High on the walls above our heads, Chairman Mao (Tse Tung) glares dictatorially across the room at Uncle Ho (Chi Minh), who returns with his own steady, benevolent gaze from within his dilapidated picture frame. This must be the China/Vietnam border post.
We’re moving south. Continental Asia tapers out in its southeast corner, firstly as the peninsular we’re just about to step foot on from China, and then spreading still further through Thailand and Malaysia, narrowing again into Singapore and then into a string of steamy Indonesian islands, like a dot-to-dot puzzle marking our intended overland route to Australia.
Passports are stamped and Chairman Mao waves us off with the great China to our backs. It’s not the real Mao though, it’s just his portrait. We know because we saw the real Mao lying embalmed in a glass case in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Interesting affinity of communist countries, this pickling business. Just ask Lenin, or any of the Kims of North Korea. Depending on the current political situation, you may need to hire a psychic medium to do this.
Whilst Mao signifies China’s five-millennia-long obsession with eternity, as do countless incredible and ancient buildings and monuments that are maintained perfectly to this day, something changes just southeast of the border. Rather than a Chinese-style reverence of the everlasting, the culture of South East Asia seems to embrace an altogether different attitude.
Sure, Uncle Ho is also pickled and viewable in his mausoleum in Hanoi (we saw him too, he’s sent to Moscow periodically for touch ups) but we found a surprising beauty in Vietnam, not in the permanence of it, but in its perfect decay.
There was an incredible aesthetic in the old colonial buildings as they crumbled. Bright coloured paints textured with age on facades originally designed for grandeur, now gaining exotic character with mould and ferns and cracks. Still further south, in Thailand, we see more unfixed, unrepaired decay, and Penang Island in Malaysia adds yet another beautifully dilapidated old town to our viewfinders. And in Indonesia, the home made quick fix solution to architecture is really pronounced.
Looking around though it’s not just the buildings, roads and public services that could do with a good investment in long-lasting facilities. The cultural attitude is also one of go-getters. How much ‘service charge’ can I squeeze out of you today if I don’t care if you come back tomorrow. Why bother to employ another cook and expand the business, if that means we run out of food and I have to go to the market? What’s the point in fortifying the shop if the roof is just going to cave in again the next time it rains? Besides I like a skylight.
Nowhere was the “F*ck it, it could all be gone tomorrow” attitude more pronounced than East Timor. The tourism industry has taken years to get off the ground as very few people see the point in building a road for busses if a dirt track for their scooter is fine for them. And taxis aren’t reliable cause – hey, what kind of world can’t a man have an afternoon smoke with his mates and fall off the company grid for 5 hours?
In an environment where there is little social security, little legal support, the police fine you periodically for made up offences and the fridge keeps on breaking down (if you even own one) it’s hardly surprising that people generally live for the moment. Especially if you’re very own country has only recently started to exist after years of invasions, massacres and suppression by the Indonesian army.
An environment where every time you try and build something up, a group of people or some corrupt authority will try taking it over or pulling it down. Unless of course you’re connected, which more likely than not means you’re part of the corrupt authority or have the pleasure of dealing with them closely on a regular basis.
Blaming people’s behaviour on their cultural setup is easy. “That taxi driver ripped me off cause he’s too culturally unsophisticated to appreciate me as a customer”, well, not quite. If we look at our own countries and go back a relatively short amount of time in history where we had the same lack of social security, a similar living-by-the-day attitude prevailed.
Add to that a climate in which long periods of drought cause the strongest walls to crack and monsoon rain can destroy whole towns. Mix in some gruesome tropical diseases you can catch from pretty much anything and TADAAA, you get a carpe diem attitude. If you think however that this outlook on life equates into lack of cultural sophistication, you’re in for a surprise.
Humans are amazing things. Capable of both the most inspiring and horrifying deeds, humans have the unique ability of imagination, and creating a reality from this imagination make up the awe inspiring wonders that we can experience daily around the world, if you know what to look for.
What we have seen time and time again on Leg 4 of our epic journey was that a lack of focus on long term goals does not equate to brains running idle. When you have very few external factors you can rely upon, friends and family become vital. Going out of your way for others becomes important, visiting others just for the sake of affirming a friendship is important. And with this, a strong, sophisticated and above all highly active social structure is developed by everyone chipping in emotionally as well as in practice by giving others their time.
After the social media bustle of Europe, the wide-open spaces of Russia, the political differences of the countries bordering the northern Asian ocean, it was the kindness of strangers that defined Leg 4 in South East Asia. To previous strangers: Tuan & Shane in Vietnam, to Pim in Bangkok, to Eddie, Dexter, Auntie & Uncle in Penang, to the Bali crew and to our Timorese guardian angel Sandra, thank you for going out of your way above and beyond and giving us your time. We have new friends, and ones who a little monsoon or political turmoil can’t touch.