Sunday, November 11, 2012

Travel Friend, Friend for Life

I called up my friend Lisa and asked her “So what’s the plan? Where do we go first?”

And she didn’t seem to understand the meaning of plan. “We just go where we feel like.” she said. Let’s book the tickets, the rest we’ll take it as it comes.”

“We’ll take it as it comes!  What was she thinking?” I thought to myself. I panicked instantly. I’ve always planned a rough itinerary for every holiday. Here I didn’t even know if we were going to go to North Vietnam or South Vietnam until exactly 2 days before the trip!

I did my research anyway and found out that it was extremely unsafe to cross country borders in Thailand, Laos & Vietnam through land border crossings. Many travel forums had gory tales of people who spent hours at the border, trying to cross over, like refugees.

Why would any sane-minded traveller do that I thought to myself. Yet there I was - making plans for land border crossings across 4 countries!

Crossing over by land and water from North Thailand into Laos

My dear mate Lisa had decided that we should skip the expensive flights and cross over by land. She wasn’t going to change her mind despite the warnings, so I decided to go along.  

We started our trip with a missed flight. What a start!

The plans we made were now out of the window. So we made an alternate route plan right there at the airport!

Instead of Vietnam we decided go to north Thailand instead. Thailand wasn’t even on our itinerary! Damn. This was going to be fun I thought. At least we have one more country to roam around.

Thank God for visa on arrivals. Thai baht in hand, we set out. We stayed at a Backpacker’s Hostel and roamed the streets of Chiang Rai like we owned it, literally. We gate-crashed a school’s function for the heck of it, chatted up monks and hitch-hiked rides to the places we wanted to go to. Thailand & Laos went by like a dream. Plates of yummy khow suew and Thai curry, shopping, lot of sight-seeing and chilling.

The real adventure started when we were about to leave Laos. 

Adventures of Vietnam

 A ten hour ride in a rickety bus brought us to the border of Vietnam & Laos. I woke up all sleepy-eyed at 7 am and stumbled out of the bus to the visa check-point to get my visa stamped.

Every single person on the bus - forty in all, got their passports stamped and went ahead, except me!
I stood there dumb-founded.  After 15 minutes of explaining to the Vietnamese official that my visa was indeed valid, I gave up. I was more shocked and scared than angry. “This is not happening just to me, no!” I panicked.

I was standing in no-man’s land - the little patch between the Laos and Vietnam official borders.  I had to go back to Laos and fly in to Vietnam as the visa entry point printed on the visa letter was through an airport. I bravely told Lisa to go ahead and I would connect with her in Hanoi, Vietnam and regretted it later.  That one day and night when we were separated felt like eternity.

I travelled on a cargo bus with illegal immigrants who didn’t understand a word of English, drank water from a stream by the road and slept on the road – all alone. This wasn’t the kind of trip I had signed up for I was thinking to myself.

My co-passengers who were filling water from the nearby stream and shared the water with me

The cargo bus I was on, that refused to climb uphill and threatened to topple over! 

The next day when I was re-united with Lisa, we both hugged and had tears in our eyes. When she told me that she hadn’t gone out sight-seeing and stayed in all day in the dingy hotel room waiting to hear from me, I knew that Lisa was going to be my friend for life.

The next few days, we travelled across Vietnam. We were faced with people who wanted to fleece us, 10 degree cold and damp weather, unappetizing food and 30 hour bus rides. It would have been easy to get crabby and let tempers flare. We had to make joint decisions about where we wanted to go, but we always let each other do our own thing. I even walked into a pub all alone for the first time when my friend wanted to sleep in.

After all that we had been through, anyone else would either gotten bossy, freaked out and worsened the situation, blamed the other person or broken out into a fight.

We had none of that. We were happy, almost like a trance.

It was like sweet tango. When she led, I followed. When she couldn’t handle it, I stepped in and took over.  No surprise that despite the cold rain beating down and the constant haggling with locals, we still laughed our guts out after every situation.

We were stupid at times, penny-wise but pound-foolish. Yet we had the best time ever travelling on a shoe-string budget. Who said you need money to travel, all you need is a travel friend.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


Buses whizzing, cars honking
Can’t be more cacophonic, this is Bombay
People speeding, white blur
No emotions, stories fall on deaf ears

At the centre is the calm - the eye of the storm
Me singing praises for the hearts that did come along
Tranquil moments of the day with my cuppa tea
A rose in the middle of thorns
That’s what you got to be

Monday, February 14, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Of Elegant Wine Tastings & Flatulence

It was the Annual Sales & Marketing Conference at Sula Vineyards (where I worked a few years back), held amidst the beautiful country-side of Nashik amidst the vineyards itself.

