An intrepid writer travels to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in a time of great upheaval but in grand fashion, part 2

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Somewhere in the Arabian Sea| In my last dispatch, I explained how my Southeast Asia/Middle East journey of four quickly became a journey of one – and how most of the adventure was to be spent on a cruise feared by me to be a geriatrics ward-at-sea.

A week into the cruise, this has pretty much borne out, which means I am often confused for either a crew member or the sniper rumored to be on board in order to take out the Somali pirates in the event of a showdown. I concede I do like being mistaken for the latter.

Penang, Malaysia and the Notorious Nazi Buddha Army

Our first stop on the cruise was in Penang, Malaysia. Malaysia is a multiethnic society made up of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. While the majority of the country consists of Malay Muslims, Penang itself is dominated by country’s Chinese population. Brutally humid, the city was much more developed than I imagined.

The highlight of the stop was a Buddhist temple, mainly because it brought me face-to-face with the Nazi Buddha Army.

I had never heard of the notorious Nazi Buddha Army, though I thought it made perfect sense that it would be a part of Hitler’s monstrous plan to take over Southeast Asia. My guide explained, however, that what looked like Nazi Swastikas on the Buddhas were not really Nazi Swastikas since there was more of a slant in the Nazi symbol. This explanation reminded me of Vanilla Ice’s less-than-excellent explanation of why his “Ice Ice Baby” baseline was not an exact copy of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”

In fairness, of course, the Swastika was a symbol used in Asian cultures and religions long before Hitler’s fashionistas adopted it for their 1920s, 30s, and 40s spring, summer, winter and fall collections – making the Buddhas emblazoned with Swastikas not nefarious in the least.

During my day in Penang I encountered one of my pet peeves of international travel – the unbearable liberal American travelers abroad who bend over backwards to prove America isn’t all that great in order to ingratiate themselves with the local population. This was on display as I engaged a couple of Chinese Malaysian guides in a conversation about what they thought of the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim and the allegations that were previously and are currently leveled against him. A liberal American couple probably in their 60s, knowing absolutely nothing about the situation, decided to jump in to declare that corruption is not unknown in America either.

“We had a president elected by the Supreme Court for goodness sake,” the wife offered, resorting to one of the early aught’s favorite liberal hits.

This is how many liberals try to win friends abroad, with chants of “We suck too!” or “We suck worse!” Such self-flagellation is as pathetic as it is stunning, especially when it is done in unfree or only partly-free societies where no reasonably intelligent being could possibly draw an equivalency to American politics, warts and all.

Cochin, India and the Roads of Death

After four days at sea cruising to the west coast of India, I was more than itching to get off the ship. So when I arrived in Cochin – a city I never heard of in a country I always wanted to visit – I was geared up and ready to go. Here are some observations:

  • Cochin is in Kerala, which is said to be among the most beautiful states in India. The state government is also ruled by the Communist Party, a fact that is hard to miss with the Hammer and Sickle so ubiquitous. With the election season heating up, smiling politicians are plastered on posters everywhere with the Hammer and Sickle emblazoned. It is all a bit anachronistic – as if no one has informed these folks that the Soviet Union didn’t exactly pan out so well (not to mention that the Soviet Union was responsible for some 20 million deaths under the banner of the Hammer and Sickle).

  • Upon landing in Cochin, I hopped in a van to go outside the city for a houseboat ride in the Cochin backwaters. Here’s the thing. Drivers in India – at least Kerala – are out of their mind. They don’t drive so much as they play chicken. Perhaps this is a clever depopulation scheme encouraged by the Indian government as a way to ease the burden of their enormous population. Hopefully not. In either case, having seen horrific and daredevil driving in countries around the world, I was impressed with just how batshit insane ordinary driving in Kerala was. Oftentimes, a mixture of scooters, cars and busses would form a phalanx and plunge ahead taking up both lanes on the road, forcing opposing traffic to the side of the street, which was conveniently packed with people. (I should also note that I was a bit perturbed that the only person who had a seatbelt in the van was the driver himself.)
  • Along with cars, scooters, and people clogging the road, sometimes these fellas also joined in the hubbub:
  • While driving in the van, I would often see what appeared to be a carnival in the distance. It was always a mirage. What appear from a distance (and sometimes up close) to be carnivals in Kerala were invariably Hindu temples. Sometimes they even had elephants:

  • During my first exposure to India, I came away with the completely original observation that India is incredible. Now if only someone would turn that into an ad campaign.

Back on the boat, my journey continues on to Mangalore and Mumbai and then across the Arabian Sea to Oman before sailing through the Strait of Hormuz to Dubai. Please check back to see how it goes.

Oh! I almost forgot. The houseboat ride was lovely: