Penang was another example of a city of decaying colonial buildings and amazing temples. It would appear that the only things that are properly maintained and painted are the odd colonial building (kept for tourist potential) and the religious temples, mosques and churches. Everything is left to slowly rot in the humid heat.
The first choice we had was how to get around. We opted for the hop on hop off bus, which took us past the clock tower and other well-kept colonial buildings. It is incredible to look back at the amazing reach of the British Empire and to appreciate the scale. All of these Asian/Indonesian sites had an array of buildings to house the ruling British Governors and associated military, bureaucratic and business people. They were all there in their little enclaves, ruling, exploiting and systematically stripping assets with their mansions, servants, polo clubs and cricket grounds. One can imagine the public schools, in the 18th century, churning out a stream of these people destined to live the life of Riley. Now the remains of their hegemony are preserved as part of the tourist attraction.
We hopped on and hopped off at the first temple.
The Burmese temple was probably the most garish yet, and the sister temple was a near match. We saw huge reclining Buddhas, gold Buddhas, standing Buddhas, white Buddhas, black Buddhas, blue and green Buddhas, fierce warriors, dragons, golden stupas and fair dancing maidens. All with gold, blue, red, yellow, orange and scaley glitter, bunting and adornment. All with sparkly splendour. All intended to create an impression.
Back on the bus to the next stop and off up the steepest funicular railway in the world to the incredible views and coconut ice-cream. The restaurant at the top was exorbitantly priced so it was back to the bottom and lunch with the locals. We observed where the taxi drivers and locals ate and jumped in. As we could not speak the language we are not quite sure what it was but it was spicy chicken with rice, with a mug of sweet coffee, and tasted excellent, and all for thirty pence.
Back on the bus we were dropped off at the biggest temple complex ever. Temples are great aren’t they? So much human energy, endeavour, creativity and hope poured into proving that there is a foundation to choosing this one over all the others. The drive to bigger, brighter and more elaborate (coupled with various attire, rituals and prayers) is like an arms race! If only they put as much energy into the city infrastructure!
We climbed up through covered markets with the sweat dripping down our backs. We inspected temples, Buddha’s, fountains, chanting, retail opportunities (what religious site is without them) and new building sites before making the final ascent through a lift in a shop to the biggest Buddha of all on top of the hill.
Back waiting for the bus we tasted the local pastry delicacies – both savoury and sweet – and both delicious, before hopping back to the boat.
Kuala Lumpur was rather a halfway house between moped madness and car craziness. My main lingering thoughts are of pot-holes, huge gold statues and the Petronas Towers. We (four of us) procured a taxi. The driver used carriageway, road signs and traffic lights as only a passing guide and enthusiastically illustrated what he was talking about with both hands coupled with turning around to grin at us while travelling at high speed. His taxi was the grimiest we had encountered and appeared to have no suspension and little left of the silencer so the cab filled with noxious fumes. He was very cheap though! We hurtled along, dodging around pot-holes, ducking in and out of traffic and driving, seeming suicidially straight at trucks. Somehow we managed to negotiate the twenty miles without separating our spirits from our body.
We visited the Batu Caves and marvelled at the massive gold statue that loomed above us as we drew near. We trudged up the thousands of steep steps past the massive carved figure and into the caves. Some devotees carried bricks or buckets of sand up the steps to demonstrate their sincere devotion (the ancient shrine was still being constructed).
The caves were an ancient site of worship. It was an impressive huge cavern with a collapsed roof allowing light to flood in. We fed the monkeys and photo’d the hundreds of shrines.
We climbed back down to check out the many temples around the base. Then I went in this cave that was like a Hindu version of Disneyland – very strange.
People and babies were painted up with yellow paint and were all in their best duds. It was a hive of activity! Throngs of people were milling about with women in bright coloured saris and the men with bright clothes and robes.
Clambering back in the death-mobile we headed off for Kuala Pumpur and parked up right by the central square.
The Petronas Towers were remarkable and very picturesque but we couldn’t go up because there was too long a queue – you have to book in advance. So we contented ourselves with staring up at it.
Diving in and out of traffic we somehow arrived at Independence Square, where we jigged about, stood in the middle of the large grass area and wondered at the array of different architecture then visited a museum which featured a model of the city.
Time was running out so our manic driver thundered off to the war memorial. We then had a brief glimpse of the Palace before thundering back to the ship.
For some reason we had sore backs, sore throats, stinging eyes, were pumped with adrenaline, had developed a cough and were deaf. But it had been another great day.
We had a day at sea to recover to recover. There were a few Boobies hovering around the boat – quite a rare sight as we had travelled around through tropical seas devoid of life. We were beginning to think every last living thing had been wiped out. It is incredibly sad to think that we are witnessing the last remnants of wildlife. Once these seas and lands were teeming with life. But I am afraid that we’ve been killing everything. Now the wildlife is scant indeed.
We sailed into Manila with the sun painting it a wan early morning orange. What a welcome! There were three fire-ships lined up to give us a squirt as we docked!
Not one but two bands and dance groups were there to greet us again. We are so popular! One was a drum group who pounded out some great rhythms while young psuedowarriors, with hardboard shields and wooden spears, performed an ethnically inspired war dance. The other was mainly made up of young girls on xylophones? – With an array of other interesting instruments with some I’d never seen before. They were excellent and I certainly enjoyed the rhythms they created.
They were guys on stilts, huge paper mache cartoon characters and a huge array of dancers. They were certainly pulling out the stops! I noticed that not all the dancers were really into it though – there were bored looks and whispered asides. Kids will be kids the world over. Performing for tourists can be tedious.
After wandering about through a grimy part of the city marvelling at the strange buses that the locals were jumping off and on. There were armed guards with big guns standing about. But undeterred we wandered off through the back streets where the electricity cables hung in bundles just as with Thailand – a spaghetti of electricity. You just hope that your lines don’t get crossed.
After wandering aimlessly for a while in the gathering heat we decided to purchase the leg power of a local and allow a pedal powered rickshaw to propel the two of us around the old city and show us the sights. He proved adept at weaving in and out of traffic and avoiding ruts. We did our fill of the old city walls, or what was left of it after them after they had been destroyed in the Second World War by the Japanese. Inside the city walls they were filming a movie – it looked like Beauty and the Beast.
The old fort was a ruin but was interesting. It housed tales of martyrs and battles long gone as well as pleasant surrounds with old gates and ponds of water-lilies. The view out across the river gave you a view of the city plus a look into the slums that they did not really want you to see.
The cathedral was interesting and picturesque. It was set on a great little square with the Presidential Palace. By some divine protection, or sheer luck, they seem to have come through the bombing fairly intact.
The Old Church and monastery was very calm and also intact. It always amazes me that the poorer and more destitute the population the more they turn to religion. I think it is the same psychological principle that causes people to turn to gambling. They have hope that some action on their part (prayer or a bet) can make everything perfect. Some hope.
We cycled past the park and river, stopped off at the museum before heading back to the ship for refreshments. The museum gave a glimpse at another life. A mere hundred years ago the place would have been unrecognisable as local Indians went about their business, fishing, harvesting and creating, following their gods and performing their rites. All swept away in the tide of time and the mad rush down the rapids into this overcrowded city. Such a short time ago. All gone. Replaced with what?
Our guide was informative and quite content to let us wander and stay as long as we wanted. We were paying him by the hour!
Talking to Rico (our powerful calved pedlar) it seems that the war on drugs, in which hundreds of thousands had been executed (for a variety of political reasons other than drugs), had done nothing to solve the problem. The people executed were all small-fry – the ones behind it were immune and there was widespread corruption. Same story the world over. Rico proudly told us that, despite being in his early thirties, he was the proud father of seven without apparently seeing any connection of this to the congestion, grinding poverty, squalor and misery all around him. Overpopulation and poverty did not seem to connect in his head. It fills me with dread.
As the sun began to set we were seen off by not one but two very large brass bands and baton twirling girls in a much more American inspired performance.
The Manilans certainly pushed the boat out! Though it was rather strange as we pulled away from the quay and they struck up Auld Langs Syne.