It was a 3 day conference and after sessions and sessions of quarterly plans, annual reviews, sales growth charts, etc. no one really wanted to talk even a word of business. The entire team was seated in the open lawns, adjacent to the vineyards – a party was planned. Before the party, we had a small wine-tasting & training.

The setting was perfect, the sun was setting into the vineyards, there was a cool breeze, the tables were laid out with the finest glassware – two white wine glasses, two big-bowled red wine glasses and one pretty long-stemmed champagne glass or ‘champagne flute’. A platter of some mouth-watering cheeses and unsalted crackers were laid out.

We were all set, with a notepad & pen as well next to us…ready to take down notes on how the wines tasted…this was our job after all, so we got a little serious.

The Head Wine Maker uncorked the first bottle of wine – a great robust South African red wine – The Two Oceans Pinot Grigio, made from the Pinot Noir grape. The waiters came around and served the wine to all of us. One of my colleagues on my table swore that this was the best wine ever.

The 50 odd people gathered there was a mixed crowd – mostly consisting of sales persons who despite selling wine, did not really care about wine, they preferred their pegs of whisky and could not wait to get to their room.

The Chief wine taster called for our attention by tapping on his glass and motioned that we start the exercise – Swirl, sniff, sip.  That was the golden rule to wine tasting.

There were around 8 tables in front of us. Four of my colleagues and me were seated together on a table behind, swirling the wine in our glasses in unison like professionals and were poised to take in a deep breath…….we started to inhale….AND just then we heard a noise from the table in front of us……..pprrrrrrrrrrrrrr….and we didn’t know what hit our noses the next second – the guy in front of us just farted!!

Instead of taking in the aromas of the wine, we ended up deeply inhaling the foul, pungent and putrid odours.

All our concentration was on our olfactory senses, and if there was ever an equivalent of spitting out something instantly that you don’t like in the olfactory world…this was it.

We exhaled as hard as could….and then tried controlling our laughter, this was a serious training session after all. We couldn’t duck below the table and laugh either, just in case he farts again! We tried hard to keep a straight face in front of all the seniors.  

Wine tasting anyone?

I wonder if the gas that guy passed was laughing gas or if we were high on wine, we couldn’t stop laughing.

P.S.: Guys at Sula, what was the ‘nose’ – rotten egg or spoiled pork chop? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Dark Side - Indian Gangsters in Malaysia

Maybe this is what a to-do list of an Indian gangster looks like. Indian gangsters in Malaysia you ask? Yes.

It started off as a joke when me and my friends heard about Indian gangs and laughed it off.  I mean we all hear of community stereotypes – all Nepalis are watchmen, all Bangladeshis are illegal immigrants and so on.

But majority of thefts and street fights started by Indians? I didn’t want to believe that. I sometimes even go to the extreme to find that one odd person who does not fit the stereotype.

Four Indian men wanted in a case of kidnapping a rival Indian gang leader – R. Ravi Shankar aka Bangsar Shan.

But this time the stereotype proved true, unfortunately and with a first-hand experience. Looks like the Indian men think that they own all the Indian girls by some default right. So when some Indian men saw me with a non-Indian, they tracked down our car and left a rude racist remark on a piece of paper!  I was already seeing red and if they had disfigured the car I swear I would have had them behind bars. 
This is when I started speaking to people around me and heard so much that my eyes grew wider and wider with shock. It was a revelation of an entire secret society.
Who would have guessed that Kuala Lumpur alone has around 38 Indian gangs with a membership of 1,500 involved in extortion, drug pushing and robbery.  316 Indian thugs had so far been banished to a Rehabiliation Centre a few years back under the Emergency Ordinance while the number of Chinese was 162 and Malays 60. (Source - Police Chief (Bukit Aman CID deputy director Senior Asst. Comm I) Datuk Ramli Yusof 10/09/00)

These gangs usually start off in school or in a local ground or ‘maidan’ as we know it. Most of the gangs are named after numbers: Gang 08, Gang 14, Gang 09, etc. If you are a member of Gang 14, then you need to pay up 14 Ringgit as the monthly membership fee. These gangs then choose their ‘area of operation’ and get into crimes like robbery, purse-snatching and even drug-dealing.

