Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sandakan and random musings

Sandakan was once the capital of Sabah, but it was destroyed during World War II and never recovered. The downtown is worn down, and the harbor is only beautiful from above,

Sandakan Harbor from the pool at the Sheraton Four Points

We look like a couple in this picture, which makes me vaguely uncomfortable.

but the floating houses are fascinating

and the city has its charms.

As everywhere else, people hang their laundry outside to dry

The city also hosts monuments to the past--and to those who suffered there, such as thousands of Australian prisoners of war, few of whom survived.

There's also the house of Agnes Keith, who was placed under house arrest during the war and later wrote about her experience.

 There's at least one cute temple.

that we saw along our walking tour, for which the city helpfully laid down footsteps.

We had one of our best meals in Sandakan, without really trying. Happy Cow pretty much broke down in Borneo; none of the places in Kuching were to be found, and we'd gone on a wild-goose chase there. In Sandakan, we'd planned on just getting snacks at the grocery store, but we stumbled upon a really good, inexpensive restaurant right outside our hotel. It was one of the best meals we'd had throughout the trip.
Enjoying watermelon juice as we wait for our meals
One thing that blew my mind throughout the trip was how easy it was to not only get by in English--like, Scandinavia-easy--but how English was the lingua franca. Generic tours were in English, because it was the language universally spoken by the main ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese, and Indian--in Singapore, overwhelmingly Tamil Nadu and in KL, brought in decades ago to build the railroads). Can you imagine being a tourist in your own country, and the default language is someone else's?

The other thing that surprised us was the reach of X-mas, which was everywhere. The malls and hotel lobbies looked like X-Mas threw up on them.

A lobby of some sort in Kota Kinabalu

Maybe by the elevator in our hotel in Sandakan?

hotel lobby in Kuching

cat museum in Kuching
The mall in Kota Kinabalu (where we had dinner because dinner was hard to find elsewhere)

I think Christians are the majority in Sarawak, though not in Sabah. The cab driver who took us to our not-quite airport hotel in KL said that there was an influx of Christians to KL in the last decade, but didn't understand when I asked him to elaborate. He, himself was from Indonesia; our other cab drivers just about everywhere were from India. We did take public transit, a lot--we loved the metro in Singapore and KL, which both put DC to shame in terms of reliability, frequency, usability, and cleanliness. But once in a while we had to get in a cab.

I thought about how Malaysia, which is not without its ethno-religious tensions, but what country is, is on the opposite spectrum of France and even the United States in terms of managing religious diversity. France manages it by trying to prohibit any public display of faith; the United States is closer to encouraging any display of faith, though theoretically none at the expense of any other. That's the legal status quo, but you have the debates over Ten Commandment monuments and "merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays," among other things. In Malaysia, which mandates ethnic Malays to be Muslim, Christmas displays didn't appear to be a threat to anyone. And on the subway in KL, you'd see stylishly head-scarved women alongside Indian women in saris or shalwar-kameezes alongside other women who dressed for work the way I would. And there was no escape from Xmas music; it was everywhere. As a Jewish child, I always found the ubiquity of Xmas othering, and I still find 'happy holidays' more inclusive. But I appreciated the way the display of one faith--or at least of a very commercial holiday associated with one faith--was just there in a country where that faith was in the minority.

One cab driver in KL was less ecumenically inclined. He asked us where we were from--people often did and were surprised to hear the answer, as there are more Europeans and Australians in the area (especially Borneo). He then asked what we thought of our president, and when we told him, he said all the other Americans had said the same. He asked if there was even one policy that we could get behind, but we couldn't come up with one. At which point he said he did agree with one--it was the right thing to do, or else the U.S. could "end up with Germany's problems." Um, okay. Here was this dude, living in a clean, functioning country, complaining about the ethnic majority in said country. I refrained from pointing out that this place he lived, where the streets weren't full of literal shit; where basic public services like sewage were available to all, rather than just those who could pay; and where sexual assault wasn't seemingly a competitive sport; seemed livable enough to him, in spite of its ethno-religious makeup, that he wasn't in a hurry to get back to his ancestral homeland.

But I digress. Christmas was all over Sandakan, but we were only there briefly, before heading out to more remote and wilder places.

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