All posts by Lone Grey Squirrel

I am a scientist who enjoy the arts; a socialist who wishes to be rich; a food enthusiast who wishes to be skinny and a human who loves squirrels. Just a nutter trying to make sense of the world.

Bethlehem – Worst View


With Christmas just round the corner and I reflect on Christ’s birth, I often think of the words of my favorite carol,

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

And so, I was blessed to have just returned from a visit to the Holy Land and I got to go to Bethlehem.  And just in time too, as with President Trump’s announcement of the USA recognising Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things there are likely to become a whole lot more complicated and unsafe.

I have to say that Bethlehem was not at all what I expected.  As per the carol above, I would always imagine Bethlehem as a quiet, sleepy little village.  The reality is that Bethlehem is a noisy, bustling, dusty town.  The streets are filled with traffic and there is a busy bus terminal a short distance from the Church of the Nativity (the supposed birthplace of Christ).  I don’t think these days there is any “how still we see thee lie” or “Silent Night” in Bethlehem.

The other thing that I witnessed in my short visit was the animosity and fear.  Bethlehem is under Palestinian Authority and Israel has built a very, very tall wall separating it from Jerusalem and Jewish settlements (part of a 708 km long barrier which the Israelis call a security barrier, the Palestinians call an apartheid wall and the International Court of Justice called illegal). In Bethlehem, the wall is up to 8 m high.

As a result of the barrier, Palestinians cannot easily travel around to Israeli controlled areas without permits and having to undergo security searches at the few gates in the barrier.  I know of one former colleague whose 5 minute walk to work was transformed to a one hour commute due to the barrier.  Similarly, Israelis cannot venture into Palestinian controlled areas with out due cause and permits and if they do, personal safety is always a worry.  These difficulties have also reduced tourism, business and jobs in Palestinian areas.

I also witnessed the tension within the community.  On the streets and in the shops, suspicion and wariness of each other was occasionally evident between the different communities.  I also saw some Islamic extremist hate literature plastered on some walls and heard the duel between the Muslim call for azan and the pealing of church bells.

There is no peace and there is no quiet on the streets of Bethlehem today.  What would Jesus think?

I think, Jesus would not be surprised.  Man will be selfish, jealous, covetous and contentious. It is the nature of man, our sinful nature and this is why he came to be born; to give us a better way which is beyond our own means to attain.  This is the hope that he brings. Peace and hope.

And if the world seems, for the most part at the moment, to be ignoring his message, perhaps it is no surprise either.  The King of Heaven was born in Bethlehem but the world mostly ignored him then too.  In fact, as we are told, there was no room for him at the inn.

On that note, I want to end this reflection with sharing about an inn or rather a hotel that I saw in Bethlehem.  It gave me a chuckle amidst all the gloom.  The hotel is right by the wall.  It faces the wall.  The management admits that it has “the worst view of any hotel in the world” and its rooms only get about 28 minutes of direct sunlight a day.  This is Bethlehem’s answer to the famous Waldorf Hotel.  It is the Walled Off Hotel.

I later learned that this hotel was set up by the famous artist, Banksy, to help create job opportunities for the Palestinians, support Palestinian artists (the hotel also functions as an art gallery) and make a statement about the political situation and the wall.

Ladies and gents ……….. I give you the Walled Off Hotel.

 

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Earworm Extreme


The Guinness Book of World Records holds a lot of fascinating information like the fastest car, longest bridge, the deepest free dive or the world’s oldest living human.  But some, in my opinion, are just stupid like the “world’s largest Cantonese Fried Rice” or the “most number of apples cut by a chainsaw in one minute while holding the apples in the mouth” or the “most naked riders on a theme park ride”.  I mean, why?

Well, anyway, I think I would qualify to be in that esteemed publication too under the category of the longest time someone has had an earworm without hearing the song again or knowing what that tune was.  Yes, I think I have a good shot.  My record stands at 43 years.

43 years ago, when I was but a wee lad, I heard a recording of a tune and I liked it.  I played it a few times that day but never heard it again.  Yet for 43 years, you could catch me often just start humming or whistling the tune.  And I never knew what the song was and never encountered it again……..until last year.

