Categories
Personal Reviews Travel

On watching ‘The Hangover Part II’ in Bangkok, and being a cynical asshole

The first part of this blog post – a review of Hangover 2 – isn’t what I what I sat down to write; it just gives me a way to segue into the later bits.

I find it funny that the owner of Segway Inc. died when he drove a Segway off a cliff.

Segway segue segway segue

***

Every Vegas movie has a shot of a guy sticking his head out like a puppy from a car, awestruck by the dozens of neon signs and a thousand bulbs flashing by. Govinda cavorts around in the Swiss Alps, suspiciously singing and dancing with a bunch of schoolkids.

As long as you give moviegoers an armchair vacation, it adds pizzaz to an otherwise lacklustre script. This is what I found myself thinking after watching The Hangover Part II, in Bangkok, the week it released in theatres. I count myself lucky that I got to see the filming locations. Hell-yeah I was excited. A quest to complete the trail and discover Bangkok at the same time!

Armed with these guides from Travelhappy and CNNGo, I started off at the Sky Bar and Sirocco restaurant on the 63rd/64th floor of Lebua Hotel. Didn’t go to the top – for one, the cargos I was wearing wouldn’t pass their ‘smart casual only’ dress code. Also, prices – aptly for a place named Sky Bar – are sky-high: a drink costs about 500 baht (US $17)! It is supposed to have one of the best views of Bangkok (Bangkok doesn’t, yet, have a space needle like structure they can use to gouge tourists), so if you’re nattily dressed and have cash to spare, this one place to check out even if you aren’t a Hangover 2 fan.

Many generic-Bangkok street scenes were filmed in Bangkok’s Chinatown, known as Yaorawat. Much of the lanes look the same as the next one; still, if you want to see the specific lanes where they filmed then these are Soi Phiphasya 1 and Soi Plaeng Nam. Chinatowns are a fascinating place in any city, Bangkok is no different. You can lose yourself in its sprawling Yaorawat district for a whole day and never get bored with watching life pass by.

The Chao Phraya river is very much the lifeline of Bangkok. It flows north-to-south through the city, a major traffic-way that can often get you to your destination faster than Bangkok’s notoriously congested roads. As you take a Chao Phraya Express ferry down the river, you’re sure to find ‘longboats’ – small, private boats for hire with a long shaft connecting the engine to the propeller (hence the name). The Wolfpack travelled in one of these, in the scene where Stu strums a guitar lamenting their night epicly gone wrong. The speedboat scene in the final act is on the same river, though I never saw one myself. Perhaps this is only a possibility if you know international gangstas. Also on the Chao Phraya river, close to the Memorial Bridge pier, is the riverside café where Alan starts playing on an arcade machine – that’s Nang Noun Restaurant. Given the prominent role the riverway plays in Bangkok residents’ daily routine, it is no surprise that so many scenes were filmed there.

A short walk from Sukhumvit MRT – a district full of high-rise fancy hotels and tourist-packed shopping centres – is Bangkok’s infamous Soi Cowboy, a lane full of go-go bars. (‘Soi’, in case you were wondering, means ‘lane’ in Thai.)

I came here to see the place where Stu finds out he has demon/semen inside him. ‘Siam Siam’ doesn’t actually exist; it was a modified entrance to Cactus Bar. The interior shots were filmed at the Tilac, across the lane.

When I visited Soi Cowboy early evening, the *ahem* trade hadn’t quite started, but I could already see expectant wolfpacks and Dirty Old White Men circling like vultures. The girls themselves took this time to gather and have a big family-style dinner together before their work started.

I didn’t visit Ancient City, a theme park that was christened ‘Ching Mei Monastery’ in the film. (Don’t confuse ‘Ching Mei’ with ‘Chiang Mai’, which is a city about 700km from Bangkok! Any tuk-tuk driver offering to drive you to Chiang Mai is conning you.)

I don’t remember whether I went to Soi Sukhumvit 7/1, where the riot scene outside ‘White Lion’ was filmed, as all streets in the general area of infamous Patpong look very similar (see picture above). Apparently, Bill Clinton visited the set here when filming was going on; this is an opportune moment to make a  ‘what was Bill Clinton doing in Patpong’ joke. You can see pictures from during Hangover 2‘s filming at this forum.

And yet, somehow, seeing these places with my own eyes diminishes the exoticness, the unattainability that Bangkok was chosen as a setting for in the first place. For someone who hasn’t visited Bangkok, the narrative remains reasonably fresh because your eyes can feast on ‘something new’ (no, girls, I don’t mean Bradley Cooper). I attribute The Hangover 2‘s box office success to this. Roger Ebert seems to think the film is a deliberate attempt to hurt Bangkok’s tourist traffic by playing up the shady parts of the city but you’d be surprised how many in the audience will see it as an advertisement rather than a warning; a place to have their own bachelor party.

(This is the bit that you can skip until you encounter the next section break.)

Ebert, bless the poor old sod, seems to be stuck up about that and ‘offensive’ parts of the movie. What truly makes this movie suck is the derivative script. Cracked.com has an excellent analysis of how the trailer for The Hangover and The Hangover Part II are essentially the same, with cosmetic substitutions. I was being overly optimistic when I hoped the full-length feature would be any different. The sequel is two minutes longer than the original, and pretty much the same with a new set of jokes. A toast at a secluded location. Time-lapse of the city skyline. A flash montage. Monkey instead of baby. Quest, find-Teddy, what-do-we-do, blah blah. Roofies, no wait, muscle relaxant. (How the fuck does that explain temporary amnesia, again?) Even the way they ‘find’ a solution is the fucking same – Stu has an epiphany and wrestles a phone out of Phil’s hand, who is delivering bad news. They even brought Sasha Barrese back to gnash her teeth and spit out “Where. Are. You. Guys.”

