Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Smells like Burning

I've been busy this week. Right now, I'm sitting on an island off the east coast of Malaysia. I'm sticking to the shade even though I'd really like to be out in the warm, clear blue water again. The problem is that, yesterday, I read the big “Super Water/Sweat-proof” on the front of my sunscreen bottle, but not the fine print on the back that says “re-apply frequently, especially after exposure to water/sweat.” A couple hours of swimming and floating around in an inner-tube later, and now going more than five minutes without a wet rolled up shirt on my shoulders doesn't feel so good.

I'll have to skip a few stories to get from where I left off to here. Well, before where I left off. I will say the note from my last post wasn't the result of any exciting heroics. I didn't save anyone or anything that I'm aware of. I didn't even realize I was being of any "assistance" until after the fact. I just happened to be curious and standing somewhere at the right (wrong?) time.

I arrived in the Singapore airport to find free wireless, the most sincerely helpful staff I've seen at a info desk, efficient and high tech immigration process (including an infrared camera to check body temp for swine flu), and a delicious S$3 laksa soup waiting for dinner. I was smitten, and I hadn't even left the building I'd flown into yet. I took the cleanest and fanciest subway I have ever seen to a neighborhood called “Little India”, I wandered into the first hostel I saw which was clean, comfortable and with a good atmosphere, provided free internet and breakfast to boot, and charged less than I've paid for a hostel in at least a week. I wandered out with a pack of other travelers where we grabbed masala dhosas, well after midnight, with all the stuff I'd forgotten I loved to have with them back in India, without any worry of whether the food or water was safe to eat.

The next day, I talked to one of my old college roommates, who referred me to an article about Singapore back in 1993 called “Disneyland with the Death Penalty.”* The author, William Gibson, is a specialist in the "cyberpunk" branch of sci-fi, stories that are often set in a dystopia. He finds some good fodder for just that in this town. Two of the most serious accusations, to my mind at least, were the excessive "paternal" government control of the town, and something he called a “lack of creativity.”

I kept my eyes open after reading that. I will dispute a few things. First of all, I did see litter, chewed gum included, on the streets. Just less than most cities. Secondly, over the last 16 or so years, the arts has really taken root. At least it's advertised everywhere, not just shows but full fledged academies as well. But... there was definitely a bit of an edge to some of the things that didn't seem to be showing up in the local papers. I didn't check a bookstore for conspicuously missing titles. But the place just had bits of a slightly odd hand behind it. Like a public sign explaining what you can do in a public field of grass, that all caution should be used, please, thank you. Things like that. One of the most interesting examples was not a sign of control but little yellow signup forms for a government-backed “Kindness Campaign.” Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a promotion of acts of kindness, complete with plastic five-foot high smiling tiger-lion-cartoon-thing statues cheerfully holding signs with little suggestions about how to be more kind, scattered around the city. If I wrote dystopias for a living, that would creep the hell out of me too.

Cut to the part that earned me a thank you note from the Singapore Police. Around 12:30 am, I came back to my hostel from a night zoo, and noticed, about a block up the street, a small, very neat, and deliberate fire. It was about a foot tall, neatly made of wood and possibly bricks, a good distance from anything flammable. I thought that was kind of strange, so I took a picture of it. But nobody else in the street seemed to take any notice, so I went back inside. I got online and started chatting with friends. A couple hours later, loud popping noises started outside. Then the came the sirens. I abruptly cut all conversations off and ducked out.

A minivan up the road had erupted into flames. As the fire trucks came, I realized that it was burning just a few feet from where I'd seen the earlier fire. The one I took a photo of. A photo on a digital camera, meaning that, embedded in the picture file's metadata would be a timestamp.

