Saturday, September 06, 2003

The Cosmic Dance

It's going to be another busy weekend for me. I also have a wedding dinner to attend tonight but most of my colleagues are not going. I will still try to attend because Indonesian wedding dinners are not that time consuming. And I am happy for my friend Djoni who is getting married.

Some people show up at the wedding receptions and then go off for a "proper" dinner elsewhere. Don't expect to find good food at Indonesian wedding dinners: it is normally served buffet-style--you have to queue up for it and eat standing up. Can't blame people for adjourning to a real dinner elsewhere.

In a previous blog entry, I mentioned that I sometimes feel like the vampire Lestat because like him, I am always observing the passing of time: people getting married, having kids, growing fat, loosing hair and being transformed by the demands of family obligations and job pressures. Luckily I do not have his deep sense of world-weariness. Maybe because I haven't lived as long as he has.

I am not free myself from the ravages of time but thank God I am still able to maintain my waistline after all these years. Exercise and my indifference to good food helps. Most of my friends grow fat after getting married--regular full meals and home-cooked food being contributing factors. Furthermore the task of building a family is a taxing one; it is difficult to find time for exercise and self-development. Events just take control of your life.

One of my married friends told me that after marriage and his first kid, he feels like the rest of his life has been sacrificed for his family. I was immediately reminded of a scene from director Franco Zeffirelli's great depiction of the life of Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. The screenplay was actually written by Anthony Burgess. In the movie when John the Baptist (played by Michael York) realises that the person he just baptised is the Son of God (played by a mesmerising Robert Powell), he knows that his job is done and his time is over: "He shall increase, as I shall decrease".

The path of a householder is a noble one: Building a family is like creating a work of art--well worth one's time. When we create works of art, we channel our energies and mental faculties to bring into existence something that did not exist in the world. It is the nature of the universe to create. It is the crux of human existence. The creative impulse is in everyone. It is up to us where we want to channel it.

Some people paint, some write, some compose music, some build skyscrapers, some bring up beautiful children and some even do all of these together. The wellspring of creativity is deep within us--its roots are even spiritual. Celibate monks and mystics channel them into prayer and meditation, spiritually transforming themselves in the process.

Whether we are creating works of art within the physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual realm (refer to my previous posting, The Four Layer Stack), we are in essence participating in the cosmic Dance of Shiva. Each person choreographs his or her own dance in harmony with the rhythm of the Universe.

We are all creators honouring our Creator with our own humble creations.

Friday, September 05, 2003

The Romance of E&O

I worked in Penang for a year, and my favourite place then was the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, more affectionately known as "E&O". I have never actually stayed at the hotel before but I used to hang out the hotel's cafe and lounge. That was a long time ago before the hotel was shut down, refurbished and reopened again at the turn of the millennium.

The E&O Hotel has a rich tradition: Owned by the reknowned Sarkies brothers (who also built the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore), during its heydays, it was advertised as "the premier hotel east of Suez". Famed guests such as Somerset Maugham and Douglas Fairbanks graced the hotel before.

I used to like sitting at the lawn cafe along the seafront ("longest seafront lawn in the world at 842 feet"). One could get a good view of the Penang harbour there; It was a joy being able to relax under the gentle caress of the sea-breeze and contemplate the comings and goings of distant ships. I also enjoyed listening to the two lady singers crooning oldies at the restaurant and lounge called "1885"--the year the place was opened. The E&O brought back to me the romance of a bygone era.

At that time, I used to wonder why Penangites did not appreciate one of their own treasures. It was considered rather unfashionable to hang out there; the young and hip preferred the more swanky hotels along Ferringhi Beach such as Mutiara and the Rasa Sayang.

But one of my colleagues, Karan, did share my fascination with the place. He told me that he even went there to read Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage--a book which I also read, on his recommendation. I remember having happy drinking sessions with him at the cafe, downing one Manhattan cocktail after another.

When I left Penang, my colleagues gave me a farewell dinner at the "1885". I am happy that the hotel has been restored and its past glory preserved. One day I might make a trip to Penang again just to stay at the hotel and reflect back on old times.

Jakarta had its share of glorious colonial hotels too. One of them was the Hotel des Indes--it was even mentioned in Alfred Russel Wallace's classic on natural history, The Malay Archipelago. But alas, these hotels were not as fortunate as Penang's E&O or Singapore's Raffles. But that is another story for another posting.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

A Real Life

Whenever people ask me how's life in Jakarta, the first word that pops into my mind is: Peaceful.

Compared to what I used to do in Singapore, I spend a lot less time on work these days. This is not only because the pace of business activities is slower here but also due to the nature of my current job.

I used to cover Asia Pacific. At times I felt like I was working twenty-four hours: My boss would be calling me from Australia early in the morning, activities in China and SEA countries would start picking up at around late morning and noon; and then late in the evening, colleauges from India and France would be starting work and often there are conference calls with the US people after midnight.

Those were the good and bad old days of the dot-com boom. Nowadays things are a bit more quiet. And I only work for one country. I try keeping a strict nine to six routine. Things are better this way--I get to lead a more balanced life. These days I value peace of mind more than anything else.

