Unsuspecting Tourist. Finding Batu

BatuIt was just a chance encounter that lasted no more than a few moments. We were watching people feed hundreds of pigeons near the entrance to the Batu Caves Temple in Malaysia when a small puppy trotted into the scene.

Just as Moses parted the Red Sea, this puppy had the same effect…not on the pigeons, on the people. You’d think she was a 100 pound rabid Rottweiler instead of a 10 pound pup the way people jumped out of her way and kids ran screaming. Yes, literally screaming.

Jim and I must have looked like a happy port in a storm of very jumpy humans. Little Batu, as I immediately named her, came right over to us. She had a sweet expression on her face, her tail was wagging gently, and she was giving all of the soft body language that I love to see in a young puppy. Jim and I were, of course, immediately smitten.

She couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 weeks old. Her coat was a bit rough and dirty, her toenails long. She was not thin. My guess is that she hasn’t been away from her mother’s nourishing care for very long.

I kept looking around thinking that someone would quickly come after the puppy. “Sorry! She got away from me.” “Oh goodness…there she is! I was so worried.” “Oh thank you for catching her! Come here silly girl, how did you get so dirty?”

But that didn’t happen.

Batu was the first and only dog, beyond working dogs searching luggage at the airports, that we saw on our vacation to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Langkawi, Malaysia, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This really should not be a surprise as Islam is the dominant religion in both areas, but my stubborn, dog-infused brain still had a hard time embracing the idea of a non-dog-loving culture.

In my world, I am surrounded by people who love animals, and dogs in particular. Jim and I have lots of dogs. Our personal dogs, our foster dogs, they all combine to make our lives richer, hairier, and a bit crowded in the feeling-smaller-by-the-day king size bed we share with too many of them.

It was a culture shock to step into a world where no one was walking their dog; where no children were running and playing with a family pet. Jim’s brother, Jeremy, told us that many expatriate families brought dogs with them to KL, and some residents of KL had dogs, but I sure didn’t see any. Only Batu.

It’s a confusing topic because even information searched on the Internet relating to dogs and Islam is a bit contradictory.  Traditionally speaking, the Islamic religion states that dogs are impure and several injunctions have been created to warn Muslims against most contact with dogs.

So on one hand, while it is not haram (an Arabic word meaning sinful, an act forbidden by Allah) to own a dog, it is not permissible to keep a dog in the house because dogs are not considered hygienic.

And while it is not haram to touch a dog (though apparently many Muslims won’t), if the saliva, snout, or mouth of the dog touches any part of your body or clothing, then you are required to wash yourself and your clothes in a specific, ritualistic manner.

At the same time, Islam very clearly states, and I’m paraphrasing here, that all animals have been created by Allah and that it is the duty of Muslims to protect and provide for the well-being of animals as an expression of thanks to Allah. From everything I read, this injunction requiring compassion and care for animals has a loose and disparate interpretation.

I’m just barely scuffing the surface of the topic here. I have to admit it’s all a real head-scratcher for me, and I’m apparently not alone in that feeling. From articles I’ve read on the Muslim view of dogs, interpretation varies greatly from region to region, and country to country. Some Muslims feel they can’t even touch a dog, some Muslims own dogs as pets.

KL dogI think the dispute over dogs in Malaysia, where the majority of the population is Muslim despite a growing multicultural influence, was really brought home for me by an article written for the New York Times by Thomas Fuller last fall. It detailed an event organized by Syed Azmi Alhabshi, a pharmacist in Kuala Lumpur.

The event was called “I Want to Touch a Dog” and was created as a get-together for dog lovers and traditional “canine-averse” Muslims.

Prior to the event, Syed Azmi advised state religious authorities of his plans and made sure an Islamic scholar was on hand to show Muslims how to conduct the ritualistic washing following contact with the friendly pooches in attendance.

According to the article (read it here) Syed Azmi, who is Muslim himself, thought he had his bases covered. He thought he was hosting a simple, positive event to promote a better understanding of dogs in his community.

The event went well. Photos of Muslim women in head scarves hugging dogs appeared on the event’s Facebook page. And then all of the good intentions backfired. Syed Azmi started receiving messages…thousands of messages, many rather unpleasant. In fact, some of the messages were apparently quite threatening. It would appear that despite all of the planning and precautions, Malaysia’s Muslim leadership denounced the event.

What a confusing world little Batu lives in. And yet she is still nothing more than a sweet, innocent little stray puppy happily approaching people, then confused and frightened when they recoil from her. But she seemed ever hopeful. I will always remember the sight of her trotting away from us to follow a man walking down the street, her little tail wagging away as if to say, “Maybe this will be my human.” That’s the last time I saw sweet baby Batu.

