Friday, 22 June 2012

Indian wedding survival guide

Exactly one year ago today I woke up in Chennai, India at 3:00am with just a few hours alcohol-induced sleep and stumbled out into the stifling heat of the Indian summer - so began the finale of the traditional week-long, south-Indian wedding that had reduced me to a shell of a woman.
The bride had warned us - and anticipating our helplessness in the face of daunting tasks such as sari fittings and communicating with Tamil-speaking drivers, the bride enlisted an army of friends and relatives to escort (er . . . babysit) us about Chennai.  (If not for their help and guidance I'd probably still be trying to figure out how to tie a sari.)

Things kicked off the night we arrived with a 'small get-together for close friends and family' (probably around 100 people) at the home of the parents of the bride.  There was a huge marquee bedecked with jasmine flowers, a well stocked open bar and buffet and a local DJ was on hand to play some Tamil classics.  It was easily the equivalent of your average Western wedding reception - and this was just the pre-warm-up, warm-up.

This was followed by a hungover shopping frenzy - all the girls getting fitted for saris, salwar kameez and stocking up on matching bangles whilst the boys fussed over kurtas and sandals.

Our next event was Sangeet. Sangeet has northern Indian origins (from the Punjab) but is widely practised throughout the country (and certainly within the Indian diaspora).  

Loosely defined Sangeet is a grand affair during which the friends and family of the bride and groom perform a range of traditional (and not-so-traditional) songs and dances - rehearsed for weeks - even months in advance.  

Sangeet was like a night at the Oscars (or perhaps the Bollywood equivalent) - the bride and groom literally looked like movie stars.  It was almost inconceivable to me that this was the same girl with whom I had shared a dank, crappy dorm with as a graduate student.

Next up was Mehndi - another open bar affair at another posh hotel.  The bride spent the majority of the day perched on a throne whilst four women attended to her covering her hands and feet in henna.  Female guests also queued up to have a mini-version done on their own hands.

After Mehndi came the engagement and finally the wedding itself.  The engagement and wedding take place at a marriage hall.  The engagement began with a procession of singers and dancers followed by the bride and groom in a horse drawn carriage.  (This is followed by a lot of stuff, which quite frankly I didn't understand!) The following day at the appropriate auspicious time as determined by the Tamil calendar the wedding ceremony begins. In this case a very early 5:00am.  

There were priests chanting in Sanskrit (I think) whilst the groom was primed for the ceremony.  Following this was a fantastic display of the groom 'running away' as the bride 'chased' after himPersuaded to return, the bride and groom are hoisted on the shoulders of friends while the bride attempts to ├žapture' her husband by throwing a wreath of jasmine around his neck.  (This was again followed by several costume changes and lots of things I didn't understand).  

There were well over 1000 people in attendance.  About a week after the wedding I was chatting to the mother of the bride and she said, 'oh I keep bumping into people we forgot to invite, I'm so embarassed!'

It was a truly unforgettable experience and I really (still) can't thank Lavanya and Ayyappan enough for their attention and hospitality.  (You can have no idea how glad I am that they came to our wedding first - theirs would have been an impossible act to follow.) 

I would of course also like to add a great big happy first wedding anniversary to Ayyappan Hariharan and Lavanya Iyer.  Their first baby is also due today (but is so far showing no signs of making an appearance!)  

PS Indian weddings are not for the faint of heart.  Pack plenty of asprin.

You can also view my photos of Sangeet, Mehndi and the wedding.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Tropical transport traumas

If there are two things in this world that wind up my husband, it's paying too much for transportation/parking and a meal without enough carbs (we'll come back to the carbs some other time - today is all about transport).

This normally patient, reasonable man pushes the boundaries of sanity when confronted with an issue of 'over-priced' transportation.  He brooded unhappily for hours (and still frequently re-lives) a traumatic parking experience in downtown Chicago. He actually did the math on how much a parking space at Bloomingdale's makes in a year (depressingly, it makes a lot - more than me if occupied nearly 24 hours a day 365 days a year).