I enjoy living a simple life--even when I was in Singapore. I lodged for four years in a simple HDB room with a nice Indian family. And believe it or not--I did not even own a television set!

But what I did enjoy there was a good ADSL broadband connection from Singtel Magix. I was one of their early subscribers and for four years I blazed happily through cyberspace with a 3Mbit/s downstream connection. And that was the reason why I did not own a television set--I used to watch BBC and Channel News Asia through the Internet.

These days, not only my pace of life but my Internet connection is a lot slower. Then again, I am not as addicted to the Net as I used to be. I don't have the habit of checking my e-mail before going to sleep anymore. I don't even bring my notebook computer home with me most of the time.

This doesn't mean I have a lot of time to idle way. I still keep myself busy: I've started pursuing things I've always wanted to pursue. Sometimes I feel my real life has only just begun.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Whispers of the Devil

I've often been warned about the cleanliness of streetside food in Jakarta. I have heard many horror stories about people getting food poisoning. But so far I have been lucky.

Being Malaysian, I've always assumed that I are quite immune to dirty food. Furthermore my one year working in the hawker paradise of Penang had exposed my stomach to all kinds of gastronomic abuse. If one could survive Penang, one should be OK in Jakarta.

But some of my Malaysian friends who came over to Jakarta were not so lucky. They, like me, had come thinking that they are invincible--only to be floored by a simple meal of nasi padang. I am still fond of eating at warungs and roadside stalls but I usually go to a couple of "proven" ones.

I always ask my Indonesian Chinese friends why the native people in the streets do not fall ill eating "dirty" street-side food. They say those people are "accustomed" to it already. It is ironic that despite the superior nutrition and medical care that the middleclass gets, they are not as robust the people who live in the slums.

Perhaps that's not a fair statement to make. The slum-dwellers do suffer from a myriad of diseases and probably have more unnecessary deaths due to them. But it perplexes me to think that the more affluent we are, the more "soft" we become.

I subscribe to Deepak Chopra's philosophy for health: Your body knows what's best for you. You just have to listen to it. Being sensitive to the effects of food on your body will help you decide what you should or shouldn't eat. How does the body tell you what's good or bad for you? Through the feeling of comfort and discomfort.

If we overeat, we suffer a great deal of discomfort. We purge because the body tries to expel things that are rejected by the system. We thirst because the body lacks water. The body is self-balancing--if allowed to work properly. The physiological functions of sneezing, coughing, vomitting and even yawning are all means for the body to maintain equilibrium of the system.

The only problem is that we do not listen to our bodies. We tend to listen to our desires and addictions. We crave for certain types of food and as a result over-indulge in them. We are addicted to alcohol. We complain that we feel sleepy because we haven't got our daily shot of caffeine. This is not the voice of the body. It is simple gluttony. Gluttony, as I've mentioned in a previous blog entry, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins and ranks second only to Lust.

As I'm writing these lines, I suddenly feel an urge to have soto sulung for dinner tonight. Now, is this the Voice of the Body or the whispers of the Devil himself? Hmm, let me think...

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The Natural Rhythm of Human Affairs

I took the MH723 flight which departed KLIA for Jakarta at around 4.30pm today. The flight takes 2 hours but I gain an hour, arriving at Jakarta 5.30pm local time.

While commencing descend to the Soekarno-Hatta Airport, I smiled when the pilot announced in Malay that we will be landing in Jakarta at "lima setengah". You will never hear an Indonesian referring to 5.30 as "lima setengah"--they would normally say "setengah enam" (half-an-hour to six). These are some of the subtle differences between Malay and Indonesian that makes the language such a fascination to me.

Once I was one hour late for an appointment with a friend because she specified "setengah tiga" and I said "OK, tiga setengah", thinking that they mean the same thing.

But like Malaysians, Indonesians are also not known for their punctuality. Perhaps they are worse. They call their flexible attitude towards time as jam karet or "rubber time". The strange thing is that when it comes to specifying time, Indonesians use the military-style 24-hour format--17.30 instead of 5.30pm. I found out that this is what they teach in schools--everyone from the maid to the CEO, would immediately know for instance 22.10 is actually ten minutes past ten at night.

Like Malaysians, Indonesians always blame the traffic whenever they are late for an appointment. I have learnt to treat appointments with customers as not 100% certainties, especially when dealing with government agencies. Sometimes you could end up waiting for half-a-day without the customer showing up.

Javanese are well-known for their habit of not expressing things directly and tends to avoid confrontations. They will never say no directly to you. Sometimes they'll just miss an appointment because they do not have any information to convey to you. They'll say, the decision has been postponed to next month. Or they have to wait for their superiors to come back from their overseas trip before deciding what to do.

Things move at a very slow pace as a result. Though I am a very disciplined person when it comes to punctuality and keeping things on schedule, I also believe that sometimes it is not wise to force things ahead. Things will happen in time. The Javanese say alon-alon asal kelakon (slowly but surely).