When I have the opportunity to travel to foreign countries, in addition to sightseeing, a huge part of the adventure for me is learning about other lifestyles.  It’s not about agreeing with everything I see and learn, it’s about developing a level of understanding. It’s about knowledge and respect.

And this trip was a doozy on that front. There are so many things I don’t understand about Islam and the Muslim culture. I got to observe a lot firsthand. I saw the variety of traditional clothing worn. I visited shrines, temples, and mosques. I learned about traditions and 1400-year-old beliefs. I observed Muslim families together. I saw Muslim teenagers enjoying a day on the beach. And I saw Muslim people reacting to a tiny, harmless puppy.

I came home with more questions about Islam and Muslim culture than answers, but I’m slowly filling in some of the blanks. I also now know there are dog rescue groups in KL and throughout Malaysia. Not to the extent that you find them in the United States, but they exist and they do good work. I did send them each a message about Batu with a photo attached with the hope that somehow, that cute little tan and white needle might be found in the vast haystack north of KL.

I know it’s not likely.

20150113_110821 (2)Had she still been there when Jim and I emerged from our tour of the Batu Caves, I can’t really tell you what I would have done, but I have a feeling I would have done something. Or maybe there was nothing to be done.  We were guests in an apartment complex that did not allow pets. Seeing her again and not being able to whisk her away to a safe and better life would have gone against everything that I believe and practice in my life in good old Mounds, Oklahoma.

According to the Nancy and Jim philosophy, it is a sin to NOT take care of a little stray puppy. Now I know what you may be thinking…there are plenty of stray dogs right here at home that need our help. I guess the difference is that at least here, a stray dog has a fairly good chance of running across someone that will offer assistance. For Batu in KL, well, her chances for finding a good life seem almost nonexistent. I sure hope I’m wrong about that.

I wish I could have given Batu a happily ever after. I wish her story ended with a long flight back to the United States where she would be free to plant a kiss on my nose and curl up on my pillow.  All I can do now is try to believe that the puppy who doesn’t know her name is Batu has charmed her way into the heart of someone in KL. Someone who will look into those bright eyes and fall in love just as we did. Someone who will take responsibility for her welfare.

Stay hopeful, Batu. I’m pulling for you from half a world away.

Unsuspecting Tourist. FINALLY!

20150113_111017I am SO excited about this post. Seriously. This is the one I’ve been waiting to share. Why, you ask? MONKEYS! So many monkeys. Stick with me…we’ll get to them quickly.

On this day of our see-everything-you-can-possibly-see tour of Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head a bit out of the city to explore the famous Batu Caves.

Prerequisite tourist information:

Set high in a range of rugged limestone cliffs just north of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves are a vast complex of caverns that are a popular tourist and religious destination. The caves gained worldwide attention in 1878 when American naturalist William Hornaday came upon them and compared the largest cave to a grand cathedral. In the 1890s it was converted into a shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan and soon became the most important pilgrimage site for Malaysia’s Hindu population.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the Batu Caves is your introduction to Lord Murugan. It’s not subtle. The statue is 141 feet tall and sparkling gold against the backdrop of trees and hillside. Fortunately, he looks pretty benevolent. I only had one tiny little Stay Puff Marshmallow Man/Ghostbuster flashback.

And may I add here that this is the world’s tallest statue of Lord Murugan? If you have been reading my previous posts, Jim and I were on a serious “’est’ in the world” tour. Tallest, biggest, fastest…we were on an “est” quest of epic proportion. Thank you, Lord Murugan, for keeping us on our roll.

20150113_110606In the area in front of the tallEST statue of Lord Murugan, there are some shops, small restaurants, and pigeons. Not “some” pigeons. Hundreds of them. And they are hopeful. It is clear the pigeons get fed often…and, yes, we joined the party. I have to believe the local businesses have a real love/hate thing going on with these birds. Yes, a tourist attraction…a messy, messy, persistent attraction.

Of course while visiting the pigeons we found a stray puppy. A darling, precious, needed-to-go-home-with-Nancy-and-Jim stray puppy. This is the one and only dog I saw during my entire trip, beyond the dogs at the airports who so very carefully sniffed my bags (and don’t you know they thought DANG, this woman lives with a lot of my cousins!).

20150113_110726The puppy really threw me for a loop. First, she was just a baby. I would guess 14 to 16 weeks old, give or take. Second, she was a little pumpkin (that is Nancyspeak for irresistible). Third, we were the only humans being kind to her. No one was specifically abusing her, but certainly no one else was being kind to her either.

I’m not going to go into detail about little Batu, as I dubbed her, here. I’m going to give her a post of her own because it links directly to my journey to a better understanding of the different religions and cultures we encountered on our trip. Maybe understanding isn’t the right word. There are some things I will never fully understand. Maybe it’s fair to say she helped me gain knowledge about the different cultures we encountered.

