Wisdom of Whores Takes Tea with the Dead

Unspun’s past life was as a journalist in a newspaper too incredible to be true, The Asia Times. It was a menagerie of strange characters from an editor who spoke like he was high all the time as speakers taller than him blasted Wagnerian music out of his office, to his deputy who had been an advisor of Lyndon LaRouche,  to ex CIA, Mossad and KGB spooks pretending to be journalists and other assorted drunks, poseurs and yes, a few legit and good journalists.

One of the the journalists, and a damn good one, was this plucky woman by the name of Elizabeth Pisani. We met in Bangkok just as the paper was starting back in 1997 and became fast friends for life. I guess it was the feeling of solidarity as we seemed to be the only legit, and productive journalists there. Then, she had been a journalist for Reuters in Jakarta for several years and at Asia Times she covered Vietnam while Unspun covered Indonesia, inheriting some of Elizabeth’s friends and contacts whom she generously introduced.

When the Asia Times went South after the Asian Economic Crisis, Unspun, then already in Jakarta sought refuge in The Dark Side (Public Relations to the uninitiated) and lost track of Elizabeth.

Until she surfaced in Jakarta, this time in her other life as an epidemologist working in the field of AIDS and HIV infection. Her stint here resulted in a wonderful and controversial book, The Wisdom of Whores. Elizabeth then disappeared into the lecture and training circuit and each time I heard from her she was in some exotic location. The last I heard from her, I think was when she was kneed deep in floods in some South American country doing god-knows-what.

Now she’s popped up in Jakarta again and after a brief catch-up at Anomali in Senopati she’s vanished again, this time to Bali and on to the more remote places of Indonesia. The reason: Taking Some Tea with the Dead. That’s the title of her new book on Indonesia which will be a culmination of all the traveling that she’ll be doing for the next few months. But while she travels, Elizabeth will also be keeping a blog, Portrait Indonesia, of her journeys and the adventures she encounters in Indonesia.



She writes wonderfully and eloquently, and has a wry eye out for the unusual so it should be lots of fun. So check out her blog and you might ant to let her know in English or Indonesian (her Indonesian – and Bahasa Gaul at that – is way better than Unspun’s) some of the more unusual and interesting people or places she could visit in her travels. I believe she’s heading for Sumba as her first port of call after Bali.

Here’s what she has to say about Portrait Indonesia

In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. On this site she will share photos and occasional musings from her journey, which, if all goes well, will cover some 10,000 kilometers.

The journey will form the backbone of a book (and a multimedia BookPlus), which will include also reflections on her earlier incarnations in Indonesia. The first of these was as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ten years later she was back in the very different guise of epidemiologist, helping the Ministry of Health better understand Indonesia’s HIV epidemic. That work contributed to her first book, The Wisdom of Whores, published in 2008.

The new book, with the provisional title “Taking Tea with the Dead”, will deal less with sex and drugs, and more with the other enchanting and sometimes maddening foibles of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. We hope it will give you a taste of this beautiful, chaotic and unfathomable land.

Sent from the back of a cab in a Jakarta traffic jam


Spiritual Museum 3.0: Stroke of genius or marketing spin?

Herman Kartajaya has managed to position himself as a marketing guru to Indonesia and an international audience, although Unspun, probably because of low intellectual capacity has never really understood what he’s on about. Now, swimming into the blue ocean of a 3.0 world while the rest of us are stuck in 2.0 Hermawan aims to curate corporeal marketing.

Stroke of marketing genius or chutzpah-meets-snake-oil-salesmanship?


Spiritual Museum 3.0 Now Present in Ubud

Ubud is really a beautiful destination for tourists. Moreover, the destination showing intense nuance of Balinese culture has now been enriched with a museum of Spiritual Marketing 3.0.

“Existence of this museum will certainly make Ubud more interesting and unique. Likewise, Ubud will also be better known due to the Museum of Marketing 3.0 initiated by Hermawan Kartajaya, a top marketing expert of this country,” said senior figure of Ubud Royal Palace doubling as the Regent of Gianyar Cok Oka Ardhana Sukawati on the sidelines of the inauguration of the museum on Friday (May 27).

Cok Ace as he familiarly greeted said the construction of the museum was solely intended to strengthen Ubud as a tourist destination. The book entitled Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to Human Spirit written by Philip Kotler, Hermawan Kartajaya and Iwan Setiawan was recently published by John Wiley & Sons in May 2010. The book described how the marketing moved beyond the mind and hearts of consumers and got into the human soul.