Let me ask you this: I can understand a bride’s father allowing a sunburnt groom, but do you honestly believe an Asian bride’s father, who only a couple of days ago compared the prospective groom to rice porridge, not lose his cool when he finds his virtuoso son is missing a bloody finger?

(Fucking Fast Five put in greater efforts to make an original film. Granted, they took it to the extreme of actually cutting away from a race and showing homoerotic tension between Vin Diesel and The Rock instead but you have to applaud them for trying.)

The element of surprise that made the original a delight is completely lost. Sure, in The Hangover you could be assured they would find Doug – this is a Hollywood movie after all – at the end, and yet you had this aura of mystery that you would never really find what went down. Until…they brought out the still shots over the credits. When Stu exclaims oh-dear-lord in Part 1, your reaction is the very same! When they pull the same trick in Part 2, you are not surprised any more. Neither, it seems are the actors, who copy scenes like zombies. Lame, lame, lame, just fucking lame.

Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis are the only ones that redeemed this movie for me. Any exceptionally good scene that had me belly-laughing – like the scene where Alan starts crying :D – were cut short by the plot that left me with an always-present feeling of déjà vu.

***

You know what, I am going to take the high moral ground here. It’s because of non-discerning viewers – the kind that goes out and buys Chetan Bhagat books and ‘likes’ them – are the reason for this recent rut in Hollywood productions of sequels and generic superhero movies. Fuck you all. Sure, Chetan Bhagat, Hollywood threequels, and Call of Duty: Black Ops all contribute to the economy but that still doesn’t stop them from being a piece of shit, quality-wise. McDonald’s and gourmet restaurants both have their own place under the sun, but you are deluding yourself to think a Big Mac can ever match a gourmet meal in quality (if not quantity).

No, there is nothing snobbish about not finding a Chetan Bhagat book or a run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie ‘awesome’. You, non-discerning viewer, is the sort of person who lists ‘watching movies’ as a hobby just because you catch the latest blockbusters or have a built a movie collection through torrents. ‘Watching movies’ is a recreational pastime that practically everyone in the civilised world indulges in; it only becomes a ‘hobby’ when you learn to separate the wheat from the chaff by watching the truly spectacular stuff – Kurosawa, Kubrick, Truffaut, et al. At the other end of the spectrum, you will also need to watch spectacularly bad stuff churned out by Tom Six, Uwe Boll and the countless shitty Child’s Play or Friday The 13th sequels to understand why they went wrong. You will need to watch truly loopy stuff – like Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou or Grindhouse. True appreciation will not come by just sitting down and watching Rashomon one day. Over a period of time, you’ll learn the tricks of film storytellers: the use of background score for mood, Eisensteinian montages, in medias res

When you watch that many movies, you stop getting surprised by standard tricks. I start anticipating the next plot move these days when I watch a movie. It takes ‘something different’ to delight me. And when The Hangover Part II comes along with absolutely nothing that cannot be guessed, I feel betrayed and unsatisfied. I never used to read reviews from professional critics a few years ago because I always found their opinions at odds with mine, and I didn’t want to spoil my experience with a review I wouldn’t eventually agree with. Now, however, when I say I found a movie ‘average’ or ‘bad’, I mean it on an expanded scale where the baselines of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are further apart. My ‘average’ could be good for you – like a less-read person who likes Chetan Bhagat – but if you start arguing about merits with that background and call me a snob, I’m going to punch you in the face. Because I’m a cynical asshole (more on this a couple of sections below).

***

A couple of readers have asked me why I have stopped writing movie reviews of late. Depends on whom you are writing your blog for. If you have 20 readers – all friends – who value your opinion then power to you, by all means go ahead. Just remember that apart from them, nobody really gives a fuck about what you felt about a movie. There is no point writing about – unless you are doing it for yourself, in which case power to you – and especially no point summarising the plot. If your friends usually just catch the blockbusters, that’s what they’ll do. If they are avid movie watchers, then they already know what is being talked about and don’t need to read it. (I’m assuming by ‘friends’ you talk to them in real-life.) Even with a reasonably popular blog like mine, I understand that most of you don’t really care two hoots about my movie reviews. Those who know me, already hear about it on Facebook / Twitter – and usually a one-liner from a friend plus discussion is enough to swing people either way.

I realised that by continuing to write long, analytical reviews I was being hypocritical. At best I just skim-read film reviews on friends’ blogs because honestly, people just want to get an idea of what the person felt rather than a thesis that may warp their own perceptions. I do not think this is just me; I am certain most of my regular readers do the same. When people want their perceptions warped, they read a professional critic.

Thus I have decided not to write film reviews unless I have something unique to say. No matter how much I liked X-Men: First Class, you won’t see a review from me. I wrote this review because I had on-ground experience to share, and elaborating on why I didn’t like Hangover 2 when most of my friends did; the latter is also the reason why I reviewed The Social Network and followed up on it. Whenever I do review films with seemingly nothing very unique to add – like for Super 8 (partly, because I saw this earlier than in most countries as Singapore is ahead in timezones; I will do this for any movies that I get to see ahead of its release date in India as most of my readers are Indians) or Source Code – I keep it short. I try to talk about how I felt, rather than a plot summary or other fluff. I trust you guys are smart enough to look up IMDb if you want to know the actors in the movie or the studio that made it. I will make exceptions for old films, as long as they are comparatively less-known. Same rules on succinctness and uniqueness apply.