Gangs in school demand ‘protection money’ from their classmates and those who refuse are subject to physical & verbal abuse and ridicule. A gang called Gang 08 celebrated their 'founding day' and even bought a cake in the shape of the number 8, but the school authorities informed the police and the party got busted. 

These school kids grow up and continue their crime, all the time feeling like heroes and bragging about their fights.

Signs used by the largest gang in the US – the ‘Crips’; Each gang has their own unique language and identity

A lot of people I spoke to had seen or experienced crime by Indians first-hand. These gangsters created this unfortunate stereotype that has been carried in the media and makes Malays and people from other races wary of Indians as a community.

Women always walk on the pedestrian side where they can see oncoming traffic (not where traffic is moving in the same direction as them) so that they can see people approaching and no one steals their bag from behind. These Indian gangsters’ modus operandi is to ride a bike with an accomplice, they even stop at public places like bus stops, find a helpless distracted victim and go for their purse. They even target single women driving cars and force them to stop by hitting their car or showing them a gun.

On a pedestrian walkway, women hold their bags in a way that it does not face the road

A friend of mine had her bag snatched in broad day-light in KL and yet another just narrowly escaped.  

All this made me wonder why would my own country men do this? Some of these could be the reasons I think:

-          No job, no money. The first Indians in Malaysia worked in rubber plantations as labourers. When many rubber plantations shut down due to commercial development on that land, the Indians lost their source of income and moved to the city.  Children of these plantation workers faced poverty and turned to crime. Some of these gangsters are considered as modern day Robin Hoods – stealing from the rich and giving back to the poor!

An Indian man & woman tapping a rubber tree in Malaysia

-          Politicians say Indians turn to crime because they feel marginalised from government development plans and lack equal education, business and job opportunities. A load of crap. A lot of Indians in Malaysia are doing well for themselves. It’s all about a person’s individual struggle and competition.

The one genuine problem they do face is that some of them have studied in a Tamil medium schools and their poor knowledge of English becomes a barrier in finding a white-collared job.  A lot of Malaysian Indians have degenerated into becoming labourers, factory workers, waiters, office boys, security guards, toilet cleaners, road sweepers, beggars, squatters and yes – criminals and gangsters.

Many Indians themselves have spoken out and supported shutting down of Tamil medium schools. There are around 525 Tamil schools that still exist in Malaysia

-          The Thrill. A lot of men and gangsters in general feel macho by showing their strength over helpless people and feel in power. Tamil movies don’t help either with the excess violence that endorse physical revenge in most movies. 

      Some of these Indian men could also be educated with full-time jobs, but one drunken fit of stupor and the gangster in him is out.  He suddenly thinks he’s a ‘gang-star’. Some of these Indian men who don’t consider themselves as ‘gangsters’ but commit all crimes accept it themselves that they do it only for the kick.

Tamil movie fight scene

Malaysia has the second largest NRI population after the US and it’s unfortunate that these Indian gangsters are giving this large population of Indians a bad name.  Indians make up only 8% of the Malaysian population but commit 80% of the crimes in the country.

While Indian gangsters are a reality, successful Indians in Malaysia also do exist. Ananda Krishnan an Indian is the second richest tycoon in Malaysia (according to the Forbes List). He owns many businesses and now also has 74% stake in India’s telecom provider – Aircel.

And how can we forget Malaysia’s Branson – Tony Fernandes, CEO of Air Asia – a Malaysian of Indian descent who also owns the Lotus F1 Team. Tony is among the top 15 richest people in Malaysia. Let’s hope some common sense prevails and these Indians stop their gangster life.

The Good. The Bad. The Ugly.  

P.S.: I cannot reveal any sources, I still want to be alive and be able to visit KL again.  ;)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ghetto Life in Malaysia, Truly Asia

I envy anthropologists and sociologists. Imagine travelling the world, researching different cultures & origins and actually getting paid for it! Wow, that’s like asking me to read a book I like and paying me thousand dollars for it!

Living with immigrants and learning how their ancestors migrated illegally, talking to ethnic communities in the most unexpected places and knowing more about their fascinating life or discovering a secret cult – a dream life.
While I hope to change my career from marketing soaps to understanding the world, here is my contribution towards my personal mission – building a one world and getting people to love everyone regardless of race, creed or colour.

Malaysia is a sociologist’s Live thriving laboratory – constant assimilation and yet differentiation based on nationality exists. One thing that strikes me is the Ghettos.

By ghetto I don’t mean the Bronx in America, but something similar - pockets of different racial ethnicities living as a separate unit – only difference is that they are still integrated into the whole.

