Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Belated Pongal

Hi everyone!

You may remember that in my last post, I said that Pongal fell on January 15 this year. That is true, and unfortunately, I was not able to celebrate the festival on its actual date. Still, fortunately for me, I was able to attend a Pongal festival near Gopeng, as there was a celebration organized for that day. It was even planned to be the largest Pongal festival in the history of the festival of Malaysia (though it unfortunately fell short of the record due to many absences). This festival is meant to celebrate the harvest and thank God for giving people the ability to grow an abundant amount of crops.

Flag of Perak!

I arrived at the festival in the morning and waited for the activities and others to arrive. The area was quite empty early in the day, but as the day went on, both devotees and many AFS students came to the place for the festival. The area was a huge lot with a few shrines, a temple, and a few halls for speeches and meals. The temple was very colorful and pretty, and the designs on the temple walls and ceiling were very meaningful and beautiful. The temple even had an entrance to a cave, where there were shrines and statues for people to pray at and admire! Moreover, the temple area was right next to a Chinese Buddhist temple and pagoda. I could tell we were in a very religious area! As these two places of worship were in Gopeng, a city known for its mountains, caves, and related tourist sites, there was an immense limestone hill right behind the temples.

The gate to the temple area

The main hall of the temple

The gopuram of the temple, along with a statue of Surya, the sun god in Hindu mythology

Small unripe bananas!

The beautiful pagoda next to the Hindu temple

The outside of the temple and the limestone hill right behind it; the temple had a cave leading into the limestone hill.

In the temple, there was a huge cage containing several peacocks within it. There were also a few monkeys surrounding the cage, and it was cool to see the peacocks show off and ruffle their colorfully designed feathers while the monkeys ran all over the temple area and interacted with some of the devotees in the temple.

During the festival of pongal, many games and competitions are held as a form of enjoyment and celebration. One of these fun-spirited competitions was a contest in which teams of five tried to make vivid designs using different colors of rice and chalk. These designs are called kolams and are typically used to decorate the entrances to different buildings and areas, including temples, houses, and stores. Kolams can be drawn either in only white or with multiple colors. The captivating part of kolam drawing and painting is that creators of the kolam have no sources of reference while they are making the design. Rather, all of the design's shape, color, and texture comes from the participant's creativity and past knowledge of and experience with kolams. The competition, as you may guess, turned out to be an amazingly vibrant one in which many exchange students participated.

Beautiful kolams drawn in the kolam drawing contest

After the kolam drawing came a game in which teams of five attempt to break a pot hanging from a certain height over the participants' heads. Teams of five men face off against each other while teams of five women face off against each other. In the game, a player from one team goes first by holding a wooden stick above his head and trying to find the pot that contains water and that is hanging a few feet away by poking at it with the stick. Of course, the intense part of the game comes from the fact that the players are blindfolded while they are attempting to find and break the pot. This game is very similar to the game of hitting the pinata but is more difficult because the player is very far away from the pot. The participant has to gauge his or her distance from the pot and the direction he or she must take based on the noise from the audience and his or her own sense of location and direction. Each player is given three chances to strike the pot and break it, but if he or she takes longer than 45 seconds to a minute to break the pot, his or her chance is over. The game can go very well, as players can many times find their way to the pot very easily and break it with ease like in this case:

However, the game is not always easy. Players are spun around several times before they are allowed to start searching for the pot and can easily lose their orientation or balance during the spinning. It can be quite frustrating and difficult when a player loses his or her sense of direction and cannot reach the pot in the time allotted, such as in this case:

After all the games came the religious part of the festival: making pongal, which also refers to a type of sweet Indian rice with some beans and raisins in it (the official name of the festival is "Thai Pongal"). During the festival, many devotees do not use stoves or modern appliances to boil the milk and rice that becomes the pongal. Instead, they use a makeshift stand on which they place the pot of milk and rice and boil the two by using firewood and matches. In order to try to boil the pongal in the way that these devotees would, all of the exchange students gathered the necessary materials and attempted to make some delicious pongal. Although the smoke from the fires got in my eyes and nose and caused a lot of pain, I was able to get through the stinging discomfort and finish my pot of pongal. Although my parents often participate in cooking pongal at home, I have never experienced making pongal myself, and this experience was definitely a very fun and interactive way to celebrate Thai Pongal.

The rows of bricks to be used later on in the day to make pongal

There were a lot of people making pongal!

The makeshift stand and the fire burning from the firewood

The milk boiling

Me mixing the pongal while it was burning (the sunglasses were meant to protect my eyes from the smoke!)