There was the $7.00 taxi ride in Laos that threatened to destroy (and according to Ian, bankrupt) our entire holiday and there are the unwitting taxi drivers in KL that occasionally take him for a tourist and try to get him off the meter (insert here a long string of expletives in an English accent).  There's also the far-reaching conspiracy to make access to London's Heathrow airport cost the equivalent of a large diamond ring.

Over the years, we have probably saved upwards of $10 and lost nearly 20 hours of our lives over by taking a firm stand against corrupt transportation.

Then we went to Indonesia.

Now as I mentioned before Yogjakarta is a touristy town with touristy hassles.  Yogja has a complete over-abundance of becak drivers.  Becaks are the Indonesian of equivalent of the rickshaws and tuk-tuks that ply the streets throughout the rest of Asia.

 Becaks in Indonesia are typically un-motorized - they are almost always comprised of small carts attached to the front of a rusty old bike, pedaled by a poor, sinewy, sun-tanned man ranging anywhere from the age of 20-60.  Occasionally you may get one that is pulled by a horse.

 It's a thankless, hot job and with there being so many becaks, you'd think that competition would be fierce - and it is, when it comes to stalking and harassing tourists.  It's hot, you're tired, you relent.

Okay, okay to the kraton, how much then? 
20,000 rupiah.
You're joking.
No, 20,000.
How about 10,000?

At this point I probably have to forcibly restrain Ian and drag him off down the street.  He mutters obscenities under his breath, I comment on how the exercise is good for us anyway.

No doubt you're now wondering, well how much is 20,000 rupiah?  It's a lousy $2.00.

But, let's put this into perspective.  A school teacher in Indonesia makes that much in a whole day of teaching - and this guy who has been having a siesta under a frangipani tree all morning wants that for 20 minutes work.

It's a tough call.  In local terms that ride should cost between $0.30-0.50 - so $2.00 is a hefty mark-up.  I'm usually pretty happy to pay a bit of a tourist premium, but more than quadruple is irritating my sense of fair play.  Also, I suppose with such an over-supply of becak drivers that these guys probably go without a single fare for a day or two at a time.

The thing that I find most surprising (and what Ian finds more irritating) is that they won't come down $1 - they'd still getting double to triple the amount they'd get on a local fare and aren't having any of it.

A few of these encounters put Ian off Yogjakarta entirely and nearly Indonesia as whole.

There was one insolent driver who dared take my husband for a fool and wanted $5! This was the straw that broke the camels back - Ian launched into a five minute diatribe on how it wouldn't even cost that much to go twice the distance in KL where everything is doubly expensive and in a real car, not a rickety old bike.

The man probably spoke less than 25 words of English, so I let it slide.  I'm also pretty sure he got the message.

Every time someone asks Ian about our trip it begins, 'Oh it was amazing, but . . . '

For those you accessing this blog through the Register-Mail you can read more about my past exploits and adventures at  You can also view my photos of Yogjakarta.

I welcome comments, questions, ideas and suggestions about this and future blog posts.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Indonesia: Yogjakarta

Continuing on with our Indonesian adventures, it's now time for a stop in the city of Yogjakarta - pronounced Jog-ja-karta and often shortened to just 'Jogja'. Despite its relatively small size at just under 400,000 people, Yogjakarta is without question the cultural epicentre of Java - and Indonesia as a whole, overwhelming even the capital city of Jakarta which is home to over 10 million people.

The best possible way to sum up Yogjakarta is that it's cool. It's young, it's trendy, there's fantastic public art, museums, street dancers, musicians and a thriving industry of both authentic and knock-off local arts and crafts (artistic attractions that are often in short supply in Muslim societies).

It's as set-up for tourists as anywhere in Indonesia (outside of Bali) which naturally brings with it all the hassle and annoyance of any touristy place.

