Changi War Museum

wpid-img_20140504_133242.jpgThis Sat morning I went back in time to a (fun) World War II GCSE History class, curtacy of The Original Singapore Walks. Their 3 hour tour stops at The Changi Museum, the beach of the Sook Ching Massacres & outskirts of Changi Prison.

For an enjoyable way to brush up your 1930/40’s, Noel Barber’s novel Tanamera is a great read for anyone that knows or loves that era of Singapore. The rest you can piece together from the backpacking trail of The Death Railway or Hiroshima.

It’s not only useful to learn about Pearl Harbor from a South East Asia (not American) point of view. They also share nice myth busting like whether Singapore really did have her guns pointing the ‘wrong’ way. Most intriguingly though, is where your Kaya toast is baked and your 5* hotel laundry washed every morning….


Pic of the week; Singapore Healthcare

Hospital EditedSingapore’s hospitals & public clinics… They are like a cross between that scene in Lost In Translation & waiting in line with a number at a Tesco cheese counter. Behind their facade of modernity, lies the obsession that’s engrained in every single walk of life here; your RACE?

There’s 100 things I love about this city, but there’s a handful of fundamentals that I don’t. I ask you; What does my ‘other’ race have to do with healthcare Singapore?!


Mauritius. You’re thinking: Beaches, honeymoons, dodos…erm? And like me, you’d be all out. Which is disgraceful really. I’m half Mauritian. I really should know more about it. And now I do I guess. Hence the 2000+ words. Apologies.

My dad left here for England aged 19, over 45 years ago. My only hazy memories are from holidays when I was 3 and 7 years old, plus some faded 80’s Polaroids. So I’m intrigued. Especially as for the past 29 years I’ve been having this conversation:

… Where are you from? You look Indian/Israeli/Spanish/Italian/Colombian
(Insert nationality here.)

… “I’m English. I was born and raised in England. (This NEVER suffices) …My mum is English, my Dad is Mauritian. It’s an island, near the Seychelles? near Madagascar? Africa? Yep, it IS on a map, its just small…”  (So small you can drive from coast to coast in 2 hours.)

Mapped by the Portuguese, named by the Arabs, discovered by the Dutch, colonized by the French, and then by the English, (keeping up?) Mauritius has had an  eclectic 300 year ish history to say the least. Today it’s made up of Indian, Chinese, European & African descendants. Which I am hoping makes for some out of this world cooking. The first language is officially English, although all print is in French, and day-to-day everyone speaks in creole. Simple?

As LP succinctly puts it: The European Mauritians have the money. They live in the affluent towns of the central hills, own all the old sugar mills (and I hate to say it, but probably had a hand in a fair bit of African slavery back in the day.) The Hindu’s have influencing power in Government and politics from the worshipped Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (try naming an airport after him!) – who fought for independence.  Add to all this a scattering of christian churches and mosques across the island, from the African & Muslim population. Oh and not forgetting Chinatown in the west part of the capital Port Louis.  Like most ‘melting pot’ nations it projects the image of harmony, which on the whole is true given that everyone joined the party around the late 1700’s and no single religion ousted the other.

In reality however it’s not all as integrated as the Ministry of Tourism would have us believe.  As my cousins predicted whilst we watched the televised ‘Miss Mauritius’ competition “the black candidates wont win… A christian won last year….She will win…” they claimed pointing the most white skinned Hindu girl. “She has good political backing.  Her sister married a Minister.”

Of course, you’d be right to ask why I was watching Miss World competition at all. And the answer comes in the fact that unlike most tourists here, for me there were no 4 star all inclusives or popular ‘Tables D’Hotes’ (Like more personal B & B’s). Instead I was spending what turned out to be one of the most random of fortnights of my life in the family home of my Uncle Khem, Aunty Ooma, and cousins Kimtee and Lovey, (as IF you could make these amazing names up,) who I met for the first time in an arrivals hall last Friday.

My Dad is one of 8 kids. 3 Sisters, 4 brothers.  A genealogist couldn’t map our family tree. To add to the confusion, everyone seems to have two (interchangeable) names. Kimtee and Lovey for example are also Tooly Davi and Jayshaan? There seems to be no explanation as to how and when to use the formal and informal. ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ are not to be taken literally too. Anyone who has so much as been round for tea; neighbours, friends, the postman, whoever, are all awarded the title of mama/papa/cousin. It’s nice and inclusive I suppose, and indicative of the emphasis on family here, but a bit of a headache to keep track of.  The airport staff quite rightly looked suspiciously at my Mauritian(ish) face, but well stamped English passport and complete lack of french or creole. Clearly an imposter.