I got the attention of one of the officers and said I had something they might want to see. After taking my name and hostel details, they asked me to wait around for a few minutes. Fifteen or so later, they asked to see the pic. Yes, I took the photo. No, I didn't see who started the original fire. No, I don't know, I took the shot, went inside, and then next thing I saw outside was the van in flames when the police arrived. Yes, let me check... 12:46 am. Yes, I had a USB cable, but it was in my dorm. Yes, I could wait around a bit longer, was it all right if I went back into my hostel for a bit? Yes, I could be back out in 15 minutes.

I ended up emailing it to an address they gave me. I've posted the reply in my last post. I still don't know what exactly happened if it was more than just really dumb/unfortunate parking job after a fire set for... well I don't know what reason. I haven't been able to find anything in the news, and I haven't emailed the officer again to ask. I may never know.

I've couchsurfed my way to Melaka, Malaysia with the owner of a Chinese Tea shop. Aside from visiting some very impressive mosques and Buddhist temples, I got to debate politics and compare theories on philanthropy and organized methods for making the world a better place over a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Also tried a hot dog so spicy that accidentally wiping sweat off my brow left me temporarily blind-- very strong chili oil dripping into my eyes. Ow. Still, earned a round of applause from onlookers. They told me later that they usually split one of those among five of them, otherwise it's just too much. Figures they'd tell me that after I ate the whole thing.

Next, I made a long, sweaty journey from there up to the east coast via the capital, Kuala Lumpur. I spent enough time to swing by a market for a cheap pair of sunglasses (I was the guy's first customer of the day, traditionally good luck for merchants around here, opening the bargaining to even lower prices) and to peek at one of the bigger mosques in town, then up to Palau Kapas, a quiet tropical island with hot sun, warm water, near-white sand and almost no people aside from a few staying with me in The Captain's Longhouse (Including of course, the “Captain” himself, who's told us all he's cooking for us tonight. I made a name for myself by sitting down in front of the used piano that I'm told arrived just a day before I did. There's jungle trails to explore today. And that's what I'm going to run off to do right now.

*If you're curious, the article is here.  It's about 7 pages long, and worth the read if you're at all interested in Singapore.
Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. So, burning pile in street, burning mini-van, burning tongue from hot dog, burning eyes from wiping brow and not reading sunscreen label in time......Sunburn.

    THAT is thematic consistency.

    Anonymom advises plenty of sunscreen reapplication....of course....:)

  2. Hola Joel!

    Eso del incendio si que fue terrible, es cierto no vas a saber que hicieron con la foto que les enviaste de aquellas llamas, pero estoy segura de que les sirvió al menos como una pista. Acerca del chili que comiste con el hot dog sin haber escuchado que no era nada bueno comerselo entero, pues ya me imagino, yo soy alérgica a todo lo que sabe picante, me imagino cómo estaría irritados tus ojos.
    Que Dios y la Virgencita te compañen siempre.
    PD: Recibe saludos cariñosos departe de la familia Mérida Montaño

  3. Sunscreen? A good idea. Singapore? Now on my list of places to go. Although still a little reeking of dystopia (don't worry, that smell will clear up in the morning. We have people for that.)

    Also, I want that hot dog.

  4. Anonymom- *Shrug* I try. On both counts.

    Mary- jajaja, el picante es todo en la mente-- solo necita aceptar que sí, hay dolor, y no concentrar en él. Tambien, cosas como arroz y leche ayuda alivarlo-- pero que nunca use agua, este el el equivoca más comun-- agua no quita el dolor, solo meuvelo a otro parte de su boca.
    Nunca me contestaste: cuándo vas a los eeuu? Gracias y saludos a todos!

    Count C- Go to Melaka, Malaysia, and ask for the hawkers center near Newton. Go to the stall in the corner closest to the main road selling hot dogs on sticks and ask specifically for the chili oil. You'll know you've got the right one if the lady looks at you like you're nuts and asks you several times if you're sure.

  5. Speaking of Singapore as a dystopia: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/29/world/asia/29singapore.html. Still, the thought of a gov't offering classes on how to fall in love is kind of heart-warming...