I am applying this philosophy to everything I write these days. As long as you dish out content that is unique and properly edited, people will read it even if it’s 3000 words.

***

The mid-season finale of South Park’s Season 15 – You’re Getting Old – resonated deeply with me. If you don’t watch / used to watch South Park then it’s pointless convincing you to; regular viewers of the show – this is a must-watch, the most mature show South Park has produced. Which is saying something because the episode is full of poop jokes.

How apt the timing of that episode has been. I know I am turning into a cynical asshole and I have barely stepped into my twenties. I want to be able to write like this and this. Instead of the stereotypical “totally, like, finding myself in Thailand”, I find myself more disillusioned of life in general and everybody in it in particular. Suddenly the works of Alex Garland, Chuck Palahniuk and their ilk appeals so much to me. The transition hasn’t been drastic from Douglas Adams to this, for he made a career out of taking the piss out of everything. At least he was good-natured about it. Worse is that I am cynical about my cynicism, the ‘manufactured’ cynicism of these authors…I am sneering at my cynicism towards my cynicism and so on.

A downhill spiral. I really am seeing and hearing shit everywhere. The voices inside my head tell me that I am going insane.

***

“You know, you are going to turn out to be one of those guys who completely loses his shit and goes on a shooting rampage. And people are going to say ‘But we thought he was only kidding!'”
“I never have said I’m going to go on a shooting rampage, even jokingly!”
“Yet, when you do, you are going to refer to this day as the day the idea got cemented in your head.”

***

I fear I’m turning into the pretentious fuck who will pipe up in a Thai restaurant in Delhi / London saying, “Yes, but this doesn’t really compare to that corner-side restaurant in Silom. [looks away mistily]” Or the countless times I will probably say, “Ha, this is but pale imitation, tweaked to suit Western palates. Real Chinese food is totally different!” There will be – at least initially – wow-tell-us-more novelty as the dinner conversation gets steered towards tales from far-off lands, which will soon turn into a simmering why-won’t-he-shut-the-fuck-up-about-his-travels resentment. Why, indeed? Because there will always be at least one starry-eyed person sitting at the table, and a speaker willing to relive moments.

Or maybe I’ll become on of those more subtle pretentious fucks who doesn’t actively go around publicising where he has been, only to drop in a carefully timed hit-and-run comment in a discussion about a foreign country that only someone who has ‘been there’ can. Eventually, people learn to live with you either way, as “that grudgingly-sufferable know-it-all bastard”.

Of course, the real reason you people will feel resentful is because you wish you could switch places, be the person who has all those visas to show on his passport. The person who could tell those stories. No, I’m not rubbing it in; this is that emotion called ‘jealousy’ that Jesus warned you about.

Look at you, seething already at my arrogance. Yes, maybe now’s the time to stop reading to my blog. “That’ll teach him!” Look at some of you, mollified by this self-aware criticism. (That was the plan all along!) Look at me, already thinking up lines like “I was young and foolish back then” too speak embarrassedly if this article is brought up in the future.

I know that some of you are thinking I am…mocking (for the lack of a better word)…by listing out your possible reactions.

I know that some of you are thinking that I enjoyed anticipating that you would think that I am…mocking (for the lack of a better word)… by listing out your possible reactions.

I know that some of you are thinking…

Categories
Food For Thought

Analog souvenirs in a digital world

I never really understood the style-statement girls like her try to make. What, really, is the point of wearing thick-rimmed D&G glasses without lenses, in daily usage? I have seen people doing it for high school themed club parties, which sort-of makes sense. And yet as she walked in behind me – both of us boarding the A320 mere minutes before flight departure – she looked spectacularly gorgeous in them. Although, at the time, I was busy feeling embarrassed about the angry glares I was getting from the other passengers at our tardiness.

The front section of the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore was packed. Seated in the last couple of rows though, both she and I had a whole row to ourselves. I was glad for the extra legroom, even though ours was a short four-hour journey.

Flying out of Hong Kong International Airport at night presents a breathtaking sight: as you take off, you can see Hong Kong’s harbours beneath you, with all ships and maritime vessels glowing bright from their on-deck lights. Like tiny little toys in a bathtub, they stretch out for miles; Hong Kong still remains one of the world’s busiest ports. Bees dancing a slow, complicated dance as they receded further below.

The seat belt sign was switched off…and I got down to my usual routine of transferring photos from my digital camera and processing them. (I colour-correct all pictures that I *cough* eventually *cough* upload, so I might as well get started.) Maybe I’d get time between this and a short nap to start my journal entry about this trip. It was about then that I noticed her in the row beside me, fiddling with a handful of photographs. They were Polaroid photos; vintage Polaroid when back in the day it actual meant instant film, rather than the whoreing out of the name to whatever cheap digital camera line the new owners of the company fancy. And it was at that moment – seeing a physical manifestation of memories – that my digital vault of pictures felt worthless in comparison. To not have to think twice before taking a picture is a concept that I found difficult to wrap my head around.