I will tell you that I left a piece of my heart with that puppy and I sure wish this story ended with her sleeping safely on my pillow. More about Batu in a later post. I promise.

Moving on. We were told by a guide in one of the caves adjacent to the temple that the Hindus chose to build a shrine in this particular cavern because the opening to the cave was a similar shape to the point of Lord Murugan’s spear. After a little research, I found that our young guide knew his stuff.

20150113_140115In 1890, K. Thamboosamy Pillai, an Indian trader, was indeed inspired by the ‘vel’-shaped (a vel is a divine javelin or spear) entrance of the main cave and promoted it as a place of worship to Lord Murugan. The Thaipusam festival, a major Hindu religious celebration, has been celebrated there annually in late January or early February since 1892.

Wow. We just missed our chance to visit the temple with about 1,000,000 Hindus on a pilgrimage. While it may have been an amazing event to witness, can’t say I’m too sorry. Too many people in one place can make for an antsy Nancy. But it would have been quite a sight to see, I’m sure. The Hindu attire and shrines we did see were quite colorful and ornate.

To get to the temple you first must climb 272 steep stairs. It looks impressive from the bottom and some might find it daunting, but it’s really not too bad. There are several landings along the way that allow you to stop to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery. I will say that the caverns are anything but handicapped accessible. I don’t think Lord Murugan made that a priority when he inspired this temple.

20150113_111342For me, the climb was pure joy because the first think that greeted us as we started our ascent was…YES! A MONKEY!

A darling little macaque monkey served as our initial tour guide as we counted our way up the 272 steps to the mouth of the cavern temple. Oh happy, happy day! We tried to take a bunch of photos of this little friend because who knew if there would be more? (Silly, silly Nancy, there were more. SO many more.)

DCIM100GOPROThis was a Tuesday morning, but the caves already had a steady flow of visitors, both tourists and Hindus coming to worship. The sights were spectacular looking up toward the caves and also turning to see the vista from our increasing vantage point.

Quick note here, if you are going to visit the Temple, you are asked to do so with respect to its religious significance. I found the following tips for visiting the Batu Caves online (obviously written by someone who uses English as a second language…not corrected here, because it adds to the flavor.):

  • Do not smile at the Monkey.
  • Do not bring any food during climbing the steps.
  • With effective from 12 August 2013, the Batu Caves Management Implemented New Regulation and Dress Code For Visiting Batu Caves Kuala Lumpur:
    • NO Short Pant and Hot Pant.
    • NO Short Skirt Above Knee.
  • Others Regulation:
    • NO Pets Allowed.
    • NO Spitting Around.
    • NO Smoking in the area.
    • Bring your own toilet paper

The dress code is not too hard. I wore ankle-length pants. I saw other women who wore shorts, but tied a scarf or shawl around their waist to cover their legs while in the temple. I don’t believe they would actually turn you away for breaking this dress code, but it’s all about respect. I will touch on some of the other regulations as we proceed, but we had zero problem with “no spitting around.”

Jim and Nan at caveThe shrines in front of and built into the walls inside the temple cave were beautifully ornate and detailed. The cavern itself is truly a natural temple and awe inspiring with or without the temple shrines. While, from a historic standpoint, the temple is relatively new, the limestone formation that houses it is said to be around 400 million years old.

nan and monkeyAnd, to my great delight, what did you see just about everywhere you looked inside the temple cave? MONKEYS.

Yes, the monkeys have made themselves right at home inside the temple. I did notice the locals banging sticks to keep them away from certain shrines where ceremonies were taking place, and I’m sure they think the monkeys are nothing but pests. It goes back to that love/hate thing that they likely have with those pigeons out front. But there is no denying that these funny little characters are a huge tourist attraction.

20150113_113125The downside to the temple, in my opinion, was that I didn’t feel it was well maintained. Lighting has been installed around some of the shrines to make them more visible and it seemed to be just slapped together with random lights set here and there, and wires draped in plain sight. The temple was also pretty messy. There was trash everywhere. I’m sure the monkeys had something to do with this, but it would seem they would try to police it a bit better. Or better yet, teach the monkeys to do it. Yes. The monkeys could help clean up the trash and earn the respect of the Hindu worshipers.

I’m sure that’s completely feasible.

But still, trash aside, the temple is a wonderful experience and truly beautiful. From the Temple Cave, we headed over to tour the Dark Cave. The Dark Cave is exactly what the name suggests—a  really, dark, natural cave and an extremely important conservation site.

dark cave nanWe donned some hard hats, picked up small flashlights, and joined a tour group heading into the cave. Dark Cave is home to rare species of animals and insects including the rarEST (YES! Another “est!”) spider in the world, the Trapdoor spider. (Have I mentioned that two of my major phobias are pitch black hallways and spiders? Well, wasn’t this a nifty combo of both! Our own little episode of Fear Factor.)