I believe we cannot determine things, especially time, to too fine a granularity. For instance, a 90 minute soccer match is made up of two 45 minute halves. The team can decide to play defensively for the first half and try to score through counter-attacks; but they can never say that they will defend for the first 10 minutes and then attack for the subsequent five minutes before retreating back to defence for the next 5 minutes and so on--the course of the game to a large extent is determine by the action and reactions of the 22 players on the field. They determine the rhythm and the pace of the game.

Similarly, there are such rhythms in our daily interractions with people. Some things takes time to reach fullness. Like tuning forks, everything has a natural frequency. The ebb and flow of human affairs has natural frequencies too. Going faster or slower than this natural frequency causes discord and tension. To swim without sinking within the tides of human affairs, one has to be sensitive to its rhythms. Then only can one be in total harmony with nature.

I try not to get irritated when people are late or when things do not go on schedule. We could be hurrying things beyond their natural rhythms. We can try to drive the rhythm when it is slackening. But one has to be very careful. Only the right push at the right time will get the pendulum swinging perpetually.

Monday, September 01, 2003

A Vampire in DJ

I still have a soft spot for Damansara Jaya--I stayed there for almost five years. It used to be a busier place: The Parkson Grand/Atria Mall there was the most popular shopping complex in PJ then. Whenever there was a sale going on, the whole area would be jam-packed with cars.

The room where I lodged overlooked the Cherie Lounge. While I was staying there, many a times, late at night, I would be awaken by the drunken laughter of GROs spilling out from the place after finishing the night's work. I also liked having teh tarik and nasi lemak at the stall in front of the Picadilly discotheque. All these places are no longer there.

But the Orient Express Pub, where we had many a good drinking session is still around after all these years (even though they have shifted to another shoplot). It is certainly not a hip place to hang out; the place is what I would call a "community pub"--a watering hole for regulars to have a quiet after-work beer.

The company where I started my IT career had its office in Damansara Jaya before they shifted to Section 13. The office was like a club to us--we would always hang out there even during weekends. There was a great sense of camaraderie and work was a lot of fun.

We were all young and single--comrades-in-arms who fought together in the trenches. Most of my friends are now married with kids. Many have been quite successful in their career. A lot of water has passed under the bridge.

The other day, I dropped by for a short while at the Atria Shopping Mall. Voices from the past echoed in my mind and glimpses of familiar faces seemed to peek from every corner.

I felt like Lestat the Vampire visiting his old haunts.

Sunday, August 31, 2003

On Marriage and the Evolution of Stellar Bodies

Some mystical religious sects believe that the stars we see in the sky are actually highly evolved souls. These stellar objects are merely way-stations for souls on their cosmic spiritual journey.

We live in our humble human bodies. Our souls use our bodies as vehicles to evolve and to perfect themselves. But souls continue to evolve through many lifetimes in different bodies in their quest towards union with the Godhead. We are but sub-souls of the larger Solar Soul. Someday, when our souls are more spiritually evolved, we too will be suns and stars and live our lives as cosmic deities.

It is easy to dismiss such beliefs as superstition and mystical mumbo-jumbo. But just for the fun of it, let's suspend our disbelief for a moment and examine the physical evolution of stars more closely.

Astronomers tell us that stars are in many ways like human souls. Stars have lifetimes. Even the star that we know best, our Sun, will not live forever. One day it will burn out all its fuel and turn into a bloated stellar body called by astronomers as a red giant, engulfing all its inner planets including Earth. Fortunately for puny souls like us, hitching a ride on the solar merry-go-round, the lifetime of stars are measured in billions of years.

Other stars, depending on their initial mass follow different evolutionary paths: some have enough mass to collapse into neutron stars or white dwarfs; some go all the way to become black holes. Some die in a spectacular fashion: exploding in a furious burst of cosmic fireworks called a supernova.

The evolution of stars are chiefly governed by the macro-physics of gravity and the micro-physics of quantum mechanics. Matter accumulate and collapse under the pull of gravity and produce heat which generates chemical and nuclear reactions--resulting in that glorious display of twinkling lights in the night-sky, the beauty of which has inspired lovers and poets throughout the entire human civilization.

The reason why I am writing about such astronomical phenomena is because I am inspired by the conversation I had today with my good friend Steve at the Matrix Pub in Phileo Damansara: One of the things we discussed was how a married couple is like a binary star.

You see, stars are not solitary creatures. Even they are "married". Astronomers estimate that about half the stars in our night-sky are binary star systems--which are actually pairs of stars that orbit around a common point, like two children running around a maypole.

The two stars in a binary system both exert gravitational pull, forcing themselves into a "compromise" orbit around one another. Some of these binary systems are unstable, with one star denser and heavier than its partner, causing stellar matter to be sucked from one body to the other. X-rays, and cosmic radiations are emitted in the process. Sparks fly.

Obviously binary star systems do not last forever. They are but temporary states in the overall scheme of cosmic evolution. Pulled by the gravitational attraction of the denser partner, they collapse, often into a black hole. Some binary star systems are more evenly balanced and they could last longer.

A good marriage is like a perfectly balanced pair of binary star. Neither star exert an overly "selfish" gravitational pull towards the other. They revolve around one another almost in a state of dynamic equilibrium. But unfortunately such binary stars systems are rare indeed.

Now, what kind of a star are you?