Hermawan accompanied by senior figure of Ubud Royal Palace, stated that marketing often had a bad connotation in relation to product promotion activities having the ultimate goal to generate profits. To improve the image, the book has contained comprehensive description on spiritual marketing and sympathetic business. The iconic title ‘3.0’ indicated that marketing activities should move beyond the era of rational (1.0) and emotional (2.0) into the era of spiritual marketing (3.0).

Read more at Bali Travel News

Impressions of Sister Jie Land

Guillin, China, has been a tourist hub for thousands of years. Over the Christmas break Unspun and family thought they’d try to go to somewhere cold but when we got there it was freezing at a daily average temperature of ) to 3 degrees C.

The cold notwithstanding Guilin is a fun tourist destination. Things are clean. Downtown Guilin is modern with a busy pedestrian mall that sell lots of stuff, especially outdoor clothing and gear. The food is also tasty and cheap begining with 3 Yuan (about Rp5,000) for Guilin’s national dish of noodles, some meat and vegetables. The Guilin Mifun is a very simple dish and the noodles look more like spaghetti and surprisingly very delish, especially when you come in from the cold.

There’s also lots of things to do in and around Guilin and the tourist town of  Yangshuo, four hours away by slow river cruise.

Our tour guide told us that Guilin and Yangshuo receive 15 million tourists per year. In spite of that, perhaps it was in the low season, things were not over the top commercial, you got hassled by vendors but not too much and the infrastructure makes you wish Bali would learn from them and get its act together.

In and around Guilin are several attractions. We went to Reed Flute Cave, about 20 minutes drive from the town center. It’ a huge cave complex with all sorts of limestone formation that the overworked Chinese imagination throughout the ages have identified as shapes resembling everything from lions to stage curtains and Kuan Yin. Some of the lighting was quite well done and in the main chamber we came across this:

Staglagtites reflected in a pool inside Reed Flute Cave

The highlight of the trip was a four and a half hour cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo along the river Li. There we were supposed to find one of China’s most picturesque scenery of haunting and limestone outcrops shrouded in mists, the stuff of  Chinese poems, usually inspired by bouts of drinking the local brew. The scenery is so beautiful that there is a part about 2 hours into the journey where the scenery is immortalized in the 20 Yuan note.

The scenery doesn’t disappoint and here are a few photos to share with you:

Here’s another photo:

At Yangshuo, you walk some distance to the town center, which is actually the old town restored. There are two things at least that you should do in Yangshuo. The first is taste the local dish, Beer Fish. It was good but nothing to write home about. The other is to go to see the Zhang Yimou (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) stage production of The Impressions of Sister Jie. I’m not sure if stage is an appropriate word but what do you call a spectacle whose “stage” is the river, shoe backdrop are the limestone outcrops hundreds of meters away, and a cast of hundreds of villagers including their boats, cormorants and oxen?

It was apparently the most spectacular production in China but has now been bumped to the third place after the Olympics and, if I’m not mistaken, the Asian Games opening ceremonies. Still it was something and we were lucky because it was the second last day before it closes down for winter.

It was drizzling during the show, which was in the open air, so they supplied the thousands of spectators with rain ponchos. It was bitterly cold and the plot escapes my plebeian mind but the  show was a true spectacle of lights, a cast of hundreds, beautiful costumes and imaginative choreography.

Here are other impressions of Guilin:

A journey back in time to Taiping

Time distorts, and its greatest distortion, more than 30 years after I left Taiping where I spent my childhood and teenage years,  was in the dimensions of the house I grew up in.

It had seemed so large when I was a boy. The rooms and garden that I had wandered through in the spacious idleness of youth now looks small, even toyish. Back then, time and space seemed to stretch on forever. Now, not only the space seems constricted but the passing time also seemes compressed.

Nonetheless it was a pleasure to see that the old house was still standing stolid against time. The house, on Cator Avenue, which was subsequently renamed Jalan Panglima, had been built by the British. My father was particularly proud of that fact, partly because it was British built and, I suspect, partly because he could purchase something that had been built by the Brits. It was in the early 1960s when he bought the house, and there was that strong residue of colonial admiration/antipathy in most things.

Time had also shrunk the road leading to my house, making it look narrow. My neighbors houses had also taken on different appearances since I last saw them. Some had become decrepit, others abandoned, others passed on to children or sold off to strangers. Some looked like they have had a new lease of life breathed into them through renovations, others looked sad and forlorn, marking time before inevitable decay.

Apart from that, however, the other aspects about Taiping seemed pretty much intact, with very few changes in the past three decades. The significant change is that they now have a Tesco and  a Giant supermarket . And trafffic lights. Otherwise Burmese Pool remains much as it was, bouldered with rushing water and refreshing with a smell that is a mix of water vapor and decay of the forest.