You could spend weeks just getting dragged around batik shops (batik is an Indonesian/Malaysian art of painting cloth with odd pipe-like tools).  Most batik is dreadfully tacky and overpriced. Fall victim to a smooth-talking member of the batik mafia and you could find yourself back home with a skinny wallet and piece of cloth so ugly it's not even fit for displaying in the basement.

But learn to tune out the noise and Yogja is a rather special place.  It's clean (but not sterile), a wander down the less hectic residential lanes is as pleasant as a stroll around the neighbourhoods of Paris (if you can stand the heat).  Old men playing chess, kids flying kites, becak (tuk-tuk) drivers enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta and countless flowers in bloom set the scene.

The centre of the city is surrounded by run-down white walls within which lies the 'kraton' - the sultan's palace. The sultan still resides here and it has all the third-world, banana republic charm you would expect.  Thanks to a long colonial legacy, the palace is thoroughly European - and much like the colonial administrators must have done, you can visibly see the palace wilting in the tropical sun.   Baroque architecture and furniture were not made for the tropics.

The kraton is generally unimpressive, but the east meets west contradictions are thoroughly amusing.  The accompanying museum is mind-blowing.  Room, after room, after room of dusty cob-webbed furniture (European of course) chipped porcelain dolls, stained wine glasses and  . . . dirty oven mitts, sieves and cheese graters - some possibly dating back as far as 1975.

In all seriousness, this may have been the highlight of the trip.  Those cheese graters and sieves would be uninteresting if they had belonged to Elvis or the Queen of England - but the Sultan of Yogjakarta?  This is a public official so minor that I can't even remember his name.

I've been to a lot of crusty old museums all around the world (Russian museums in particular come to mind) but this was pretty special.  We giggled over it the rest of the afternoon.

More on Yogja in the next instalment - negotiating transportation and dodging food-poisoning.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Moving to Malaysia

I'm pleased to announce that this blog will now also be featured on the online edition of my hometown newspaper the Register-Mail. So in hopeful anticipation of an increased readership, now seems as good a time as any for a quick recap on how and why I ended up in Malaysia.

After suffering five long years of cold and rain in Scotland and England my husband (then fiance), was offered a job as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham (yes, that Nottingham - Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest etc.) Only the job offer (mercifully) was not in Nottingham, England but at the university's Malaysia Campus.

Yes, Malaysia.  That long, skinny country dangling off the edge of Asian continent right below Thailand.

Up for an adventure and a rather dramatic change of scenery we snapped up the opportunity and in six short weeks found ourselves on the 13 hour flight from London to Kuala Lumpur.  Woefully unprepared for life just 200 miles north of the equator (one doesn't require a lot of hot weather clothing in the UK) we stumbled into the stifling tropical heat and humidity and so our adventure began.

Despite the fact that virtually everyone speaks at least some level of passable English here (particularly in the city), finding a place to live, organising an internet connection, buying a car and most importantly of all  - making sure the air-conditioning works were all 'interesting' experiences.   Experiences that brought out the best and worst in both of us - countless lessons in patience and communication whilst simultaneously reinforcing our sub-conscious prejudices and pre-conceptions.

Mark Twain once said:
'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.'
As always, Mr Twain was undoubtedly correct, but sometimes I wonder if living in a place just can't tip the balance back in favor of narrow-mindedness.

It's now been nearly two years since we came to Malaysia and with the exception of a few near total meltdowns (almost always involving some totally egregious native driving stunt)  and our fair share of food poisoning we've had a pretty good time.

In the last 20 months we've seen wild orang-utans in Borneo, been to a week-long Indian wedding, stood on the edge of a volcano in Java, scaled ancient temples in Cambodia and much more.

With so much happening in this part of the world and so much to do and see, we are nowhere near ready to say goodbye just yet (although, we certainly do miss good cheese and affordable wine!)

So to see what we've been up to, take a look through the archive of our travels and stay tuned for more - I'm currently in the midst of wrapping up on our recent Indonesia adventure and Singapore is up next.

I always welcome comments, questions, thoughts and suggestions.