Sunday, March 30, 2014

STE Chronicles: 2 Weeks in JB

Selamat petang!

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted in 2 weeks. On account of that as well as the sheer amount of interesting experiences I had during the past 2 weeks, this blog post probably contains more content than most of the previous ones I’ve written. That’s okay, as I’m really excited to let everyone know what I have been doing recently.

My first week in JB, I attended a local school and spent time with students and teachers at the school. On my last day at the school, Carmen and I participated in a Q & A session with the Form 5 students. We answered many of their questions about American culture, our lives in Malaysia, and lessons we had learned from our year abroad. The questions the students asked were both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed being able to interact with a different type of Malaysian student body. For the rest of the day, we spent time in a classroom and spectated the class’s activities and lessons.

An outlet mall in Johor Bahru that gets daily visitors from Singapore. This mall is really clean and reminded me of an American outlet mall I've been to in Texas.

Our Q & A session

After our week in school was over, I spent a few days going to malls and meeting up with friends before visiting the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple, the first glass temple in the world, with my Johor STE host family, chapter leader, and friends. The temple’s architecture was entirely of South Indian Hindu style, but rather than using typical construction materials, the builders utilized glass to construct much of the exterior and interior of the temple. The gopuram and shrines of the temple were especially beautiful, and the interior of the temple shined like the sun on a hot day. It was therefore somewhat difficult to take immaculate pictures, but from the naked eye, the temple was certainly one of the most incredible and stunning ones I have seen. Pictures are definitely amazing to look at, but seeing the temple with my own eyes up close was certainly an amazing experience that I will never forget. In addition to the glistering vividness of the structure, another part of the temple fascinated me. Within the building, there were several different alters for and statues of important Hindu deities and sages; however, there were many depictions of significant and righteous individuals from other religions as well: Buddha (Buddhism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), and Mother Teresa (Christianity).

The sign reads: "Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Temple, 'The First Glass Temple in the World'"

The gopuram (the tall structure on top of the main building) was one of the coolest parts of the building, and although it cannot completely be seen in this photo, the gopuram was shining brilliantly due to the strong sunlight of the day.

My temporary host family and me in side the sparkling building

Buddha statue

Shrine of a Hindu deity

The large, colorful, and glistening interior

After seeing the temple on Saturday, my host brother took Carmen and me to Singapore on Sunday. There, we spent some time visiting locations in downtown Singapore like the famous Singapore Merlion, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, and the Singapore Flyer. Then, we proceeded to visit a few shopping malls throughout the country. As this was my second visit to the tiny country, I didn't do or see many new things, but unlike last time, I was able to look around a Singaporean shopping center and see how the country compares to Malaysia and the U.S. It was quite intriguing to see that although Singapore is so close to Malaysia, its products and shopping malls are so similar to those back home in the U.S. Although we did find a lot more restaurants, clothing stores, and products with American and western brands and names, we soon discovered that the price range of items in Singapore is more like that of the U.S. than of Malaysia!

Visit Malaysia 2014 sign!

Downtown Singapore and its numerous banks, hotels, and other edifices

The Singapore Flyer

The Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore. At the top floor is a huge swimming pool. What is most interesting about this building actually has to do with its price: I recently found out that this hotel was the most expensive building ever constructed at a price of 5.7 billion USD.

A cool visual display at ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore

After returning from Singapore, I had 5 more days of STE left before I was to return home to Ipoh. Fortunately, my host family planned an exciting vacation to Penang for 3 days. On Wednesday, we left for Penang early in the morning and arrived in Melaka for a short sojourn. There, we visited the Christ Church of Melaka, a notable attraction in Melaka, before continuing our journey. By nightfall, we had reached the mainland of Penang. Less than a month ago, a new bridge was built connecting the mainland of Penang to the island, and in order to see the bridge and its novelty, we took this second bridge to the island. The funny thing about our trip was that the new second bridge failed to show up on the GPS we were using; instead of showing our car travelling along a solid bridge to our destination, the GPS was displaying our vehicle floating in the middle of the water!

The Christ Church of Melaka was founded in 1753 by the Dutch.

The Melaka flag kind of reminds me of the Texas flag!

The second bridge at night

The GPS was pretty confused and tried to calculate our route several times, which was quite hilarious!

During our two full days in Penang, we visited a couple Buddhist temples in the city. They were all very interesting and were of various cultures and architectural styles (Thai, Burmese, Chinese), but each one of them had similar features and carried the same purpose as places of worship for Buddhists. I found many facets of all of the temples that were very similar to parts of and deities in Hindu temples, and I also saw many paintings and captions on the walls of some of the Buddhist temples that held stories and mythological figures derived from or related to similar Hindu myths and individuals. The connection I discovered between the two religions through solely by observing their respective places of worship was very eye-opening.

