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!


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