The festivities were very grand and definitely enhanced my understanding of Thai Pongal. I've always been aware of and participated indirectly in the festival, but getting to actually make the pongal and watch the traditional games that go along with the festival was extremely fun and valuable. Additionally, it was good to meet up with my friends again and introduce them to an important Hindu festival. I am very happy that I was able to see the Malaysian version of this festival, as it differs in certain ways from the versions of people from other countries. Furthermore, seeing so many devotees present in the area despite the fact that the actual date of Thai Pongal was a month ago was truly very inspiring. Overall, I truly learned so much about Malaysian Thai Pongal and had an enjoyable experience celebrating the festival with all the people at the celebration!

The AFS group along with some important individuals, including the Malaysian Minister of Tourism!

Jumpa lagi!


Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Busy Month of January

I know that the last few entries have been filled with vows to post more often. Evidently, this has not been the case. However, January was an extremely busy and fun month (although I had no time to blog during the month, I did experience so many new things and found much to blog about in this post!) filled with travels to new places and experiencing different customs and ideas. The upcoming weeks will include fewer of these adventures, but fortunately, I will have more time to sit down and blog about my year here!

Like I said, January was a very enlightening and enjoyable month. It was definitely one of the most active months of my stay here. January kicked off with the AFS Mid-Stay Camp. As I had been in Malaysia for almost 6 months by the beginning of January and had only 5 months left in my year abroad, I attended the Mid-Stay Camp, where all the yearlong exchange students in Malaysia got together to discuss their experiences so far, ask any questions they had, and get important notices and information regarding the rest of the year. This camp took place at a fisherman resort in the state of Selangor from the 13th to the 15th of January. Most of the time was spent participating in activities and organized discussions, but we had some free time to ourselves as well. During these breaks, we got to go back to our rooms, the beach that was right in front of the resort, and the really tall observation deck!

The amazing resort-it had an observation deck, really nice rooms, and a beach!

The beach behind me

The kampung (village or rural) area surrounding the resort

The best part of the camp was that all of the students go to meet up and socialize with each other again!

The camp was extremely fun, and I enjoyed both getting to meet up with all my friends again and participating in all of the activities. When I had to return to Ipoh on the 15th, it was a bittersweet goodbye, as I might not see several of my international friends until the Farewell Orientation in May right before we all return to our home countries.

The 15th of January was incidentally the Hindu festival of Pongal. Unfortunately, because I was at the camp during this day, I was not able to participate in the celebration or prayers. My host family members were able to take part in the prayers, and they took a picture of the ceremony as it was going on. Pongal is somewhat of a harvest festival celebrated in order to thank God for allowing the crops to grow well and abundantly.

After arriving in Ipoh, I had to get ready for yet another Hindu festival on the 17th: Thaipusam! Thaipusam is one of the most renown festivals in Malaysia; the notable Hindu temple at Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur attracts a huge number of devotees and tourists on the day of Thaipusam and is therefore extremely crowded. After briefly visiting a famous temple in Ipoh to offer milk to God, my host family and I travelled to Penang, where another notable Thaipusam parade occurs, in order to get a better perspective of the festival. Although I am a Hindu, this year was my first celebrating Thaipusam. I saw many aspects of traditional Hinduism and parts that I could identify and understand. Still, there was a lot that I was able to learn at the festival. Thaipusam is a festival dedicated to a Hindu deity named Lord Murugan. During Thaipusam, many Hindu men carry enormous wooden or metal structures on their shoulders. These structures hold flowers, alters, simple oil lamps, and depictions of the deity. Some men also pierce their skin and cheeks in order to acknowledge the power, generosity, and benevolence of God. Men, women, and children all participate in a parade that can stretch for several miles from a certain starting point to a significant temple. People participating in the parade have to remove their footwear and walk for long distances barefoot. In Penang, the temple is located at the top of a hill. The distance to the temple is actually not very much, but due to the immense crowd and roundabout route to the top of the hill, it took us more than an hour to climb to the temple. Despite its length, the trip was certainly worth it.

Carrying offerings of milk to the temple in Ipoh

On the bridge between Penang Island and the mainland of Penang

People were getting ready for Chinese New Year even before Thaipusam day!

A beautiful view from our amazing hotel in Penang

There were a LOT of people. As you can see in the picture, some were carrying kavadi while others had bells pierced into their backs.

Two large idols of Hindu deities

The inside of the temple in Penang

The outside of the temple in Penang

Two large kavadi structures

About a week and a half after Thaipusam, I fulfilled one of my travelling goals for this year by going to Singapore! Singapore is a really interesting country because it is so small in size but has a huge population of almost 7 million people. Every morning, evening, and night, the intercity trains and buses are packed, and the insides of train stations look like a Thaipusam parade.

This isn't even peak hour...

