Fretwell's Travel Journal: Chapter 5 -- Kuala Lumpur to Sri Lanka.

March 29th -- We arrived in Port Klang near Kuala Lumpur this morning. After a quick breakfast we headed for our tour bus. It took an hour to get into Kuala Lumpur. During this time our guide, "Doris," a young Chinese Malaysian talked to us about Malaysia.

It is a prosperous country, with a standard of living about four-fold better than Indonesia's on average. The average annual wage is a little over $12,000 US dollars. A large, three-bedroom two floor home in the suburbs costs about $120,000,but much more in major cities. Unlike Indonesia, we saw no begging here. There are far fewer motorcycles and motorscooters, and many more automobiles. Malaysia manufactures three different brands of cars, most of them used in Malaysia. I have never seen any of their cars elsewhere. They look like pretty good cars, but who really knows.

Malaysia was a British Colony, and was developed for oil (its major source of wealth), agriculture (palm oil is a major export) tin, rubber, manufacturing, and tourism. After independence from Great Britain in August, 1957, Malaysia has had relatively good governance as these countries go. It is a monarchical democracy. They have a King, but he rotates out of power every 5 or 6 years. The country has not faced war or civil unrest since its independence, and their prosperity is apparent. It is primarily a Muslim country, but has about 25 percent Buddhists and 8 percent Hindus. Like Indonesia, the Muslims of Malaysia are more liberal in their dress than occurs in the Mideast.

The first 13 years of education are free to everyone. They have socialized health care plus optional private insurance and private care. A doctor visit costs about $0.35, and having a baby costs about $33.00. Our guide said that she had had several stomach problems and went to her public health doctor, paid her $0.35 for the visit, and he prescribed a full scan of her stomach and intestines. It would have been free, but her appointment was set for 60 days out, and she didn't want to wait that long, so she went to a private lab, and got it done earlier. She said she carries insurance so she can do this.

Apparently Malaysia is, like Singapore and Indonesia, not quite so tied to civil rights as we are in America. Our guide said that the police can arrest and detain without giving you any reason. She said "we're working on this."

Our guide says Malaysia has four seasons: summer, summer, summer, and summer. It varies from wet to wetter, and from hot to hotter. She called today a clear day, and I would have described it as quite hazy.

It always feels good to be in countries that are prospering. It is a real downer for me to see countries and peoples struggling hard but not progressing. In most cases it can be laid at the door of poor governance, cronyism, and corruption; people in power who do not have the best interests of the populace as their highest objective. Thankfully, I didn't see that so much here as in Indonesia.

March 30th -- Georgetown, Malaysia, is a pretty city, with a beautiful setting. But it is really, really hot. Sticky hot. As in Kuala Lumpur, we see much more prosperity than in Indonesia.

We learned more about Malaysia's governance policies today. I may not have it exactly correct, but close enough to make the point. The government here requires every employee to bank a healthy percentage of their gross income into three separate accounts -- one for housing, one for heath, and one for retirement. Employers must also contribute to these same accounts. The government doesn't tax the people to provide these services, it simply mandates that they save for each; and they get to "manage" the accounts, with the restriction that the money can only be spent for the designated thing that it was saved for -- housing, health, retirement. There are no worries that Social Security may not be solvent when they retire. They cannot blame anyone but themselves if they don't manage their accounts properly. The only thing the government mandates is that they must plan for their future by saving a large percentage of their income. These savings, of course, go into banks and securities, which make the money available for investment loans that help drive the economy.

March 31st -- We are in Phuket, Thailand. In case you're wondering how to pronounce Phuket, don't do it the English way! The Phu is pronounced like Pooh, as in Winnie the Pooh. The ket is like the ket in bucket. If you want the English phonics version, it is Poohket.

It is not only hot here in Phuket, it is Stinkin' Hot! I'll take Mesa's dry heat any time; even at 115 degrees. We went off the ship and toured the "tents" set up by vendors to sell Malaysian clothing, trinkets and junk to us tourists. A half hour of the sweltering heat and we fled back to the ship. Phuket is noted for it's beaches, but we're not beach bums, so we took photos of the harbor and surrounds, and stayed aboard the rest of the day. It was another day in Paradise; and ours was air conditioned.

April 1st -- We have departed Phuket, Thailand, and have 2 sea days until we reach Sri Lanka. We love sea days. We're transiting due west towards Sri Lanka (off the southwest coast of India), across the Andaman Sea, towards the open water between the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands.

