So, I've been sitting on that Brunei post for months. Things that have transpired in the mean time:
1. The Foreign Service Journal, the monthly publication of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA, the State Department union), listed my blog along with a factually inaccurate description. But I'll take what I can get, even if they think I'm in my mid twenties (I'm rocketing towards 30: oh god), and think that I update frequently (I think "sporadic" would be a better description). Regardless, I'm all about publicity, so I was pretty excited by my mention in the Journal, which allowed me to wander the halls of the embassy pointing at myself and quoting AFSA's line that I have a "friendly and open demeanor." This is probably also factually inaccurate, but when it comes to wandering the halls quoting AFSA to the annoyance of my coworkers, any port in a storm.
2. Things have gotten busy at work. This is perhaps no surprise to anyone who's taken note of where I live and what's transpiring in this world. I'll say no more.
3. A considerable amount of my time is being taken up by an outside foreign language project of my own devising that I've been working on for quite some time. Few things excite me like grammar so I'm enjoying the heck out of myself with this project of mine -- but things like verb tenses don't exactly make for good blogging.
4. We're once again approaching the Great Wall Marathon, and per last year's vow I'm now training for the full marathon. This takes up every drop of my spare time and leave me with absolutely nothing to talk about, much less blog about. "What'd you do this weekend?" "I ran." That's it.
5. Other people who are running the Great Wall Marathon: 1. Multiple coworkers. 2. My mother. Let me repeat that, for emphasis: my mother. She's running the half, which means I have no choice but to run the full, because if I were to run the half and she (60, retired) were to outpace me (mid twenties, per AFSA), it would be a psychological blow on a scale heretofore unseen.
6. That's all I've got. If you aren't listening compulsively to the song Hang On, Little Tomato! by Pink Martini (of Sympathique fame), then you're wasting your time.
Posted by Dakota on 11:49 PM link |
I caught a ride from Brunei International Airport to the harbor with the pilot who flew me in from Manila. "Brunei," he told me in his broad Australian accent, "is nice and quiet -- very peaceful." From the harbor in to town, my Bruneian cabbie bragged: "Brunei is so quiet -- we have no nightlife here!" I asked the Chinese-Bruneian owner of my hotel if he was enjoying life in sleepy Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei. "Of course," he told me, "it's so peaceful here."
I started to sense a pattern.
I didn't come to Brunei for the nightlife. I came to see what happens when you have too much money and not enough people to spend it on, too much spare time and not nearly enough to do. There are well under half a million Bruneians living on a slice of Borneo about the size of Delaware; courtesy of their offshore oil deposits, they enjoy the second highest GDP in Asia (trailing behind industrious Singapore) without having to lift a finger: they call it the Shellfare State, with free education through the university level, free medical care, and subsidies for rice and housing.
Here's what I learned about Brunei: it's quiet and peaceful. Which is to say that the entire country feels like the inside of a library on a Friday night: not many people, not much noise, and not a whole lot of action.
If you have too much money and are looking for a way to increase hilarity in your city, you should follow the Brunei model and substitute polished marble for concrete in your sidewalks. It drizzled the entire time I was in Brunei, which I sincerely think increased the gravitation pull of the sidewalk. To put it kindly: I failed to stick the landing, repeatedly.
Other noteworthy encounters: On the way to the Sultan's house (palace, if you will), I passed the Bandar Seri Begawan central fire department, and since I'm a sucker for firefighters I ducked in to figure out what they're doing. They had a volleyball net stretched across the backyard and were playing three-on-three Sepak Takraw, a game I had never seen before and which is awesome beyond any speaking of it. It's a volleyball-esque game, with the familiar bump-set-spike intra-team passing, only the ball is made of rattan -- sort of an oversized, heavier-than-average whiffle ball -- and (since volleyball was too easy, apparently), you're not allowed to use your hands or arms.
It's like an uber-competitive hackeysack competition, soccer meets volleyball meets acrobatics. The guys who were playing were the sort of true athletes the world has come to expect in firefighters, and since the game involves a lot of throwing one's legs improbably far above one's head, it makes for a hell of a spectator sport. The spectators at the Brunei Central Fire Department explained the rules in patiently slow Malay (Bruneians -- Malays in general, actually -- are champions at repeating, rephrasing and, when push comes to shove, pantomiming), and once I had everything more or less hammered down, they waved me toward the court to give it a shot. "We'll go easy," they told me.
Center of the court: they served the ball as slowly and directly at me as possible. I chest-bumped it like I've seen hackey sack players do to slow the ball down, and let it fall gracefully towards my feet. I then followed that up with a sort of wounded game-bird flailing of my legs that ultimately resulted in zero contact -- none -- with the ball. The firefighters were about as impressed as you'd expect.
A mosque in the center of town: it seems that when Allah makes you the richest monarch in the world (Forbes estimates that at present the Sultan is worth 22 bil; about twenty years ago when his bank account was at peak value, he ranked as the 28th richest person ever to exist on planet earth), you apparently give back to Allah. So there's a mosque right downtown -- the Omar Ali Saifuddin, which was being renovated while I was there, but features gold-capped domes and sits on a man-made lagoon. And slightly further from the center is a second mosque, equally gold minareted with perfect Islamic architecture, and covered in Italian marble and chandeliers made from Austrian crystal.
Outskirts of town: about a decade ago, the Sultan decided to give himself a birthday present, and constructed a massive amusement park just outside of BSB (which is how hipsters abbreviate the capital city), and since Brunei is rich, he made the amusement park free for all. But the park has started charging admission a few years ago and hasn't bothered to repair on of the rides, and on the day I visited it was closed. Wandering the empty streets of a closed down amusement park in the middle of nowhere has a distinctly scooby-doo feeling to it, and I enjoyed it, but there wasn't a whole lot to see.
The amusement park is next to the Royal Brunei Polo Fields -- dozens of enormous fields, perfectly manicured and ringed by enormous baseball-stadium style lights, for evening games -- and I dropped by to have a gander at a few million dollars worth of polo ponies. The polo stables in Brunei (which by count seemed to house three to four hundred horses) are approximately as nice as my apartment in Beijing, with an it seems that the horse-to-groom ratio is obscenely high. But they were all friendly, albeit a bit curious why I was wandering around the stables. But they accepted my explanation -- mau melihat saja, I'm just taking a look -- at face value and even went so far as to let me pet some of the horses. (Do horses even like that? I have no idea).
Was there anything else? There was. A Dutch Catholic missionary whom I met in Palau had told me that I should consider taking the speedboat ride through the jungle to another section of Brunei -- "it's very James Bond," he told me. But I shared my speedboat with three housewives and a restaurant's worth of Chinese broccoli, which killed the 007 feeling somewhat, and courtesy of Chinese New Year there wasn't a single shop open on the other side of Brunei. But I hiked in my improbably sandals through the mud a bit until I hit impenetrable rainforest, and that made it worth my time.
So Brunei: was it worth the effort and expense and time to get there? Absolutely. That said, on the grand Asia checklist of countries, it was prioritized somewhere near the bottom, and that was assuredly appropriate.
Posted by Dakota on 10:36 PM link |