She had the actual Polaroid camera laid out on her tray table too. We started chatting about the camera (it’s such a thing of beauty!), photography interests, Hong Kong, horror films, Greek philosophers and whatnot. The flight felt too short for that conversation…but it continued beyond that.

I wrote earlier how the goalposts for social conversations had shifted; the act of sharing is what now defines a ‘Kodak moment’, and I have faith in the idea of a digital scrapbook, but she made me realise how much more powerful a physical artefact can be. A Twitpic isn’t a Polaroid taken aboard TR 2967. A note scribbled on a napkin at a restaurant serves much better as a memory than a hastily punched in note on a Foursquare check-in.

It has taken me long to realise this. I think I’m going to hold on closely to the notebook journal I’m building.

Categories
Food For Thought

A change of perspective. A dialogue in the dark.

No, I didn’t get so exhausted by my first (mammoth) post of the year that I have stopped writing. I have a couple of draft blog posts that I need to edit and refine before I publish them. So much to say, so little time to do so due to ten academic courses, learning a new language, job applications / interviews, a TV studio director role, and a new pillow cover. Life, I tell you. ‘Tis like a grapefruit.

But you know what? It’s curious how a difference of a few weeks can bring about a change of perspective. :) How things remain the same and yet not the same. Now, I feel glad to have opted for a full-year on study exchange. I have even more faith that the decision I took in 2009 to do this is worthwhile. I could speak now – or I could wait till the end of my stay in Singapore and speak wiser with added hindsight.

You can figure out what I’m going to do, can’t you? You smart cookie!

****

Fourteen storeys below my cosy and warm room, the noise from the traffic lights was incessant. Tick tick tick tick beep beep beep beep tick tick tick tick beep beep beep beep. I couldn’t sleep! Was it because of the part of town I was staying in? Should I have coughed up cash for a costlier hostel somewhere else?

I went to Hong Kong a month ago, and while I will be writing about those adventures when I get time, I wanted to talk about an eye-opening (you’ll soon realize the significance of these choice of words) experience I had on the trip. I was looking up things to do in Hong Kong on Wikitravel from my hostel room there, when I stumbled across Dialogue In The Dark. It’s a one-of-a-kind of series of ‘experiential exhibitions’ across the world with the aim of increasing public awareness on issues surrounding visually impaired people in society. Intrigued, I put it on my HK itinerary.

Let me state what the concept of Dialogue in the Dark is. Essentially, its purpose is to bring about a change of perspective. A sighted person is led to pitch black rooms where locations that a person might encounter in daily life are recreated – a clothing store, a theatre, a café, a garden, a busy road intersection, a street market – and guided around by a visually impaired guide. The roles are reversed; here, it is the sighted person who is out of his/her element.

Dialogue In The Dark’s (DiD) Hong Kong chapter is in a shopping mall called The Household Center in Mei Foo, Kowloon district. It’s off the beaten track for most tourists. The mall itself is so different from the ones catering to tourists in Hong Kong (or Singapore for that matter) as it sells mostly Chinese goods; it is worth a whistlestop to see where residents go for shopping. All the while I was flitting about in the mall, never once did I see a tourist.

Anyway, I hadn’t made a booking online as I couldn’t use my Singaporean debit card in Hong Kong, so I showed up at the DiD office and enquired whether they had any tour slots for the day. At first, I was told that there were no tours being conducted in English for the day. I was disappointed that I would have to miss this as wouldn’t have any other chance to do this (at least on that trip), and to my surprise the staff called me a quarter-hour later telling they’d organized one for me.

At the start of the tour, I was handed a walking cane and introduced to my tour guide William. Over an hour-and-half he egged me on to explore my environment through my sense of touch, hearing, smell. It’s amazing how the human brain starts paying more attention to the other senses when sight is taken out of the equation. I felt leaves with my hands, trying to figure out what plant it was. I sat down on a park bench, feeling the smooth grain of the wood. “This one must be green in colour,” I told William. That was the first thing to came to mind when I thought of that texture. Almost silly, isn’t it. Above all, I felt guilty and embarrassed about saying that. How could I barge in and ‘definitely’ settle the look of an object with a person who couldn’t argue otherwise?

I remember throughout the tour of being paranoid that there would be a staircase in our path and I’d fall. (There were none.) Nevertheless, I couldn’t just let go of that feeling of fear. I crossed a narrow walkway surrounded by water. I crossed a street – and then I realized what the tick tick tick beep beep beep sounds that the traffic lights in Hong Kong make were for. Even when I was crossing the road, I feared the traffic light would change, or I’d trip, or I wouldn’t know when to stop (you’ve to figure out when to stop by feeling the texture of the road/pavement through your shoes). There weren’t any cars to hit me there, which only drove home the point how much more challenging this is in real life.

I tried to figure out what clothes were at a clothing store. Tried to identify fruits at a street market. Tried to figure out which magazine was National Geographic at a news-stand purely by touching the cover of the multiple ones on a rack. Found an empty seat in a music theatre and sat listening to a performance, and noticing the tiny vibrations that went across the floor as the tempo of the song changed. Experienced tiny ‘lightbulb moments’ every time I figured out what something was using senses I wasn’t used to. Bought and paid for in total darkness a can of cold coffee at the ‘cafe’ and sat down to chat with William. We spoke about what he was studying, what facilities are there for visually impaired people in the UK, how ‘friendly’ is Hong Kong for visually impaired people…

As I picked up my stuff from the lockers at the end of the tour, I finally got to see my guide. I was awed by the power of human resilience. Putting this experience into words is difficult to do and it is something you just have to go through yourself to realize how it is. It really shook me up; as I walked away, my hands were trembling and I needed a good half-an-hour to calm down.