Something’s that changed, however, is Coronation Pool, at the foothill of Maxwell’s Hill. They’ve tarted up the place and it nowhas modern pools. I tried to get in to get a look but the ticket collector would not let me in unless I paid. He did give me a spiel on how it was the only pool in Malaysia with pure water from the hills that is devoid of chlorine that makes your hair difficult to manage, your eyes sore and your skin itchy. So they now have a sales pitch as well.

The spiffed up Coronation Pool. Cold green water from the hills

One institution that’s remained is Ah Lan Che’s chicken noodles. It’s now in a shoplot with the official name of Restoran Kakak on Jalan Pasar but the food and many of the waiters there still remain the same, even after four decades. It’s still one of the most popular breakfast hangouts in Taiping, harkening back to a time that is Pre-Starbucks.

The government offices, dating back to colonial times are still there. And the Lake Gardens remain pristine in its beauty (see previous post).

From Colonial times
One of the loveliest sights in Malaysia, the Taiping Lake Gardens
Even the prison reeks of history, having been built in 1879

The railway station, however, has come in for huge changes. Malaysia is in the throes of building a dual track high speed railway from north to south. Apparently the initial plan was to do away with the over a century-old railway station (that constitutes one end of the first railway line in Malaya). But after there were some protests they decided to build the new railway lines some distance behind the railway station, leaving the building intact.

This was one end of Malaya's first railway line

The Taiping market remains very much as it was when I was a boy. The century-old steel and wood building still stands, looking a bit decrepit but still serviceable. It is roomy, airy and seen much history.


One feature that still survives and is quite remarkable considering the price of things these days are the pork-seller’s stalls. Made of concrete, these stalls are unique in that they have huge solid marble slabs for tops. My sister and I could not help wonder what the marble slabs alone would cost these days.

Most expensive pork stall table tops?


My old secondary school, St George’s, has seen few changes but one major change is that it’s now all locked up in the weekends, with the only access through the main gate with a sentry. Its a testament of times and innocence lost. Once you could stroll into the school compound at will through three or four unguarded gates. Go there to meet friends, play basketball or just to wander through its storied halls. But no more. I guess they have theft, drug addicts, child predators and other ills of modern life to deal with these days.

St George's institution. You used to be able to walk in there anytime and there's be a familiar face, an old teacher

One institution nearby is Ansari’s, home to very delish cendol, pasembor (rujak to KL-ites) and  the best gandum. The cendol and pasembor are still there but unfortunately they’ve stopped serving the gandum.

Cendol and pasembor still there. Unfortunatley no more gandum.

One thing that seems to have changed, and this seems to be a common theme throughout Malaysia, is in the sense of security. Speaking to friends who still live there, you get the impression that everyone’s a little afraid for the own safety. We were treated to lots of stories of Indian gangs extorting and robbing residents. It seems that some Malaysians of Indian origin, a group has had a rough time economically in Malaysia, have  resorted to gangsterism and crime to make a living. The Indians are now apparently leading Triads and extortion rackets.

In spite of the changes, however, Taiping still remains quintessentially the small town I grew up in. Two days is too short a time to visit the place and Unspun plans to bring the wife and the Unspunlet there for a longer stay the next time. There is still the Zoo, the temple with the dometicated wild boars, Austin pool, Maxwells Hill and other favorite haunts to rediscover.

Oh yeah, there was also the oddly named store. Imagine sleeping on Simony or in the Mlay-ised spelling Simoni.

Sleep on this

Lyrical Beauty in Great Peace

Finally found some time over the Idul Adha holidays to do something that Unspun’s wanted to for a long time – revisit the town that  I grew up in: Taiping, a small town about three hours drive north from Kuala Lumpur. (Taiping comes from the Chinese characters for Great and Peace. The town was given the name after Hokkien and Cantonese triads killed each other silly because of disputes over tin mining).

I’ll post more photos and impressions of Taiping in a later posting but for now what I’d like to share is the sheer lyrical beauty of a special corner of Taiping, The Lake Gardens.

The history of it being a former tin mine that was converted into a botanical garden in 1880 (132 years ago!) is well documented and here’s an extract from Wikipedia:

The Taiping Lake Gardens was originally a mining site before it was established as gardens to the public in 1880. The idea of establishing a public garden was much devoted to Colonel Robert Sandilands Frowd Walker. The garden was later developed precisely by Charles Compton Reade (1884 – 1933), who was also responsible for planning the Kuala Lumpur garden town. The abandoned tin mine was generously donated by the prominent Chinese Capitalist of Perak and also former Perak State Council member, Mr. Chung Thye Phin (son of Mr. Chung Keng Quee) as the recreation park for the public use. In 1884, the gardens were furnished with grasses, flowers and trees, and part of the gardens was fenced, to avoid the bulls enter the gardens. This 64 hectares land was the first public gardens in Malaya and proudly declared as the most beautiful and well maintained gardens during the heyday and today

To Unspun the Lake Gardens is a mixture of divine beauty and childhood memories – of cross country runs there, dates and assignations, meditation under one of the shady trees and long strolls through its wonderful gardens. A beauty beyond telling lies in the placidity of the lakes at sunrise, the morning dew on the grass and trees and the sun rising just above the hills that surround Taiping.