The sheer size of the religious houses was rather astounding as well; one of the houses, a Thai temple called Wat Chayamangkalaram, holds the 3rd largest reclining Buddha statue in the world! This statue is 33 meters in length and takes up much of the space within the main building of the temple. Additionally, the Kek Lok Si temple is the largest Buddhist house of worship in the entire Southeast Asian region! Getting to see these amazing places of worship during my time in Penang was definitely edifying and fulfilling, as I have been wanting to visit these temples ever since my last visit to Penang in January.

A very long dosai at a mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurant in Penang-it took three plates just to hold the dosai in place!

The Penang flag next to the Malaysian flag and a Buddhist flag

A Thai temple in Penang

The reclining Buddha statue in Penang is the 3rd largest in the world

The Kek Long Si temple in Penang is the largest Buddhist place of worship in Southeast Asia

The panoramic view from Kek Lok Si is pretty incredible!

The immense Kuan Yin statue at the top of Kek Lok Si is simply astonishing.

 After visiting all of the incredible Buddhist temples in Penang, I travelled to the northern state of Kedah. There, my host family and I visited my host mom's parents and siblings. We also got to try the Kedah version of Indian food, which I will say is very different from typical Indian food in Malaysia but also exotically delicious. Also, as far as my travels go, I have now been to 8 of the 13 Malaysian states and 2 of the 3 Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal territories): the states of Perak, Selangor, Melaka, Johor, Pahang, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, and Kedah, and the territories of KL and Putrajaya. I still have the states of Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu to visit in West Malaysia and the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the territory of Labuan to visit in East Malaysia before I can say that I have fully covered the states and territories of Malaysia. I don't expect to do exactly this, but I do hope that I can learn more about these states while travelling to new places in my last few months here.

After visiting my host mom's parents, we returned to Penang, had a good night of sleep, and set off for Ipoh the next morning. I'm really glad that I had the opportunity to experience STE with my temporary host family members. Both my host mom and dad were very welcoming and genuinely caring, and my host siblings were approachable, interesting, and friendly. My temporary chapter leader was also extremely instrumental in helping me have an informative and enjoyable time in Johor Bahru. I'm very grateful for all of their help, and I truly had an amazing time down in JB. In a way, I'm a little sad that STE has come to an end (and for me, it really whizzed by quickly), but like Dr. Seuss once said, I try to "smile because it happened."



Anirudh

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Balik ke JB!

Hi,

So about a month and a half after my initial visit to Johor Bahru, I have made my return to the southern metropolis of Malaysia. On Friday morning, I traveled from Ipoh to JB via a comfortable and capacious bus. I arrived in JB exhausted after my taxing 7 hour bus ride, but my inner wanderlust kept me excited and eager to meet my temporary host family and visit landmarks across the city during the course of my Short-term Exchange (STE).

My temporary host family members are great; my host parents are very hospitable, and my two host sisters are extremely helpful and friendly. In addition, another student on my program is staying with the same host family. I have yet to meet my temporary host brother, but I am excited to do so later today. I have spent in the last few days helping my host family around the house with chores and preparations and have truly gotten to know more about them and integrate into the household.

So far in my stay, I haven't done much travelling, but I have been able to experience important parts of my host family's lifestyle. My family is Buddhist, and my host mom often helps to cook vegetarian food for charity purposes at a Buddhist temple in the vicinity. Last night, I assisted my host mother in preparing fresh vegetables and curries for the nuns, monks, and elderly who pray at the temple. My host mother taught me how to prepare many dishes, and the entire family got to try some of the food for dinner before we sent it off to the temple the next morning. Being able to help the hard-working people at the temple was definitely a new and enjoyable form of community service, and getting to try the palatable options at the table was pretty nice as well. When we brought the food to the temple in the morning, we were able to see just how appreciative and happy the nuns were, and the smiles on their faces were a great start to my day!

Shredding potato skins is a lot harder than it looks!

The collection of rice, vegetables, soya, and mushroom that went into preparing this vegetarian meal

Carmen and me with the nun at the temple

Before deciding to host us for the next two weeks, my host family was already hosting an AFS student who went to a local school. As this student is elsewhere in Malaysia for her STE, the principal of her school wanted us to attend school for the week. After dropping the food off at the temple, my host mother took Carmen and me to school, where we were introduced to the principal and at the assembly. Because the students had exams throughout the day, we spent most of our time exploring the school or reading. The students were very welcoming and enjoyed our presence at the school. It was very intriguing to interact with a new student body at a school very different from the one in Ipoh.