That night, back in my hostel in Hong Kong, I realized why there was a need for that ‘noise’ from the traffic lights. And with that realization, it somehow didn’t bother me any more. I slept easily in my last night in Hong Kong.

****

Living by yourself at university comes with its own responsibilities, such as budgeting your expenditure. You aren’t a student unless you’re broke and short of cash.

Students often say they are on a tight budget and I agree that is true. However, I believe most of us can still afford to donate something or the other. What might be a ‘small’ amount in the pounds/dollars/rupees goes a long way in developing countries, so every little helps.

One of other unique initiatives I started supporting in 2010 through donations is Kiva. Kiva helps crowd-source funding for micro-loans in developing countries across the globe. You make a donation (minimum of $25) and choose a ‘person’ that it will go to on a Kiva site. This is done to give the transaction a human touch, but what goes in the background is that it helps ‘backfill’ a loan already given to that person by a micro-lending company in that country. Once the loan is paid back, you get the amount you invested back and can then loan it out to other projects.

I’m really drawn to Kiva’s micro-lending concept, because it helps the people you loan to to start their own business, build their own house – something that helps them become self-sustaining and makes their lives better. I’m disappointed by just one thing though – Kiva has no lending partners in India.

I make conscious efforts to donate to charitable causes. I realize that no matter how much of a ‘bad day’ I have, there are many millions of people in the world who are worse off. I donated a month’s worth of part-time work wages towards the Haiti earthquake rehabilitation effort. I supported Room To Read and Teach For India (that latter with donations from gyaan.in members too), two organizations making grassroots level efforts in setting up new schools/libraries. I supported MADTV’s Mike Willis’ ‘Wheelchair Week‘ – a superhuman effort involving him spending twelve hours a day in a wheelchair for one whole week, something I hold him in very high esteem for having the courage and will to do. I didn’t believe in the Facebook campaign for changing profile picture to that of cartoon characters “to campaign against child abuse” until former University of Surrey sabbatical officer Nick Entwistle made a similar challenge on Facebook – and I got to see how many people actually did get involved rather than it just being a case of ‘clicktivism‘. That allowed me get over my dismissal of the campaign as a stunt, and donated to NSPCC UK when I heard that the campaign increased donations by 85%.

(I still maintain that this clicktivism in general does more harm than good. Read more by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on new-age activism – something, which for most part, sums up what I feel on this issue. My intention, BTW, in listing the above charity names in the previous paragraph is to link to organizations that I feel are doing a really good job and making an actual impact, with the hope that some of my readers will look them up too and hopefully contribute in some way.)

Those are a few of the charities I donated to in 2010. And then, I read about Gumball Capital on TechCrunch – a charitable organization started by Travis Kiefer who’s a student at Stanford University that tries to raise money for poverty alleviation with $27 and 27 gumballs. Travis did a shout-out for gyaan.in from Antarctica when on a 7 continent marathon too!

(No penguins in the video because it’s hard to find them inland, so here’s a drawing made by him instead.)

It’s inspiring to hear about students-like-us like Travis Kiefer and Mike Willis who even with their busy university lives take efforts to be a part of charitable initiatives. I wish I could say with a straight face that I don’t have time to get actively involved but I can’t.

And so for 2011, I am going to make an effort to not just donate to charitable causes, but also to volunteer for at least one cause.

Categories
Personal

An idiot abroad examines his tiny tendrils of guilt

On most days, I’d reserve these thoughts for my private blog. I have been vacillating since New Year’s Eve whether to publish this publicly or not. Maybe you’ll understand why as you read on. This is a disjointed, admittedly incoherent account of my state of emotions at the close of 2010. Maybe it’ll mean something, to at least a few who read this.

****

My stay outside India came to define 2010 for me. Sifting through my blog archives, I would say it is a continuation of what I mentioned towards the end of last year – but saying that would be undermining, in a way, what I have learned in 2010.

My decision to go to Singapore for a study exchange had a greater impact than I ever signed up for. The first half of 2010 – the second half of my first year at University of Surrey – had moments I am going to cherish throughout my life. I’m not saying this for the sake of saying it. This is not like those misused cases of using the word ‘literally’. I made friends at Surrey who are the sort who stick around for life – and with whom you’d want to stick around for life.

And then, I gave it all up to go Singapore.

Mind you, I don’t regret that decision. It showed me the value of what I had. What I walked away from. Singapore is that milestone I will look back to, as the place that made me fundamentally rethink friendships and relationships in my life. While I have enjoyed my cultural experience and made good friends in Singapore too, it made me realize how it isn’t the same.

I was sad in 2009 that I wasn’t as frequently in touch with my Indian friends as I would have liked to. In 2010, I found myself out of touch with my Indian friends as well as the friends I made in my first year at Surrey. I have looked on with a certain despondency as friendships that mattered a lot to me get reduced to Facebook’s loose definition of a ‘friend’. I have had relationships strained as meaningful communication lost its hold, stretched by space and time displacement.

Sometimes, I wonder how different things would have been had I not made the choices that I did.

Sometimes, I wonder how things will turn out to be once I am back in the UK – or even India. When I meet my friends there again, maybe in 2011 or in 2012 when we’re back in university after placement year, I wonder whether things will be same.