Over the next few days, I got to visit a variety of places in Singapore. I took a trip to the top of the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest operational Ferris Wheel. I also got to go on a tour of the city and see distinctive buildings and landmarks like the famous merlion (lion from neck up, fish below the neck) that spits out water into the water right in front of the amazing skyline of the city. Singapore was really reminiscent of home in the U.S.; everything was clean, organized, and developed. The whole country was packed, and there were huge malls with American restaurants and stores. More than once, I ended having to remind myself that I wasn't in Houston but almost 10,000 miles away in Southeast Asia!!

The Singapore Flyer, the largest operational Ferris Wheel in the world

The largest infinity pool in the world is in top of the three skyscrapers in the picture.

The building with the spikes is distinctively nicknamed "The Durian."

The famous merlion that is a distinctive feature of Singapore

The city at night from the Singapore Flyer

During my stay, I also got to see the celebration of Chinese New Year. The festivities took place on a floating platform in the heart of the city, and the crowd was huge. Important individuals from all parts of the city were coming to the celebration, and the prime minister of Singapore even showed up to announce the beginning of the festival. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet him and talk to him briefly before he moved on to shake hands with the rest of the people in the crowd. 

The prime minister of Singapore

The enormity of the Chinese New Year celebration really astounded me; I was captivated by how many people showed up, and the beautiful decorations and vivid colors and fireworks during the festivities were truly awe-inspiring. I also enjoyed talking to some of the locals and asking them about the festival and its importance to them. I got very enlightening answers and explanations from them regarding their New Year celebration and the symbolism of the different statues, colors, and designs. From their responses, I gathered that Chinese New Year and its importance can be evasive very often. As an emphasis is regularly placed on the "Chinese" part of Chinese New Year, people do not always see the festival for what it really is: the commemoration of a New Year in the Chinese calender. Watching the fireworks and hearing the countdown until the day of the new year reminded me that in truth, much of this festival is very similar to the New Year celebration the rest of the world recognizes. Although there is a lot of Chinese culture and religion intertwined with Chinese New Year, at its core, the festival is a way of celebrating the coming of a new year and praying for the best in this new year. Getting to understand more about the Chinese New Year celebration and its meaning was really an edifying experience for me, and I appreciate all those who fondly welcomed me into their festival area and patiently explained their beliefs, customs, and festival to me.

The fireworks were right in front of the Singapore skyline and were stunning! The red ones at the end of the video were especially amazing.

The platform in the evening (with a small crowd) and at night (very packed)

I got to watch a Chinese lion dance in the center of a huge Singaporean mall. In a lion dance, performers hold a lion costume over their heads and try to mimic the motions of a lion. The culture behind the dance and the vivid colors on the lion costume are really cool, and the dance itself is pretty interesting!

In addition to welcoming in the Chinese New Year, I ushered in a new year of my life, as I turned 16 while in Singapore. It was odd being away from home on my birthday for the first time in my life, but I got an awesome birthday present in being able to visit and explore Singapore! Most of my birthdays are spent at home with family and friends on a relatively quiet and peaceful night. My first birthday abroad was definitely one of the most eventful so far, to say the least!

There's still more to my adventures in the month! After returning from Singapore, I went to Johor Bahru, where I stayed with the host family of my fellow American YES Abroad friend Stuart for two nights in order to see the Malaysian family version of Chinese New Year. We had an awesome time hanging out and learning about Chinese customs and religion, and I got to try out new types of Chinese vegetarian food, learn a few Chinese words, and receive a few red Chinese New Year angpao (small gift envelopes that contain money in them). On the second day of my stay there, we even got to visit friends of the host family in a distant kampung area. Unlike the heavily packed Marina Bay of Singapore, the kampung was much quieter (MUCH) and slower. I had the chance to bond and connect with the host family and their friends in this more peaceful location.

Smiling Buddha picture

Two angpao that I got from Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Cai means something along the lines of "Congratulations and hope you get rich!"

Even the dog was dressed up in Chinese New Year clothes!

Finally, I returned to Ipoh, tired but so much more knowledgeable about both Chinese and Indian traditions, religions, and festivals. I spent a lot of time travelling across the peninsula; during my travels, I visited Penang, Selangor, KL, JB, and Singapore! Ultimately, I visited so many places and people and experienced so many new things that have revealed a lot to me about Southeast Asian culture and traditions. I've made new friends, connected with old ones, and made memories that are sure to last a lifetime. I am thankful for the last month, and I'm extremely glad that the beginning of 2014 was so busy yet so breathtaking and fun at the same time. I'm going to go ahead and take this as a good sign and hope for the rest of my year abroad to be equally fascinating and fun.

Jumpa lagi!-See you soon!