Of course the cave is also home to a healthy number of bats. We didn’t actually see them and we were asked not to shine our flashlights toward the ceiling because it would disrupt the bats…and I did not want to disrupt the bats… but in the dark recesses of the cave you could sure hear them squeaking away, you could sure smell them, and yes, their guano was plentiful, though somehow our wooden walkway was clean.

Our guide, provided by the Cave Management Group (CMG), pointed out that it is the guano that sustains a tremendous and scientifically significant ecosystem. I will point out here that when the guide asked our group of about a dozen people what “guano” was, I was the one to pop up with “what is bat poop, Alex?” Yep. I got the bat poop question. I think the Italian tourists were very impressed.

Until CMG took over management of the cave, it was open to the public. Those dreaded “open to the public” words mean that the caves were abused with trash, graffiti, and disruption of the fragile wildlife within the structure. Though some of the mindless graffiti is still visible in sections of the two kilometers of passages (humans are SO arrogant), the cave is now a protected conservation site renowned for its rich scientific and educational value. Tours are conducted carefully, in specific areas of the cave and you are constantly reminded to stay on the wooden pathway and not to step on the natural floor of the cave lest you smash one of those beloved spiders.

20150113_130932_LLSWe were shown magnificent cave formations – stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave pearls, cave curtains, columns, and gour pools (none of which photographed well because it’s a dark cave and you can’t use a flash that might disturb the bats). It took Mother Nature eons to form these structures and it’s still a work in progress as water continues to gently change and form the cave. We saw millipedes, we saw trapdoor spiders, and we experienced what pitch black really is when we turned off all of our flashlights in the interior of the cave (blink all you want…your eyes aren’t going to adjust). It was truly a spectacular experience…a must-see for anyone going to Kuala Lumpur.

After surrendering our stylish hard hats, we stepped back out of the cave to find a world of monkey cuteness awaiting. Mom monkeys, ridiculously cute baby monkeys, mischievous teenage monkeys, and don’t-screw-with-me adult male monkeys. Monkey paradise!

20150113_133851I don’t really need to tell you that the monkeys were the highlight of the whole tour for me, do I? I could have stayed and watched their antics for hours. They were fascinated with Jim’s Go Pro camera. They were fascinated with my feet. They distracted me while one of their tribe attempted to steal my purse. They succeeded in stealing a bottle of water from another tourist. They climbed, they posed, they chattered, and I was 100% enamored.

20150113_133833So back up to that list of guidelines for visiting the temple…you know, where it says “Do not smile at the Monkey?” I think they don’t want it to appear that you are baring your teeth at them in case the monkeys see that as a challenge. I found, however, that it’s the monkeys who do the “smiling.” Try to get next to one of the mature male monkeys, who really have no interest in being cute or having their photo taken. They will bare their impressive teeth and lunge right at you.

20150113_134049Hey monkeys, take a cue from the guidelines and don’t “smile” at the tourists!

Big guys aside—and we happily gave them their space—the monkeys were amazing and charming. I can’t imagine living in a place where monkeys are as common as squirrels are in my neck of the woods.

We did finally tear ourselves away from the monkeys and wandered around a bit more by the shops and restaurants. I bought a “Coke Light” (they don’t call it diet Coke), and Jim bought a fresh coconut with a straw stuck in it. He is so the yin to my yang.

Then we found our way to the bathrooms where a woman sat at a table in front of the entrance asking for 25 ringgit (Malaysia dinero) as admission to the facilities. I kind of think she just stationed herself there, but who was I to question her and my bladder thought the price, about seven US cents, was more than fair.

So this bathroom. Um…the “bring your own toilet paper” suggestion suddenly made perfect sense and I got to once again master the art of squatting over a hole in the floor. I was introduced to this experience previously in Hong Kong at a public restroom, and also in Africa, only that was just squatting behind a huge termite mound…no hole in the ground. OH the call-of-nature experiences of the world. Good times.

Once back in front of the temple, I won’t tell you that I didn’t scour the place for my little puppy friend, Batu. I truly hoped to find her, though I had no earthly idea what I would have done with her if I could have found her. But again, that’s another story for another day.

We flagged a cab for another “interesting” tour of traffic through the streets that took us back to Kuala Lumpur and our home base apartment. Another excursion, two more “ests” added to our list. A good day.

Up next? Who wants to fly AirAsia?

Meanwhile…gratuitous monkey photos!

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