****

…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”

– Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

****

I realize for the past half-decade, I have behaved as a social nomad. Changing school, taking a gap year, going to university and then deciding to do a year abroad – at each stage I had memorable experiences, but I know realize every time I did so, I wanted more. Many a kid who had parents with transferable jobs might have faced the same, but then, you sort of grow up knowing your primary school friends will drift apart, you are with family, and even then the displacements are a few years apart. I, on the other hand, have become part of vastly differing social circles in a span of less than five years.

(Someone suggested I do this because I am an only child; that an only child of a parent fishes for independence and uniqueness. I thought…it’d be the other way round? I don’t know. Freud probably has written about this.)

I fear that this urge to immerse myself in a new environment has come to define my way of living now. I assume this is what happens once you’ve learned BASE jumping or freehand rock climbing. After a while, it becomes the only way you get excited about life. After a while, it becomes the only way you can dream.

****

Most of my friends in Singapore were exchange students; exchange students who usually stay for semester. I am not, I am one of the handful who chose to stay for the whole year. In addition to the obvious bonding among exchange students, I also made great Singaporean friends through my work at the TV station. All people who are excellent company to hang around with. Yet, the fleeting nature of our acquaintance came as a rude jolt to remind me at the end of the year that this really isn’t the same.

Singapore itself is diversely multi-ethnic; this is especially true of Nanyang Technological University. You’ll find native Singaporeans, Malays, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians, citizens of other neighbouring countries; then you have exchange students from every country imaginable – the UK, USA, practically every country of the European Union, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, Africa. And yet, despite all this diversity, there is no unity. I don’t know why, but everyone just defaults to staying in their comfort zone of hanging around with folks of the same background. Walk into any canteen, any library (we have seven), any lecture theatre – look up the composition of any group of students, and you will hardly ever find a mix of different ethnicities.

It isn’t for the lack of trying. My roommates in hostel – both exchange students from Scotland – mentioned how left-out they felt during lab sessions; their lab team consisted of Singaporeans who would reply in English when asked a question, but would default to Mandarin when conversing amongst themselves. I’m not singling out Singaporeans here because this is a behaviour I have seen repeated across the campus. When there’s a social gathering, you’ll only find Indians hanging around with Indians, Malays having a barbecue in the hostel lawns, and so on. This was a big change for me from Surrey; the composition of student population is very diverse there, still, people do not exclusively restrict their social circle to ‘their own kind’.

As the calendar flips to 2011, I find myself back to square one – (practically) with no friends. All my exchange friends are gone, most of my Singaporean are off on exchange themselves on exchange, and even among the Indian community there I am somewhat of an oddity. I don’t have the luxury of being a fresher, who are forced by circumstances to get together, and at the same time as year 2 or 3 student I find myself faced with peers who’ve already defined their friend circle.

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For most people, year-in reviews are an opportunity to look back at treasured and defining moments of the year gone by. These usually are memorable days – for good or bad reasons – like parties, events, funerals, get-togethers, achievements, speeches…but every time I look back at a year, the defining moments are always conversations. Conversations, conversations, conversations.

Standing around the university mailroom trying to find the worst movie trailer ever.

Conversations over takeaway dinners ranging from life in the UK to gossip from part-time jobs.

Spending four hours on a roadside near the Esplanade waterfront, ignoring thirst and an increasing mobilization of an ant colony…because at the time, only that chat was what seemed to matter.

Staying awake till 4am in the library preparing for an exam, and discussing crazy stuff we did when we were children. (The winner was a friend who dressed up as Superman, almost jumped off his balcony, and made his babysitter have a nervous breakdown in the process.)

Turning up 15 minutes late to a meeting with my work manager for a meeting, trying to forget I hadn’t even brushed my teeth.

Talking to people you have never met in real life over Twitter – and yet, feeling that you know more about each other than people you’ve met in real life.

Discussing the ridiculousness of the behaviour of ghosts in Thai soaps and somehow ending with the conversation steered onto the topic of psychiatric care.

All those times on Skype and phone grasping on to every syllable. Pretending as if distance didn’t really matter. And at one time, finding it impressive that Skype added typewriter sound effects to their software.

Arguing about Catholic faith, traffic shaping by ISPs to prevent file-sharing, and whether the US was justified in going to war in Afghanistan in the same conversation thread…while waiting for a pizza delivery.

(For someone whom conversations define so much, I’m bad at the technicalities of it. I always misjudge conversational pauses, perpetually stepping over other people’s words; I am mortified every time it happens, and I panic and screw up even more.)

To every single person mentioned (you know who you are!) and not mentioned here (only because of lack of space!): I know I can be a difficult friend at the best of times. I am as narcissistic, shy, arrogant, introverted as people can get. I take a long time to understand and trust people, and then let them into my inner social circle. But once I do get to know you, you mean a lot to me. More than I possibly ever let on. Each and every single conversation in 2010 – and earlier and beyond – I can replay in  memory. Each and every single conversation is what makes the journey worthwhile.

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They say travel broadens the mind. I think, however, that a friend I had a chat with recently put it the best: travel does broaden the mind, but only if you go in expecting it to be broadened. When you visit a country as a tourist or live abroad, it is deceptively easy to insulate yourself.