With my tourist eyes I’d describe Mauritius as how you’d picture a tiny Caribbean island with elements of Africa injected in. Having been to neither that’s a useless description for you unless you are inside my head! So this maybe better if you’ve seen the re-make. I keep thinking of the scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where they run off to his un-named island villa in which ‘he never brings anyone.’ It’s a bit like that.

Or if I were being more holiday brochure-esq; the landscape is a thousands shades of green, one seeming  mass of sugarcane fields blowing in  July breeze. Except it’s winter and not that tropical, 18 – 20 degrees. Sugar exportation and honeymoon tourism are the be all and end all here. Apart from that the island seems overwhelmingly sleepy at times. The brightly coloured shutters are often down with guessable opening hours for the small village stores. The island’s last bus service finishes meandering along the country roads at 7pm!

The whole vibe of the place for me is best encapsulated in two sites; the red-roofed Notre Dame Auxiliatrice Christian church in Cap Malheureux, and the Champ de Mars Racecourse in Port Louis. Both are incredibly quaint, picturesque, very 18th century New England. The church has an actual white picket fence, and the racecourse a rusty pastel ferris wheel.  It’s straight out of Seabiscuit. The whole island could often be a medley of eras. I watch a huge group of friends sing to reggie/sega music by shaking their asses like it’s a Jamaican block party, whilst simultaneously listening sari clad girls interject their hindi with ‘oh la la’ Frenchisms, whilst walking the Central Market of Port Louis whose facades look like Victorian England.  It’s like that film ‘Jumper.’

My family itself live in Fond Du Sac (FDS.) A tiny typical hamlet with a post office, school, and a couple of ‘sell everything’ kiosk type shops. Mauritius is a collection of tiny hamlets like this, bar the capital and a few larger ‘towns’ like Grand Bay, Goodlands & Flac.

Most of the houses are French colonial mansions. Not mansion as in sprawling chateaus – but large balcony, shuttered windows, kind of romantically crumbling.  99% have newer annexes and extensions, so you often find original scruffy student like kitchens, side by side with grandiose marble living rooms, which lead back into makeshift wetrooms. The reason for this? Young married couples all live their entire lives with their parents. I shudder at the meer thought. Staring at my cousin Kimtee (25) and her husband to be Vishal (30), in utter disbelief I ask, “So you will without a doubt live here from your marriage next month, untill you are 90 years old?”

They are thrilled at the prospect. As the oldest son Vishal has, on his teachers
wage, saved for the construction of two floors above his parents in the village of Morcellement St Andre. Don’t get me wrong it’s beautiful, and on the plus side I guess they will never know the burden of estate agents/mortgage advisors/landlords I guess, so every cloud…

Kimtee takes me up to her favorite spot on the roof, from which you can see the coast. She is mostly excited as she can see the huge cargo boats. Apparently when the large cruise ships come into port it makes the local TV news. Locals all head to the vantage point of the Citadel –  the British fort that overlooks Port Louis harbour. Revealingly she has an obsession with watching the airplanes fly overhead too. Their honeymoon to neighbouring Mauritian island Rodrigues will be the first time she’s been in one.

The wedding itself will be a 4 day celebration, with 400 guests?! And this is apparently modest! She proudly shows off four different sari dresses for each day, together with heaps of gold jewelry. I help to hand-seal the glittery red and gold invitation cards with dabs of saffron paste to ‘bless’ each one. All 400 have to be hand delivered across the island by her parents.  “You can’t post them?” I enquiry with 2012 practicality. She looks at me quizzically, ‘it’s tradition.’

Tradition and duty seem to be overbearing themes here. Most marriages are not ‘arranged’ per say, but families have a definite role of approval in any potential love interest. This leads to dramas worthy of a Khloe and Lamar series of their own as you can imagine. Girls are very much expected to cook and clean for their whole extended families. Although many do work, average wages for admin jobs are low, £100-200 a month. Kimtee admits she rarely
even ventures the 100 metres to the local shop without her brother, father or fiance. I’m not sure she quite knows what it is she fears.

When I cycle 20 mins through the countryside to nearby Grand Bay, the family fuss around me as though I’ve taken a midnight trip to downtown Johannesburg. As it turns out, Grand Bay is a rather harmless upper-class mini tourist hub. I’m not sure what threat they think Thomas Cook holiday families and touts selling catamaran trips pose,  but I’m pretty sure a corrupt police force, a society engraved with misogyny and no laws to enforce back of car seatbelts are more immediate dangers here.

This sense of protectiveness extends throughout many aspects of life here. Despite being 25 and marrying next month, and despite her brother being 27, both craftily assure me that at the weekend that we will plan a visit to ‘the nightclub.’ ‘Why are we whispering?’ I ask confused. “In case papa overhears” they explain in English. I stifle a laugh but they are being serious. They have to sneak out to bars. In their mid-20’s.

