Greetings! First, I feel obliged to offer forth an explanation for why it has been two months since my last post.
I was without a functioning computer for about five weeks of the past two months, and by the time it finally did become clear that my old machine was beyond repair, I found myself backlogged with work and was more focused on building connections in Nepal and preparing for a recent conference presentation than on actually implementing and conducting research.
The main purpose of this particular blog entry will be to provide an overview of the Transforming Urbanity conference I've just attended in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia - a conference that turned out to be one of the more enjoyable and illuminating ones I've attended since starting grad school five years ago.
After this entry, I do not anticipate updating this blog again until I have returned to Nepal sometime in September. However, I will continue to post travel photos to Facebook during the next two or so weeks that I am on the road. When I do return to Nepal in a couple months, I will endeavor to post updates on a more routine basis, but for now this will be the last post for a while.
The Transforming Urbanity conference brought together an assembly of 35 or so practitioners, professors, professionals and graduate students to share recent work that addressed themes of migration, mobility and their effects on cities and urban planning.
Being a relatively small conference, most of us participants really got the chance to know each other well over the four days of presentations, sightseeing, and food - lots and lots of amazingly tasty food.
Although this was my first time attending this particular conference, Transforming Urbanity has held seven previous meetings, all of which took place either in Mainland China or in China's Special Administrative Regions, making this the first time the conference was held in Malaysia. For this reason, the highest share of conference participants were working on projects that were based in China or Hong Kong or that focused on themes related to the Chinese diaspora.
Nonetheless, the scope and background of the presenters was tremendously diverse, with presenters hailing from places as varied as India, Hungary, North America, Palestine, the UK, Turkey, Australia, and the Philippines. In addition to more academically-oriented presentations, we also heard from an architect who's interested in incorporating traditional market designs into modern supermarkets, a museum curator, and a Malaysian-born, Oxford-educated Buddhist Monk who talked about Greco-Roman Buddhist art (statues of the Buddha wearing a Roman-style toga found in what is now Pakistan)
Discussions at the conference ranged from the practical to the esoteric. One afternoon we found ourselves discussing the merits of whether a particular floor-plan for supermarket would foster enhanced interactions between shoppers. On another, a discussion of the philosophical and symbolic meanings of the terms darkness and light ensued (for many Taoists, it is darkness rather than light that holds the greatest potential for spiritual transcendence. In the light, the rational mind takes over, trying to attach meanings to everything the eye can see. In the absence of light, the rational mind cannot attach meanings to everything. It is only then, when the mind stops rationalizing and stops trying to explain what it sees that one can truly become one with the Tao - for the Tao is mysterious and impenetrable and the more one tries to explain it the further from the truth one gets).
On a lighter note, I was absolutely amazed by the quality and the amount of food that was included as part of the conference. On the first night, we literally had a 15-course meal at a very nice Chinese restaurant with herbal mushroom soup, many types of meat, and some of the freshest and most tender seafood I have ever tasted. On other nights, we had Malay food catered, which includes curried meats and vegetables with rice, using a coconut-oil base.
There were also three full half-days of organized sightseeing - one in Kuala Lumpur, and two at the UNESCO world heritage site of Georgetown/Penang. Having never been to Malaysia previously, I was thoroughly impressed with Penang Island and my only complaint is that we didn't have nearly enough time for everything we took in.
My talk was on the last day of the conference right before an architectural walking tour of the old city. Although Malaysia itself is a Muslim-majority country, Penang and Kuala Lumpur both have very high shares of Chinese-origin residents, many of whom have been living in Malaysia for nearly two centuries. Some of the pictures that follow speak to Malaysia's multi-ethnic heritage. I left Malaysia for Thailand the day after the conference ended, but I enjoyed every minute of my time there and really hope to go back someday.
The next entry will follow upon my return to Nepal in September,
Visiting the main Mosque at Putrajaya - the seat of the Malaysian government. Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country and the conference fell in the middle of Ramadan - the holy month of fasting.
Visiting the Burmese Buddhist Temple on Penang Island. Sadly we only had 30 minutes to visit this temple - the bitter and the sweet of temporary things...
Chinese Buddhist Temple on Penang Island with Confucian-style architecture and Cantonese influences. Most of the Chinese population over Malaysia originates from Guangzhou and Fujian provinces in southern China.
View from the pagoda in the Chinese Buddhist temple complex.
Vegetarian lunch provided by the Puai Foundation, Georgetown, Penang.
Giving a presentation titled "Negotiating Water Scarcity: Reflections from California and Kathmandu" on the last day of the conference.
Clan fishing jetties - Penang Island. When Chinese settlers began arriving in the 19th century many built floating villages on stilts over the water. Today some of these dwellings remain and are part of the UNESCO heritage site. We met the owners and proprietors of this jetty whose families have been living here for five generations.
With Bora Büsan of Turkey (right), and the Rev. Dato' Dr. Sumana Siri of Malaysia.