As we left the harbour we sailed close to the slums. They sweltered in the unrelenting heat as a multitude of people tried to eke a living out of very little.
We looked back at Manila as we steamed away. The orange glow of the setting sun gave it a shabby magnificence that belied the dirt, people sleeping on the streets, the rubbish and the rats. We all agreed that it was a fairly typical Eastern city in that respect. There was an interesting raft of colonial left overs (mainly Spanish), a sense of decay, overpopulation and poverty along with some opulent wealth all boiled together in the heat.
We waved goodbye to the locals who had gathered at the end of the quay to wave us off.
Firstly, reader, I’ll tell you what this book is like: You know when you go into an art gallery or museum and have an accompanying guide book explaining a little about the art or artefacts? Well, this is very much like that. A companion piece for every track. The author has lovingly reviewed and described every song and it is also full of little facts and interesting information. If, like me, you are a Beefheart and The Magic Band aficionado (and I’m guessing that you are) then you’ll appreciate this book. We’ve all read John French’s definitive horse’s-mouth and meticulous account, Bill Harkleroad’s equally valid (but not so obsessively detailed) story and we’ve also read Mike Barnes’s fantastic and accurate outsider view. There are a couple of other tomes too but those three are the glorious triumvirate of Beefheartian history. This book isn’t trying to be that. What it does is makes you revisit the albums. Not with a different perspective – we all have our own, as does this, but with another incentive; to listen to the most original, influential, unique music in rock history. It’s a book for Beefheart lovers, nerds and obsessives. If you don’t agree with some of the author’s viewpoints on the music it really doesn’t matter. The purpose of the book is as a companion to this vast and broad decade of sheer creativity, originality and music-as-art from a genius/tyrant/eccentric and the supremely dedicated and unique musicians who helped to realise the vision, even taking a backseat to his ego for the sake of the art. I love it and so will you.
Let us look into the future and extrapolate from where we are to where we are heading.
a. The population continues to grow
b. There are no catastrophes that wipe us out
Man is extremely good at solving problems. So let us assume that we negotiate our way through problem after problem. We do not annihilate ourselves through nuclear war or manufactured biological warfare. We do not succumb to a virus. We merely continue to grow in numbers.
These are the consequences:
a. Space and shelter. We need land and housing and our cities, towns and villages grow. The countryside becomes consumed in plastic and concrete. Roads connect and transport systems enable easy access.
b. The Wilderness. The wilderness and natural world become open to us and exploited for farming, mining, logging and habitation until there is no more inaccessible wilderness areas. Roads run through every place.
c. The Wild-life. The wild-life now has no habitat left, no food, shelter or way of living. It is butchered for meat, hunted for ivory or medicine (The rarer it gets, the more it is worth, the higher the price, the more worth the risk). The remnants of the wild things are corralled into parks or zoos and confined, protected and used as objects of tourism. Those considered pests, unpleasant or dangerous are eradicated.
d. Food. Even with all the wilderness opened up for farming, the seas fully harvested and hydroponics, genetic modifications and intensive farming methods there is not sufficient food for the burgeoning population. Food is produced from bacteria and fungus in vast industrial vats (Pruteen, mycoprotein etc. – already produced in large quantities – in our pies, sausages etc.), textured, flavoured and used as a meat substitute. Proper meat is a luxury food item.
e. Water. Water is a dwindling resource and desalination plants provide supplies.
f. Energy. Fossil fuels are replaced by large-scale sustainable technology – probably nuclear fusion supplemented with solar.
g. Weather. The effects of global warming are alleviated. The hurricanes and extreme weather conditions are now able to be controlled.
h. Oxygen. Oxygen is a natural product of photosynthesis. With the destruction of the forests and pollution of the oceans it is no longer being produced in sufficient quantities. Oceans are seeded to produce algal blooms and hydrolysis plants produce oxygen from water.
Our lives in these huge metropolises are highly controlled. Our environment is plastic. Our food, water and even the air we breathe is manufactured. We take our children to see the last remaining trees in the tree museum. We then go to the zoo to get a glimpse of and wonder at the little animals that used to run free in the wild.