The sea looks dead calm, but there are one meter rollers with a period of about 30 seconds, so they are scarcely visible, but the ship does do a few inches of fore-and-aft motion, in a very slow and regular rhythm.

As I love to do, I spent about 30 minutes standing at the ship's rail looking out over the seemingly endless ocean -- nothing but water as far as the eye can see. The gentle curvature of the earth is visible. I feel the same sense of wilderness as when viewing thousands of square miles of Boreal forest from a mountain peak in the Yukon Territory.

I spotted a pod of "dolphins" on the starboard side, and called Ardie. Then the Captain came on the loudspeakers and announced that they were whales. If so, they are the smallest of the whale species I've ever seen. They looked like small black dolphins. I imagine he knows his sea mammals better than I do; I wish he'd have identified the species.

Anyway, I watched about 20 flying fish flee the ship's path during my half hour of sea-gazing. Unlike in the Caribbean, these were not the 10-inch variety; these were tiny -- between 1 1/2 inches to 3 inches long at the very most. Still, they manage to "fly" a long ways, skittering across the tops of the tiny waves for as much as 50 yards. The best sources say they don't really fly, but glide. I guess I have to believe the authorities, but I'd swear that they glide far better than any other creature alive; it sure looks to me like those big fins are flapping, which I'd call flying. But what do I know?

I know that years ago in the Caribbean we rented wave runners and when we scared up big flying fish they'd "glide" away right along the water until they encountered another wave runner, and then they'd soar 10 feet in the air to pass over the wave runner before coming back down to near the water to glide another 50 yards. I know that in a glider it is possible to catch updraft air currents and soar, but can one actually gain altitude without an updraft? These little fish can. I've seen them do it. I'm not claiming they do fly, I just have a bit of skepticism about anything being able to glide as far as they go at the slow speed they attain. I'd like to see a high speed video camera image of their fins: if they flap, they are flying; if they don't flap, I have to swallow my skepticism.

This morning I finished reading one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. It was suggested to me by Bob Breinholt, a dear friend who possesses almost encyclopedic knowledge of American history. Ardie read his loaner book about a year ago, and I have wanted to read it, but because it is such a monumental work, I kept putting it off until this trip, where I knew I'd find time to do it justice. Thanks, Bob, for the recommendation! It is, in my opinion, a solid 10 out of 10.

The book is "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, from which the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln" took much of its inspiration. (I saw the movie three times!) There are scores of good books about Lincoln, but this one is a departure from the usual, in that it describes Lincoln's life development and the development of his Cabinet Members' lives in detail. In so doing it captures the dynamics at work in his Presidency and not only makes Lincoln's towering intellect much more apparent, but also highlights his immense leadership skills and his ability to forge friendships with people of strongly different political persuasion. He chose his Cabinet members from amongst his political rivals, selecting them precisely because they were very intelligent people who disagreed with him. This gave him, right within his Cabinet, representation of the important factional opinions at work within the country, which served the political and intellectual purposes of "balance." It also meant he had to "herd cats," but he did it with deliberate intent and great finesse.

Lincoln was unafraid of gathering about him those who strongly disagreed with him. He had supreme confidence in himself and in his ability to shape his Cabinet. His Secretary of State, William Seward, came aboard thinking he could be the "shadow" President who steered the "plowboy" President. Soon Seward discovered that Lincoln was more than his equal, and they became very close confidants and friends. Although Lincoln tremendously valued Seward's opinions and insights, it was Lincoln who shaped Seward's views much more than the reverse.

Unlike any other President, Lincoln managed to shape his Cabinet, which started as a "team of rivals," into a solid team that respected and revered him for his insightful and honest leadership; but more than that, they all regarded Lincoln as a true friend. This aspect of his leadership is not usually emphasized. His massive intellect is well understood, his equally massive leadership skills are seldom so well portrayed, and his ability to forge friendships with most everyone is too much neglected. This book should be required reading for our politicians of today, and is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys American history.

April 2nd -- We've passed between the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, which puts us well into the Indian Ocean today, still heading almost due west. This morning we were about 450 kilometers from any land and I spotted a small outrigger boat about 1 mile off our port side. We were not close enough to it to see if anyone was in it, or if it was simply adrift. It is way, way too far from land for such a small craft.

We had a relaxing sea day, and went to bed early because tomorrow will be a huge day.