As it turn out, no one’s parents of any age need to be concerned. Buddha Club is as utterly pleasant and zen as its name suggests. Mauritians are not big drinkers, more likely to share a bottle of popular Phoenix Beer in small glasses amoungst friends than start bar fights.  In fact, bouncers here tend only to let in couples. A night out with the girls is unsurprisingly unheard of here. Dating is not really a concept either. Teenagers tend to see each other briefly at the mall or maybe chaperoned at the local Bollywood cinemas.

Whilst spending the day with another cousin Niha (23) she obviously deemed me rebellious enough to ask whether we could possibly go see her secret ‘boyfriend’ at the nearby beach of Grand Gaube. Now i’m always more than happy to collaborate in any scandal.  Her strict father sent her to study in London, so she see’s this ‘boyfriend’ in stolen moments. Once a year?! We park in broad day light. It’s risky as on an island so small she’s convinced of neighbourhood gossip. This ‘illicit affair’ consists of them awkwardly flirting like teenagers for 10 mins. She never gets out of the car, or he in it. I’ve had more intimate encounters chatting to strangers on the tube! But she’s thrilled
at the seeming act of defiance.

As the week goes on my references to England, travel, popular culture, and lack of religion, are met with ambivalence. It’s sometimes hard to find common ground. My cousins rarely see American movies. They are baffled that I’ve never seen (and would rather scratch my eyes out than see) Bollywood music videos. I ask them what they do for fun.

At dusk one evening Kimtee, Vishal and I gallop into the sugar cane fields as the sun sets pink all around us, and it was like feeling 10 years old again. In a good way. Oh and I should add that it was like being 10, except we were armed with small machetes, which no one batted an eyelid at. Kimtee points out every berry, every leaf, every flower, having clearly grown up around this nature. She admits when they were younger her 4 brothers used to suck on so much sugar cain every evening after school that it made them sick. It does taste incredible though.  We run around the 12ft stalks and giggle until it goes dark. And then it all gets a little Children of the Corn/horror movie-esq and we get scared and run home happy and exhausted.

Mauritius it seems, loves a bit of the great outdoors. The Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousses are top of the ‘must do’ list. It’s most popular with families on a Sunday as Mauritians (and I) sneak in for free. There are plants for all over the world set in pretty picnic spots, but it’s most famed for the stunning pink/green pool of giant South American waterlilies, which must have had a lasting effect as they are the one thing I remember as a child.

Just as picturesque is Grand Bassin; some temples by a lakeside in the South West. As the legend goes, one of the Hindu gods was flying sacred rivers to the Ganges, and presumably lost his way when a drop fell into the crater to form this spot. Believe it or not, thousands definitely do here as every February people make a pilgrimage here as villagers all line the roads to give food as alms.  I ask if the FDS lot have made the journey, which they had, on a unbelievable 70km/3 day walk from the North. Apparently it’s all
about sacrifice.

By far the most interesting sight on the island, depending on your level of geekiness, is the Blue Penny museum in Port Louis. Named after a misprinted blue and orange postage stamp which Mauritius and philatelists worldwide are obsessed with. You’ll find out why in a second. They are flawed with a mis-spelling of ‘post office’ instead of ‘post paid’ and as a result of Mauritius being the second country in the world to introduce the postage stamp (Britain was the first.) The never used set that are housed in Port Louis are amongst the
rarest in the world, valued at about 4 million. There were 500 printed, so although I was tempted to immediately scour old family postcards and envelopes, all of this was back in the 1800’s. I’m still holding out there may be one in the attic though.

All in all, my time here felt like a real life version of the ‘homestay’ trips you find in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand –  Fun (ish) and eyeopening. Except there’s a reason we all like to glimpse into other cultures for only 24 hours, because it’s surreal!

So what did I learn? First and foremost, that i’m thankful to be English!

Oh, and as Kimtee and I lay eating our 25rs sorbets on the beautiful Mon Choisy beach; whatever you think the locals pay for things abroad? Tenth it!

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

Controversial activity of the day….an organized tour of Asia’s largest slum. Now you can throw out words like ‘bad taste, voyeurism and the evils of poverty tourism,’ but in actual fact you would have to take them back. It wasn’t really any of these things and if the similar one in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro taught me anything is that they can be really interesting ways to learn about a city and see a side you wouldn’t normally get to see. The company; Reality Tours  & Travel donate 80% of the profits to a community education centre which we visit, and all photography is strictly banned, which you have to admire really.

We walk for 2 to 3 hours, stopping at a number of industries and residential areas in the 1.7 sq km mass city within a city. Dharavi is often cited and studied for it’s innovation in businesses, with an annual turnover of around $600 usd. We visit the huge Dhobi Ghat open air laundry. If we dropped the contents of our backpacks into any given hostel or hotel in the whole of Mumbai, chances are our smalls would end up here to be scrubbed by hand and returned pristine the next day. The whole system works on colour coded tags which are sown into each garment, and mistakes are rarely made.

