and the hardships of surviving. 

He chuckled softly and nodded knowingly and said, "I don't need to read them then as this is something that most Indians are living every day in Mumbai." 

My response was that he should be very proud to be an Indian. I told him that for me there was so much beautiful art and talent and life in his city and country that he should in fact be bursting with pride. He told me, almost blushing, that my words made his heart sing.

This is Mumbai. 

This is India. 

It makes my heart sing too.