April 3rd -- We arrived in Sri Lanka, and were delayed 45 minutes from getting off the ship for our tour because of some minor delay by the local officials. Our tour was supposed to start at 8 am sharp, and we got a bit of a late start, but our tour guide said not to worry, we'd spend the full 9 1/2 hours on tour, and the ship would just depart a bit late, because we'll have plenty of time to make up the time in the following two sea days.

How do I start telling about Sri Lanka? WOW! What an interesting country. Before its independence from Great Britain, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. It is a small country, an island off the south coast of India, with only 2500 square kilometers of land, and a population of about 31 Million. Since antiquity it has been a very important deep water sea port, situated at the mid-point of the Indian Ocean, and has consequently been a busy, bustling sea port since the first sailing vessels. It was very important to the "Silk Road" trade system, and was referred to as the Gem of the Indian Ocean.

No matter what the era, major sea ports are "melting pots" and centers of cultural diversity. The city of Colombo, and indeed the entire country of Sri Lanka is strongly in this category. It was a very wealthy and heavily populated country before the first Europeans came on the scene; having as many as 18 Million residents over six centuries ago, and a very favorable export trade of semi-precious gemstones, and spices.

Then the Portuguese came and conquered the empire. Life was hard under their stern, exploitive rule. The Sri Lankans rejoiced when the Dutch drove out the Portuguese, as they began to be treated better. When Great Britain eventually drove out the Dutch, the condition of the people improved somewhat, but most notably their governance and education greatly improved.

Since independence, Sri Lanka has been a socialist democracy, with varying degrees of success. They have mandatory and free schooling for every child, from age 5 through 11. Thereafter, schooling is free for those who achieve adequate test scores. College is also free, including a living stipend, but it is only for about the top one percent of the students, which instills much competition into the lower grades, because the people see education as the path to self betterment.

Our tour guide, Asiri Samaraweera, is/was one of the very bright students, and has obtained his BS degree, and is currently pursuing multiple advanced degrees (Corporate finance and Law) simultaneously. He is exceedingly bright, and gave us the most informative tour we've ever experienced. His knowledge of Sri Lanka is encyclopedic. He is of Senegalese ethnicity, but is, as he stated, 100-percent Sri Lankan.

Health care is 100-percent provided by the government, and is certified to the same standards as are U.S. Hospitals and Doctors, but the more wealthy commonly supplement it with insurance and private practices to get more speedy care.

Governance tends to strongly follow the British formula, but some of the "democratic" changes instituted by the Sri Lankan politicians have been more self-serving than for the good of the people. Their biggest mistake since independence was the politicians allowing the people to revert back to their two native languages, instead of keeping English as the official language of government and the schools. The negative impact of this seemingly innocent mistake was what is known as Sri Lanka's 30-year war; civil strife between the majority population of Sinhalese and the minority of Tamils. The so-called Tamil Tigers eventually were classified as a terrorist organization by enough of the World to allow the Sri Lankan government to militarily end the civil strife. Our guide was careful to say that the faults were not one sided, and also to say that some of the old Tamil Tigers are currently in political office, including their Prime Minister.

The average annual income in Sri Lanka is about one-quarter less than that of Indonesian, or about $3,000 US per year. Teachers fare much better, averaging about $1,000 per month. Housing is about one-quarter the price in the US for equivalent housing, but is much less attainable because of the low average incomes. There is, of course, sub-standard housing for much less.

About 75 percent of the residents are Buddhists. In Sri Lanka they are supposed to be vegetarians, because one of their five cardinal precepts is "Thou shalt not kill." But, unlike the Christian and Jewish 10 Commandments, the killing doesn't apply just to humans, it applies to all living creatures. The problem is, in Sri Lanka it is very difficult to get the necessary protein from vegetables alone, so many of the Buddhists have taken to eating fish -- calling them "swimming vegetables."

This characteristic of keeping a rule and finding a way around it instead of changing it seems quite characteristic of their society. As another example, they still have the death penalty, "because it has been in place for a great deal of time" and because that is what the British required. But the Sri Lankans don't really believe in executions, and haven't had one for at least the last 15 years. The courts still prescribe the death penalty, but the defendant is then placed in prison for a maximum of 20 years, and can get out sooner on good behavior. If one is caught dealing heroin, the death penalty is automatic; but it isn't really carried out.

A third example: divorce can be had only for three causes; again laid down long ago by the British. Adultery (must prove penetration), impotence (only at the time of marriage), and malicious abandonment.