Last year, I discovered Spotify, and while looking at suggestions of songs I might like based on my selection of songs, I finally rediscovered the song after 43 years.

I always thought it was some kind of New Age song and for some reason I always had a picture of water from melting snow dripping off the leaves of an evergreen.  The truth is that it is a jazz tune and has nothing to do with melting snow.

The tune is “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.  Any theories, dear amateur detectives, as to why a young kid would remember this one tune for almost his entire life from just listening to it for one day?

Confession and Apology


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Not me! (Photo from Sweaterdoll)

In case you are wondering, that isn’t me.  It is kinda grey but it isn’t a real squirrel.  I KNOW!  Hard to believe, right?

He’s kind of my body double but he’s not very good at it cause he can’t reply to your comments.  Nope, the poor thing is illiterate.  Oh, and maybe he isn’t alive.

Either way, you are not going to get any response from him while I am traveling which is till the end of the month.  If you see new posts on this blog during this time, it’s probably a ghost writer that I hired to press the post button on some pre-written material.  Do not try to communicate with him.  He only responds on Ouija board and you don’t really want him haunting you.

So apologies in advance if you don’t get any responses to your comments. See you in December.

Squirrel’s Secret Spot 17: Mouraria


If you have read my last post, you will understand that I am, at the moment,  a bit allergic to popular tourist spots and their attendant crowds of tourists.  But also, I am sure we all realise that touristy places usually don’t reflect the lives of the locals very much.

So it is with a little trepidation that I share with you this quiet little gem in Lisbon which I am nominating as Squirrel’s Secret Spot or SSS #17 because I wouldn’t want this often overlooked place to be suddenly over run by the plague of locusts tourists.  Then again, I reassure myself with the thought that the number of readers of this blog would make up a very plague or a very lonely horde.  So we are probably safe if you keep the secret to yourselves.

Mouraria is Lisbon’s secret neighborhood.  Lying on the slopes of the hill and under the shadow of the imposing castle, Castelo de São Jorge, it is the sister neighborhood to the more famous and more frequented Alfama area which is on the other side of the castle. Both neighborhoods are probably the oldest parts of Lisbon as they survived relatively intact after the great earthquake of 1755 flattened most of the city.

Mouraria means the Quarter of the Moors because it was first settled by the Moors in the year 714 and even after Lisbon fell to the Portuguese in 1147, they were allowed to live on there.  It has always been a multicultural neighborhood and remains so today.

But why have I included Mouraria in my very select group of Secret Spots?  It is enchanting and it feels like a hidden secret.  One moment you are in a busy wide pedestrian avenue which seems typical of downtown Lisbon but just a few steps down a narrow opening between buildings and you enter a different world.  At once, you leave the bustle of the city  and you enter a peaceful, quiet village-like neighborhood.  It seems like magic.

Mouraria is one of several places that claim to be the place where the music genre, Fado was born (see last post).  The story goes that the very first star of Fado was Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846) and her house is still there in Mouraria.  Fado is all about lamenting one’s fate so it is perhaps no surprise that Maria Severa did not have an easy life.  She was a prostitute living in the slums and occasionally singing her sad songs in local taverns.  One of her lovers was an aristocrat, Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the Count of Vimioso.  It was he that help elevate this song styling and made it popular among high society. Maria Severa died  of tuberculosis at the age of 26 and was buried in a common ditch at a local cemetery.

Rua da Guia is lined with portraits of famous Fado singers who contributed to the growth of Fado’s popularity.  Most are actual photographs but the one of Maria Severa is just a stylised drawing as no picture of her exists.

Mouraria’s narrow streets are also lined with 15 photo portraits of local residents.  These and those of the Fado luminaries were photographs transferred onto concrete or wood by a special process by British born photographer Camilla Watson.  She loved Mouraria and the people there and continues to be a member of the community and she wanted to thank the community for making her feel so welcomed.  These photos help the visitor enter into the community too.