The kids at school were really excited to see us!

Carmen and me waiting to meet the principal

Over the last couple of days, I've gotten to know my temporary host family members pretty well and have been involved in a couple of new activities in JB. These last few days were fun and eye-opening, and I know that there will be more new experiences throughout the course of my stay here in JB. I'm looking forward to the next few days, and I am very excited for whatever travels and sightseeing opportunities I receive.

A group of Johor state flags

Jumpa lagi,

Anirudh

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Back to JB

As the title of the post suggests, I am indeed returning to visit Johor Bahru in the upcoming days. As part of my program, students are supposed to explore new parts of Malaysia and its culture for two weeks in March. For the yearlong students studying in Malaysia there were 5 locations for this short-term exchange (STE): the city of JB in the southmost part of the country, the cities of Kuantan and Kuala Terengganu on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the state of Perlis in the northwestern corner of the country, and orang asli settlements in my own host state of Perak.

As I mentioned before, I have been to JB back in late January and early February, but my stop in JB was only for a few days and served mostly as a brief sojourn on the way to Singapore. This time around, I want to visit interesting places in JB and learn more about Johorian lifestyle and culture. I believe that Johor Bahru is a very intriguing city, as it is at a different location and has a different culture than does Ipoh. JB is also a bigger city than is Ipoh, so it will be interesting to live in a more metropolitan area for a few weeks.

I'm already looking forward to exploring the tourist locations and points of interest of JB. I've heard positive feedback regarding Legoland Malaysia and Danga Bay in JB, and I'm really hoping to see the Arulmigu Sri Rajakaliamman Glass Temple, which is one of the oldest Hindu temples in JB and is made out of glass. The description on Wikipedia is pretty interesting, but I'm sure visiting the temple will be even more amazing!

I haven't made any real plans yet, but I'm hoping to enjoy the two weeks I spend down in the southern part of Malaysia. I hope I can experience life in a big Malaysian city and see many cool attractions and interesting locations in Johor. I know that this will be a wonderful experience, and I simply cannot wait until the STE begins!

Jumpa lagi,

Anirudh 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What is a kampung?

For some time, I've been referencing kampungs without fully explaining what they are.  Kampung literally means "village," and as it is an integral part of Malaysian culture and lifestyle, I want to explain exactly what a kampung is and why it is so important to Malaysia.

Kampungs exist in all the states of Malaysia and are usually small, self-sufficient communities. They often depend on agricultural workers and small stores that sell a large variety of products. A kampung typically has less than a few thousand permanent inhabitants of all the different ethnicities in Malaysia; still, since many kampungs are in between major cities like KL and Ipoh, they are used to receiving visitors from all over the country. 

Easily the most distinguishable part of a kampung is the typical kampung house. These houses are very interesting because they appear to be standing on stilts! Basically, wooden columns hold the main structure of the house up a few feet, and stairs lead individuals up into the house. These houses usually have only one story, but they are still large enough to accommodate many people. Friends and family members are encouraged to visit, as life in a kampung can be very quiet and peaceful most of the time.

A model of a kampung house

A real kampung house

Unlike cities, many extended family members will live in the same kampung; sometimes, they will even live in the same house! Because of the development of the Malaysian economy and the employment opportunities found in the cities, many individuals end up moving away from the kampungs to cities like KL and Penang for high-paying jobs and more developed living conditions. For vacations and specific festivals, individuals will frequently return to their ancestors' kampungs, the villages where their ancestors lived and worked. Malays usually balik kampung (return to village) during Hari Raya. Chinese sometimes balik during Chinese New Year and a few other festivals, and Indians balik during Deepavali or Pongal.

I myself have visited kampungs during the course of the last few months. At first, I thought that kampungs were the polar opposites of large cities in Malaysia: unlike cities, kampungs can be remarkably small, with some kampungs having a single dirt path road down the middle of the settlement. Also, while noise is an unavoidable aspect of city life, kampungs are extremely quiet, even during the day. However, both cities and kampungs are extremely important in terms of conveying what Malaysia is truly like: a diverse nation in regard to race, religion, language, festivals, and in this case, lifestyle.

As kampungs are at the center of so many major festivals and celebrations in Malaysia, they are very significant to the people who celebrate these festivals. Kampungs are truly universal among the various groups in Malaysia, as every group has some connection to these unique and colorful villages of Malaysia. Despite their small sizes, these culturally vibrant communities play a large role in defining the country and its people and showing observers the true range and diversity of Malaysia.

Jumpa lagi,

Anirudh