Because the first two are almost impossible to prove, there remains only one effective way to get a divorce -- to claim malicious abandonment. Rather than change these causes, the populace arranges for the husband to live elsewhere for a period of time while the wife claims malicious abandonment, and then she can get her divorce. If the husband won't leave, she is stuck with him.

Our tour today is to travel for 3 hours by bus to an elephant orphanage. Sri Lanka at one time had over 100,000 elephants. Today the number is less than 6,000. During the Dutch administration thousands were slaughtered as pests, because of their propensity to ravage farmlands just as the crops are coming to ready for harvest. Now, the government wants to keep the few remaining elephants, but it is a difficult struggle, because the land good for elephant foraging has shrunk so drastically, mostly due to expansion of farmlands and cities. Many elephants are still killed when they attack a farmer who is trying to drive them out of his crops, and they also get struck by trains, and some have been killed by old land mines left by the Tamil Tigers. The elephant orphanage rears the young elephants left by mother elephants that have died by one means or another. It has many adult female elephants, and many young elephants. Once taken in, they can never be re-released into the wild, because they have absolutely no fear of humans. No bull elephants are taken in.

Before the tour we were asked what was the single most important use of elephants prior to the modern era? We guessed farm "tractors" and "transportation." Our guide said they're pretty inefficient transportation, because the eat, on average between 370 and 440 pounds of forage per day. Their "mileage" per pound of forage is terrible. They are great as tractors and caterpillars for farming and construction, but again, their forage requirements are huge. The main use was as war machines. A huge bull elephant was the Sherman Tank of the South Asian military. He could mow through infantry like a tank. Horse cavalry fared little better.

The guide related that Alexander the Great had conquered many kingdoms before he reached South Asia, and he had with him about 85 bull elephants. When he learned that across his next river the King had over 1,000 elephants in his army, Alexander decided he'd conquered enough and turned around. I haven't verified this story, but I pass it on because it sounds so appealing to me -- whether true or not.

Anyway, the elephant orphanage was very special. I took about 40 pictures and one really great video. The video is of the elephants coming out of their 2 hour morning bathing in the river, and hurrying up the city street to their feeding stations. They know that after their bath, they get to eat, and they move right along. Feature yourself standing on the sidewalk of a small city street and watching a herd of 30 elephants lope along in parade before you, each trying to pass the other to get to the best feed first. That is what I videoed.

We also stopped at a little paper factory where they gather elephant droppings and make paper out of them. I kid you not, it is advertised as Elephant Poo paper. Yes, we bought a small booklet for our grandkids, made from the poo paper.

We returned to the ship after 9 1/2 hours, hot, tired, sticky, and dusty, but it was an outstanding day. Sri Lanka is not a wealthy country, by average income standards, but it has a wealth of education, a very warm and gracious people, beautiful country, a moderately good government, and lots to see and do. I'd love to return if Ardie and I ever find time. Of the countries I've seen in Asia and South Asia, I enjoyed Bangkok and surrounding territory the most, but Sri Lanka is now in firm second place.

April 4th -- Today is a sea day, which we needed to recover from yesterdays "endurance" tour. Ardie loved the tour, but was so-o-o hot and tired when we returned to the ship, she needed a 10-hour sleep to recover. Now she is fully recovered and ready for our next adventure. We are now in our 25th day of our 65 day adventure, and Ardie is doing very well, and really enjoying it, for which I am very thankful.

We spent an hour listening to a male and female opera singers this afternoon. Fabulous music, fabulous voices.

I spent several hours Photoshopping the 120 pictures I took yesterday! Digital cameras make it too easy to take more pictures than one needs. Then they have to be cropped, color corrected, labeled, and cataloged. I need to learn a little more shutter restraint.

We are en-route to Goa, India. Another sea day tomorrow, and we'll be in Goa on the 6th. We had to endure India's face-to-face final Visa verification and port permit marathon today. It took 80 minutes of standing in line to get processed. We heard from several of the ship's crew that India has the most complex -- and wholly unnecessary -- validation process. Holland America has allegedly complained repeatedly about the cumbersomeness of their process, but to no avail. We were told it is remarkable that it even gets done at all, considering the widespread incompetence and corruption of the Indian government. This may or may not be a fair charge, but it was readily apparent that India is not trying to impress us tourists with their competence nor their efficiency.

-- Marvin O. Fretwell, 4/9/2014

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