There was a TV series running for the past few months on Sky1 called An Idiot Abroad. The premise of the show is they send a British everyman Karl Pilkington around the globe to see the New Seven Wonders of World. It is a travel documentary like no other – because it doesn’t try to be a travel documentary. You don’t have an enthusiastic Lonely Planet traveller gung-ho about exploring new cultures. Instead, you have Pilkington, who thoroughly hates travelling and doesn’t bother much beyond his next lunch at a pub.

I realize that Karl Pilkington is a comedian / radio jockey by profession, and many of the situations in the show were specifically cooked up to cause his discomfort. But then…something changed. It isn’t scripted into the show nor is it ever explicitly announced, but as Pilkington progresses on his journey something is different. You can sense that he is a new man – not his cynical old self any more.

I plan to go backpacking in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (and a few other countries, if I can) later this year. (I’ve ‘done’ Indonesia; want to go back there again though.) Somehow this came up during a conversation with an employee at our hostel office; I was nodding along, smiling politely to what he was saying – because I didn’t really understand what he was saying – when I realized he was talking about a relative whose leg got blown off by a landmine in Cambodia. Honestly, how do you react to situations like that?

These past few days I have been reading a book titled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. It is an account told through diary entries of Andrew Thomson, Ken Cain, and Heidi Postlewait – a narrative that spanning from 1993 to 2003 – as they work for the UN in Cambodia, Mogadishu (Somalia), Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia. (The title of the book and its tagline is an exploitative ploy by the publisher, I guess, but content isn’t.) It’s a coming-of-age story of three Westerners as they see the good work they can and can’t do, working in some of the most impoverished and conflict-stricken parts of the world. Rich vacationers paying off macoutes, just so that they can have a merry time on ‘pristine’ beaches. Stories of faces half-chopped apart by an axe and thrown into the sea, just for speaking out against a dictatorial government. It makes for grim reading…but every once in a while, they recount an incident that truly makes you believe in altruism amongst the human race.

I feel as if I am walking towards a precipice – a precipice that allows a view of a thousand epiphanies. All I can see on the horizon now is the edge of precipice, and a tantalising glimpse of the enlightenment that awaits.

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When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.

– From Black Hawk Down

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I don’t have a new year resolution, merely a desire: to learn at least basic conversational Mandarin by the end of my stay in Singapore.

Wish you a happy new year, everyone. :)

Categories
Travel

Pigging Out

A blog post about the time I ate pig intestines. But first…

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One of the reasons why I was excited about going on study exchange to Singapore, petty as it may seem, was that I wouldn’t have to cook for myself any. Thanks, Capitalism, why I do like cheap commercial food made by underpaid workers.

This is partly due to how student housing in Singapore is different from Surrey. Instead of having individual houses with shared kitchens and a do-whatever-you-want approach, NTU Singapore has hostel-style accommodation. Cooking for yourself – unless you define that as, perhaps, eating instant ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ noodles – is not an option as the shared kitchens don’t have any food storage cabinets.

Fair enough. I expected this would only result in a wider choice of food dishes for me to select from without having to lift so much as finger in preparation of said dishes. I couldn’t be more wrong. As I have mentioned earlier, it turns out that I have less choice now due to a lack of ‘vegetarian-flavoured’ dishes. What astonishes me – and many other people who I rant about this to (everyone I meet, that is) – is that I have been a vegetarian for 14-odd years, didn’t have a problem staying that way in the UK even when I had to cook for myself…yet, I have had to give it up in Singapore.

(I was ranting once to my Singaporean friends how I never seem to able to find a vegetarian dish as a simple as a salad here. They listened to me, nodding along sympathetically, and then asked, “What’s salad?”)

The realization that I would have to give it up hit me on my very first day here when I looked at the menu in canteens here. I know the sizeable South Indian student population, which mostly consists of vegetarians, live by eating dosa for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the all of four years they would be spending here but that was a choice I simply could not live with. I find it funny (in a cruel way) how these people order a burger at McDonald’s, throw the (chicken/fish/beef) patty away, and morosely chew on a plain bun for lunch.

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Ordering food in canteens is an experience I dread every meal. To give you an idea, canteens at NTU are like this

…multiple food stalls under one roof, each specializing in a different cuisine. On the surface, it would appear there’s a lot to choose from! But what do you do when you have no idea whatsoever what those choices mean? All the dishes listed have names in Bahasa Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese/Japanese/Korean names written in English rather than describing what the dish is. Here’s how ordering food in the canteens usually turns out for me…

(Picture me standing in queue, trying to figure out what to order. I’m frantically trying to search up what a dish I fancy is on my cellphone when I realize it’s too late.)

Canteen lady: Rice you wan? Or noodle wan?

Me: Wha…YES!

Canteen lady [dumping both rice and noodles on plate]: What else you wan?

Me [feebly, pointing at a particular dish]: What’s that?

Canteen lady: [insert Chinese swear-word here] You no ask. You tell. You wan? You point number on list.

Me [panicking, people behind me in the queue get impatient]: I…erm…[chirp]…EVERYTHING!

Canteen lady: Okay-lah. [hands plate piled to the ceiling with food] You give 53 dollars.

Me: [chirp]

This sort of experimenting, as you might have figured, ends up making a huge dent in my wallet. So I don’t. By now I have figured out a list of 10-12 dishes that I have found ‘safe’ and ‘nice to eat’ and I try to stick to those.

Also, if I have to eat ‘xing zhou fried rice’ one more time this week from Canteen 2 (it’s the one closest to my hostel block) I am going to jump in front of a bus and end my life.