In Dharavi’s alleys themselves we visit tiny warehouses that are at the heart of most of the worlds recycling clean up. China and USA export vast quantities of their waste here. Go figure/insert you own scathing political comment here. We peak into dimly lit rooms of 5 generations of families working to sort plastics into piles for 12 hours and day, 6 days a week. As you could expect, conditions are harsh. This is however one side of it, like anywhere there is a hierarchy of jobs, the women baking poppadoms seem to have it best, as our guide Ganesh puts it “gossiping about everyone within the 1.7 sq km radius all day long.”

I had read about plastics and metal work, soap and pottery businesses, but perhaps the most shocking one is food. There are bakeries that export thousands of kg of puff pastries a day, sold to huge fancy bakeries across India and abroad. It’s all made here, which is something to think about when it reaches us in our fancy coffee shop on a shiny white square plate with a side of organic fruit on. Similarly is the leather industry. I won’t name the brand names just in case I one day get sued, but basically your $2000 designer wallet/handbag has been made here. And no doubt for pennies.

The residential areas are interesting, as Ganesh talks about housing programmes, and the lobbying of NGOs to change government polities to better protect the rights of long time residents. He also jokes about the fact that Muslims and Hindu’s live side by side in neighbouring quarters, and that bigger than religious differences, or the sacredness of using cow leather is something more important; the sacredness of money!

We see the expected and the unexpected. We walk through grime filled alleys, we visit houses that are only slightly wider than phone booths that are home families of up to 10, Mark accidently drenches his flipflop in a drain of very suspect waste. On the flip side we drink Chai at thriving communal coffee stalls, we shake hands with eager 10 year olds that are all in school uniforms and actually go to school, and see family homes with TV’s and recognizable signs of wealth. Everyone says hi, nobody begs. Of course we are definitely seeing the edited Disney version of life here. The tours have been operating for 6 years with the permission of residents and on the same fixed routes, but still you go away with a redefined notion of what a ‘slum’ is, and feeling of “it’s not what you think.”

Numerous newspaper articles and documentaries have said it before, and Ganesh himself leaves us with numerous similar stories. Those of Dharavi residents that work as cabin crew for huge international airlines, that own appartements that they rent our all over Mumbai. In other words, with means of escape. Except they don’t, they chose to stay and live in Dharavi. The sense of community, is seems, is hard to replace.

Myanmar Airport

So in summary.

I’m keeping Yangon out of this as I don’t want it to mar my memories of what is otherwise an interesting and beautiful country.

Myanmar surpassed my expectations in that it’s much easier, much safer, and much friendlier (kind of) than from the outside looking in. Bagan especially, is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been.

Thing is, everyone I know (all two/three of them) who have been here, claim it’s their favorite country. For me it’s nowhere near. Doesn’t even make my top 10. Actually it doesn’t even make the top 30.

Myanmar Round Up

Thumbs up to:

1)      The colours: Bright red tomatoes in huge baskets being shipped along the canals, purple skies, Bagan’s green fields.

2)      Women: If we wanted something doing ask a girl! From the Angle mercy at EverSky tours, to the women who found Jessica a bus ticket at 11pm at night, to our water bottle aid worker on the bus. The women of Myanmar are notably the most helpful, friendly, and motherly in the world.

3)      This is more a love to hate; the hilariously cringe MTV wannabe music videos that they played on the buses. Think Rebecca black but worse if that’s possible.  I’m going to try and U Tube a few and link them here. I sat through THE MOST cringe 90 min made for TV movie, in full Burmese but the acting was so Sunset Beach some things just shine through language barriers.  It involved a girl running over a dog, a dance routine, and then falling in love. Oscar worthy.

4)      Aloe Vera juice, and the nice apple toasties (who knew?)

Thumbs down to:

1)      The hard sell – The typical hard core harassment  that is distinctive to Thailand/India especially. One lady pinned us with butterfly broaches as ‘presents’ and effectively branded us as hers till we fought her off with her faux jade necklaces. The kids too have adopted an interesting – ‘I like your bracelets/pen/chocolate/water bottle- can I have it as present for my dying grandma?’ Which is one for the heartstrings and you have to admire their innovation.

2)      Internet access/state control. And with it inevitably everything that comes with Myanmar politics. Which i’ve taken the easy road and left out, it being much complex for here/I.

Where I stayed:

Joy Guesthouse, Nyaungshwe,
Pann Cherry Guesthouse, Nyaung U
Kumundara Hotel, New Bagan
The White Hotel, Yangon : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

February 2020
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