There are lovely surprises around every bend.  It could be a quaint restaurant serving sardines, a charming little plaza, a park bench with a view, a street with neighbors talking on their doorstep or from their balconies, a neighborhood watering hole with no space to swing a cat but a long, long revered history, an old historic home, beautiful wall murals expressing the spirit of gratitude and hope in the community or it could be tables and chairs filling whatever space they could find along a narrow lane and serving the best samosas I have ever tasted, apparently for generations.  Mouraria is so many small gems that make me want to go back and spend a lot more time there.

But for me, my short visit ended by going past a street of brilliant murals, down a steep stairway and then with one step, emerged between two buildings and onto a part of busy central Lisbon that I had walked before without knowing that an enchanted place was hidden just out of view.

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A Series of Unfortunate Incidents


When one goes to Lisbon, there is a lot to see and with Portugal becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, a lot of what you see are other tourists.  Whether you go to the many squares like Praça do Comércio or visit the monuments like the Torre de Belem or the commanding Castelo de São Jorge or you walk the quaint neighborhood  and narrow streets of the Alfama or even when you catch a ride on their iconic trams, you will be in the company of herds of tourists.

Travel Portugal 2017 Lisbon
The busy streets near Praça do Comércio where incident No: 1 occurred just before this picture was taken (Photo by LGS)

An unfortunate fact is that where the herds graze and mingle, the predators also gather.  I refer to the pickpockets.  In all my travels, I have had no problems with pickpockets as I take reasonable care when I am in crowds.  But to my horror, in a flash, someone had unzipped all three compartments of my backpack in broad daylight while I waited to cross a busy road – and I was surrounded by traveling companions at the time.

I had no valuables in the backpack at that time so I suffered no loss but it was still an upsetting experience and it made me on edge for much of the remainder of the trip which was a bit of a damper on having a fun experience.

And it gets, worse.  I was of course on high alert after that incident.  But we were in fact on the way to take part in a three hour walking food tour with a local guide.  I tell you, I was as paranoid as the best conspiracy theorists, suspicious of everyone that came close to me.  Still, on two more occasions my backpack was tampered with.

In one incident, we had to walk in single file along a narrow lane because of some road works.  I became aware of two guys walking along that did not belong to my group.  So I walked quickly, turning frequently to make sure they were keeping their distance.  As soon as there was enough space, I took my backpack off and swung it in front of me.  At that moment, the two men peeled off, loudly talking and appeared to be running to catch a bus.  But when I looked at my backpack, I found that one compartment had been partially opened.

Our walking tour ended at a very popular and crowded square and there was a band playing.  As we made our way, we had to join a stream of humanity moving away from the square.  Again at a dark section of the road, I noticed 2 women walking a little too close to our group.  Then there was a very loud man who was dancing  through the crowd to the sound of the band and waving his tourist map.  Alarm bells rang.  I held my bag tightly and kept turning right and left to try to thwart any attempts.  The minute we entered a brightly lit section, the two women and the man all dispersed in different directions which was strange because almost everyone in the crowd was still headed in the same direction.   The bright light revealed that two of my compartments had been partially opened again.

Three times in three hours.  I am now looking for backpacks that I can secure with locks or something.  More inconvenient for sure but even if nothing is stolen, this sort of thing just plays on your mind.  If I disliked crowded places before, I feel like avoiding them like the plague now.  But the reality is that if you want to travel, there will be crowds ……often.

So, 1) don’t keep anything valuable in your backpack (may have to start thinking of money belts or pouches), 2) get bags that are hard to unzip or open,  3) keep the bag in front of you when in crowded situations and 4) be super vigilant.

Fado


I recently made a trip to Amsterdam and Lisbon via London.  Only after the fact, I came to realise that I had just visited the capitol cities of the three European powers that once had colonies in Malaysia (the Portuguese came in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786).  A fortuitous synchronicity that enabled me to learn more about my country’s own past.

I was particularly excited about visiting Portugal because Portuguese influence on Malay history, culture and language was quite significant.  There is still a Portuguese settlement in Melaka today and many Malaysians have some Portuguese ancestry.  Many words in our national language come from the Portuguese.