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As a newly converted ‘non-vegetarian’, I am slightly squeamish when it comes to trying out dishes that overtly involve getting messy or obviously appear to be an animal part in the final form in a dish. Every now and then though I pluck up the courage to try something…unique.

So when my Singaporean friends from the student TV station here suggested having a bak kut teh dinner after exams (which finished this week) I immediately agreed. I then followed that up by searching what, exactly, I had just agreed to eat.

Step 1: Search 'bak kut teh'. Step 2: "Oh. Guys? Erm, about that dinner I agreed to..."

Bak kut teh is one of Singapore’s famous dishes; ‘bak kut’ means ‘meat bone’, ‘teh’ means ‘tea’. Founder Bak Kut Teh on Balestier Road is Singapore’s most famous ‘BKT’ restaurant, and that’s where we decided to go.

According to my friend, 'Founder Bak Kut Teh' is mistakenly written in this sign as 'Human meat bone tea'

As we travelled on D-Day to Novena MRT station, I told my friends about my squeamishness about eating anything that was like…what I had seen online. They explained to me along the way what the dish is. Essentially, it is pork ribs in soup. What usually distinguishes one restaurant’s BKT from another’s is the soup that it comes with. The two main styles of preparing it (in Singapore at least), are the Teochew style, in which the soup is peppery; and the Hokkien style, in which the soup is flavoured with herbs. There’s no ‘tea’ involved in the sense of the word you’d usually associate, with as the soup is the ‘tea’ here.

This description encouraged me a bit, because previously I had a similar chicken ‘meat bone’ soup – and I quite liked the rich flavours in that. It also helped that there was another friend in our who was equally apprehensive about how BKT would taste.

You could say that bak kut teh is the ratatouille of Chinese dishes – it started off as a dish that porters at Singapore as its high calorific value provided them energy to work for the day, and gradually morphed into one of the dishes that defines Singaporean cuisine.

Our merry bunch arrived at 5.30pm to find the restaurant shuttered down. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Founder Bak Kut Teh shuts down between 2pm to 6pm everyday. That put us right in front of the queue – waiting times can be more than an hour here when it gets busy! Founder BKT remains open till 2am daily, except for Tuesdays when it’s closed the whole day.

"Look! Celebrity!"

Inside, every inch of the walls of Founder BKT had pictures of celebrities who had visited the restaurant plastered on them. Even a casual diner wouldn’t be able to ignore this part of the heritage of the place, although have hundreds of (celebrity) eyes looking down upon you while you eat is decidedly creepy. I didn’t recognize any of the celebrities (mostly Singaporean) by face or name, except for Jackie Chan’s son as pointed out by friends.

Our order of the signature pork rib BKT dish arrived surprisingly quickly. The soup was excellent. Contrary to my expectations, the pig ribs weren’t as bad I thought they would be at all. The meat is tender and easy to bite off; infused with the peppery soup flavour it tasted good. What was hard for me though was using chopsticks to hold on to the slippery ribs. (I ended up need three pairs of chopsticks after my incorrect grip sent them flying dangerously close to poking someone’s eye out. The trick, I was told, is that usually Chinese people hold the rice/dish bowl close to their face and shovel food into their mouth with chopsticks rather than trying to pick up food from a bowl resting on a table.)

You can order pretty much any part of a pig you want to eat at Founder Bak Kut Teh – ribs, liver, heart. What you see above is the pig trotters dish (feet of a pig). The taste is really distinctive; the closest I can describe it to is a bitter-tasting cinnamon. I could feel the aftertaste in my mouth for the rest of the day. I mean that in a ‘good’ way rather than the bad aftertaste that durian leaves.

I didn’t have enough courage to order it, but a friend at our table did order pig intestines. (Shown in the picture above; the piece being held up is the appendix.) I sampled a few small pieces from this. It comes in the same peppery soup, and as you’d expect the intestines are really chewy. They also have some sort of filling inside them that I’d describe as having the texture and taste of fried eggs, with hint of peppery soup.

Not all the dishes ordered were non-vegetarian. The salted vegetable dish – chopped leafy green vegetables in a sour-salty watery sauce – was delicious, as were the ‘youtiao’ – fried dough sticks that are eaten after dunking them thoroughly in bak kut teh soup.

That's chili sauce mixed with dark soy in the bottom of this picture.

To wash everything down while dining, I ordered a luohan gan fruit drink. The colour is similar to the popular-here grass jelly drinks, and the taste is like that of malted chocolate drinks.

As we were all having dinner, my friends commented how unique it was to have dishes they have been eating for many years described the way I was doing. That prompted a discussion on how at a broad level our cultural experience influences the further experiences we have – insofar as to what the ‘baseline’ from what everything is measured.

I can’t even get started on how glad I was my friend’s called me along for this. Founder Bak Kut Teh is a don’t-miss culinary stopover when in Singapore.

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There was something else that I am really curious about – and I put this question to my friends but they didn’t know an answer. I find it a bit odd that soybean milk and its derivative products (tofu, for instance) seem to preferred over dairy equivalents in South East Asia. I assumed this was possibly because people here might be genetically pre-disposed towards lactose-intolerance. Apparently not, my friends say, though they have no idea for this preference. Anyone else able to shed light on this? From the looks of it, this just seems a case where everyone decided to drink soy milk instead of cow milk for no specific reason!