Here are some photos (taken with my Ricoh GRIII because Datascript couldn’t repair my Cannon lens properly so I could not bring my 5D with me. Not that much control but the GRIII is a superb camera nonetheless and you could still  do a lot with it even though its just a full-featured point and click).

KL a damn good place to recuperate

Unspun, it would seem, has spent too many years out of Malaysia that he’s forgotten some of the better aspects of this country.

In normal times Unspun would zip in and out of the country for a short visit to the folks but this time around medical circumstances forced him and family to spend more than a month in KL. Unspun was recuperating and part of the recuperation called for Unspun to walk as much as possible to help clear his lungs of gooey stuff after a major operation.

It so happens that Unspun’s mother’s house, where Unspun runs to in times of trouble and distress is located in TTDI, That’s Taman Tun Dr Ismail, on the edge of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and bordering Petaling Jaya. What’s great about the location is that its just a stone’s throw from Taman Rekreasi Lembah Kiara a park that’s well laid out for walks.

It has two tracks, a lower one around a lake (where you can feed fish and turtles) fed by clear flowing streams where children go to catch little fish in the weekends.

In the center of the park are also common areas where senior citizens go for mass Tai Chi and other forms of exercise like traditional Chinese swordplay.

It also has a larger loop that cuts into the hill where you can work up a bit of a sweat. Both tracks are clean and well-maintained  (things that are seemingly impossible in Jakarta) and well used by a multitude of people ranging from pensioners to young children and the convalescent. This is one aspect of things that the Malaysian and the city government has done very well and they deserve praise for it.

Unspun’s been doing two to three loops of the park almost every morning and every time Unspun’s there he cannot help wondering why Jakarta cannot have something like this, or if it does the vendors and thousands of gawkers would spoil everything.

When is batik really batik?

In Bali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation? the publication takes Garuda Boss Emirsyah Satar for resorting to using ersatz batik instead of the original ones for the uniforms of its staff.

Unspun doesn’t quite get what the fuss is about, as the site’s main objection seems to be that Garuda “instead of using original hand-made batik to costume their crew, the new uniforms would be made from printed batik-like materials churned out in a modeBali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation?rn textile factory.”

Is batik genuine only when it is hand-made rather than printed. Would batik tulis be more batik than batik cetak? Where did all the cotton and ilk that is used for what is considered some of the premium traditional batik have come from?

Is Bali News’s editorial, part of Bali Discovery Tours’ website, championing Indonesian tradition or promoting neo-Luddism? You decide.

…this record of success and enormity of Garuda Indonesia mission also impose on Emirsyah special responsibilities as the man-in-charge of the state-owned carrier carrying the Indonesia flag to the far corners of the world. In this regard, it appears that someone at the airline dropped the ball with the recent launch of new uniforms for Garuda’s cabin crew. [See: Sky-High Fashions]

The Garuda Experience: What Were They Thinking?

In its commitment to improve in-flight service, Garuda made a significant misstep in the execution of new uniforms for its 1,600 flight crew. As reported by balidiscovery.com, the airline hired a team of seasoned professionals to conceptualize and design stewardesses uniforms based on Indonesia’s fabled sarong kebaya. Central to the “new look” are batik-styled sarongs incorporating an eye-catching traditional lereng motif.

So far, so good. Plaudits all round for Garuda’s decision to both upgrade passenger service and create uniforms highlighting batik – the cherished textile tradition that is both an art form and a massive handicraft industry in Central Java and other parts of the Republic.

However, citing expediency as an excuse, national press reports say that instead of using original hand-made batik to costume their crew, the new uniforms would be made from printed batik-like materials churned out in a modern textile factory.

Such a loose commitment to a national handicraft treasure is unfathomable, particularly by our National Carrier serving the same Country that took umbrage and even began to rattle its sabres when it was recently perceived that neighboring Malaysia was using traditional Balinese dances to promote their tourism product. Sadly, an equally ferocious commitment to culture was sorely lacking when someone at Garuda signed the order book for the new Garuda uniforms.

via Bali News: Has Garuda Lost the Thread on Heritage Conservation?.