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As I was preparing for this trip, I got fascinated by fado; the music genre that is part of Portuguese national psyche.  Originating in the 1820’s in Lisbon, the music could be said to be a type of lament.  For example, it is suggested that, with reference to Portugal’s seafaring, exploration and global trade history, it may have been started by wives lamenting their husbands being away from them for many months and even years and sometimes never returning.

Said to be extremely expressive and profoundly melancholic, the fado songs speak of the hardships of daily life and a kind of resignation to that fate (which is the meaning of the word ‘fado’ – ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.   Someone wrote that fado has the emotional power to wring tears from your eyes.

Wow, I thought to myself, I have just got to go and see a fado performance while I am there.  I am all into laments, melancholy and resignation to one’s fate.  Not kidding.  I have always liked to wallow in self pity and say “woe is me”.

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Dancing Sulking in the Rain

So, I sought advice from a blogger friend, Ana Bica ( a fellow microbiologist and more importantly, a hometown girl of Lisbon).  “Ana”, I asked, “where can I go to listen to some great fado in Lisbon?”

Ana suggested Clube de Fado.  A very good recommendation; one that was also top of many lists on various internet forums on the topic.  Now, in most fado establishments, the  package includes both the fado performance and a fairly pricey meal.  The consensus also seems to be that while the music is excellent, the food is pretty mediocre at these places.

Unfortunately, my traveling companions were definitely foodies first above all things and were somewhat skeptical of spending 3 hours listening to melancholic music and having their emotions ripped apart.  They opted for fine dining instead……the Philistines!

So I was not able to actually go to a live performance (drats) but I did listen to some fado music and purchased a couple of CDs.  One CD was in the more traditional style of the 1960’s and I must say, as much as I like the music,  I too doubt if I could have listened to 3 hours of suffering.  The second CD is by Ana Moura and represents a more contemporary style of fado; why the music was even occasionally upbeat even if the words were still melancholic!

Anyway, I have been listening to Ana Moura more or less continuously since then and wanted to share some of this music here with you.  For you musically inclined readers, fado is usually done with a female singer (the fadista) accompanied by a Portuguese 12 string guitar(which is supposed to be very hard to play), guitar, viola and bass.

This song is ‘Amor Afoito’ or “Reckless Love’ which seems to be about a woman’s love for a man even when he has not proven he is deserving of her love.

National Costume ……..Reboot


Dear gentle readers, Malaysia is making the news again.  This time it is over our choice for national costume,

You see, the annual meat market …….. er…. I mean, the Miss Universe Pageant is rolling round again and one section of the pageant requires the young ladies who are proudly representing their countries to dress up in their national costume.

Now Malaysia is blessed because we are a multiracial country with a rich heritage and inspiration for a national costume could come easily from any one of our many races and tribes.  So, once upon a time, you might expect something like the following;

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L to R:- Iban, Indian, Malay, Chinese, Kadazan

But apparently, in this the 66th year of the Pageant, traditional national costumes seem to have become a bit stale.  After all, how many variations of the same theme can one do?  There is always the pressure of grabbing attention by doing something new and fresh.

After all, Miss Universe Thailand won best national costume in 2015, not dressed in charming traditional garb but dressed like Bangkok’s ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk.

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So, inspired by Miss Thailand’s success, our very own Miss Malaysia (Samantha Katie James)  decided to get dressed up as Malaysia’s favorite breakfast called Nasi Lemak.

I kid you not.  The key ingredients of this tasty treat are steamed rice in coconut cream, fried anchovies and peanuts, egg, cucumber slices and spicy chilli sambal.  This delicious combination is usually served on banana leaf.  It looks like this…….

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Mmm…..mmmm…….delicious.

And here is the nasi lemak inspired dress……..

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Now isn’t that yummy…… I mean, pretty.  Oh, I don’t know, man, I’m drooling…… I mean, feeling hungry.

And controversy doesn’t end there.  Some netizens are also crying foul.  It seems Singaporeans and Indonesians feel that nasi lemak is theirs and not Malaysia’s.  Well, the dress is certainly getting attention!

The Lone Grey Squirrel only wants to know if the dress smells delicious too.