You can see various cultures in Malaysia just by entering a supermarket for example – you will find the durian – indigenous to Malaysia, the mandarin & dragon fruit – indigenous to China, the mango & amla indigenous to India and the large plantain only found in Africa – all in one supermarket, on one shelf.
Durians – the only fruit that has gained the prestige of a mention in all hotels notices. It is not allowed in a hotel because of its really strong disgusting smell

A very clear proof of various cultures existing together are the sign boards, almost everything is in four languages – English, Malay, Chinese & Tamil.

Malays make up 50% of the population. The rest 50% consist of the Chinese, Indians and other ethnicities. A majority of the Malaysian population is Muslim.

Due to the enforced Muslim law – Sharia, all citizens have to abide to the archaic rules. Even today if a Muslim Malay unmarried girl is found with a man, she is forced to marry the guy. NGO’s have also fought for human rights when a woman was caned for consuming alcohol, which is against the Muslim law.

Beaches and bikinis don’t go together for Malay Muslim women

Though the Muslim Malays face some stringent moral policing, they also receive many grants from the Government – including unemployment grant and favourable loan rules that allows one to repay even a small loan within 15 years.

The Malay Government has preferential employment and employs Malays for all jobs. On the other hand, the Chinese & Indian have started their small businesses.

If you walk down the road every second restaurant is owned by a Chinese person. These Chinese have their ghetto areas and traditions and Chinese temples, having lived in Malaysia since many generations.
The Indians have ‘Little India’ and the Chinese have their ‘China Town’ where they can buy all things Indian & Chinese. The majority of Indian Malaysians are Tamil speaking. Many Indians settled in Malaysia moved here at least 50 to 60 years ago (just before the Indian independence) and I was surprised when a third-generation Indian taxi driver only knew how to speak Malay.

Surprisingly one thing I noticed that Indian Malays were more traditionally dressed and traditional in their thinking than the Indians in India! Maybe I still had to meet the more modern ones. 

And then you have the small but very noticeable African population. The guys live the life straight out of a hip-hop music video – swagger dripping from their clothes, bling, fast cars...mmmm. The African girls sway their booty-liscious backside and have the most outrageous hairstyles with bleached hair. You can’t help but stare at their curves. ;-)
African girls strutting their stuff in an all African club in KL

The ‘the spring onion', the women’s mohawk and the ‘palm-tree-top’ – these are just some of the ‘common’ hairstyles

The ghetto life with the yummiest African food is available in Malaysia. The food ingredients like amala, cow meat, egusi, palm oil are imported straight from Africa and the cost of importing is passed on to the African who will pay anything to eat home food when away from home.
Authentic African cuisine - I loved the Suji and egusi soup with cow meat at Manna Cafe

Africans find it very hard even to find accommodation or jobs because of the prejudices and pre-conceived notions the Muslim Malay have about Africans. Most of the African population in Malaysia are students.
Have you ever noticed that people cling to their culture more strongly especially when they are out of their country? Be it the Indian Malaysians or the Nigerian Africans. The Nigerians have rasta shops, listen to Nigerian music & watch Nigerian movies and also have their own African music radio station and all African church in Kuala Lumpur.

Ghettos exist but it’s also a mutual needs society. Malaysians do hire Africans for their football teams. Malaysians realise that there are some things that Africans can do better.
You can also see Malaysians marrying Africans. The mindset is slowly changing and more and more Malaysian women want to date and marry African men, who definitely have more swagger than the Malaysian men for sure! ;)

Since the Malaysian law does not allow non-Malaysian citizens to start a business, many Africans also marry Malaysian women so that they can set up a business in the name of their Malaysian wife and avail of a personal or house loan. Besides love marriages, you also have ‘marriage with advantages’.
The fusion of the indigenous extremely restricted Muslim Malaysians with the free-spirited large-hearted Africans is difficult to imagine, but it is happening.

An African boy with a Muslim Malay girl dressed in a hijab, chilling out at a cafe in broad daylight :-)

Whenever I see a kid of mixed origin: Malay-African, Indian-Chinese, Indian-African it brings a smile to my face. Malaysia may not be a melting pot, but it is a beautiful mosaic.

True Global Citizens. J True Integration.

Malaysia, Truly Asia. True One Love.

P.S.: Please note this post is entirely a composition of my views and you may not necessarily agree with it. However just as the comedian Russel Peter points out idiosyncrasies of different races & countries, this is my attempt and my observations.