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Confounding customs

Journeys in the spirit world and books your mother warned you about. Doing your duty in Asia.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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FOR MY AMERICAN FRIENDS, unburdened by the weighty sediment of history and deeply distracted by the size of Hillary Clinton’s democratic nomination campaign budget, the scope and complexity of centuries old Asian customs is confounding.

For me, the size of Ms Clinton’s US$35 million fund is frankly disturbing.

The Clinton war chest is of course huge multiples of my son’s pocket money. Thirty five million dollars will buy a heck of a lot of French fries. Yet, it is well below online social networking upstart Facebook’s putative value of US$15 billion. Perhaps 23-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should run for president and get Osama, Bush, Cheney, Musharraf and Nouri al-Maliki all hooked up in a friendly online shoot-em-up. That would make the world a safer place for at least two years, which is about how long it takes for an adult to learn the basics of any video game designed for three-year-olds.

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Alternatively the dramatis personae could learn to master chat messages online (making the world a safer place for a few months) or discover porn (making the world a safer place permanently). “Hey Ossie, nice clip, h&k, roflmao, ^5…”  “tx 4 d busT babe px dickie, g2g, brb, need 2 bomb something, vbg…”

Visitors to Myanmar will be struck by several things, including batons and tear gas cannisters...

But, let’s go back to those centuries old Asian customs. How might unwary travellers deal with them? Asia has gone through a long historic ferment and several key forces are at work. These include the armed forces and the police force. Witness Myanmar and Pakistan. But nothing will prepare people for that 2am landing at Delhi. This is where your knowledge of key customs really comes in.

According to Indian customs regulations, tourists may not bring into the country more than US$5,000 in cash or US$10,000 in traveller’s cheques without declaring the funds. The duty-free allowance is limited to 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and one litre of alcohol. Carry in any amount of John Grisham paperback pulp as you like, but not Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Arthur Koestler’s Lotus and the Robot, or VS Naipaul’s Area of Darkness. These books are banned in India.

In Thailand, seemingly innocuous photo travel guide Bangkok Inside Out got the axe in 2005 after a brisk ten months on the shelves. However travellers may bring in duty-free professional instruments intended for personal use (like cameras, videos and perhaps inflatable dolls), 250 grams of tobacco, 200 cigarettes and a litre of alcohol. Forget alcohol. Gulp down chilled Singha, the indisputable king of beers, and ruminate on the complexities of exporting Buddha images or statues from the country, which is possible only with the nod of the Department of Fine Arts.

Angst-ridden teens could experiment by dragging their dads onto the streets and yelling "Dadda"...

Visitors to Myanmar will be struck by several things – including batons and teargas canisters. In Malaysia, fearlessly bring in duty free 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, a litre of spirits and, incredibly, 100 matches. This would be useful in Hong Kong where the MTR train drivers constantly exhort you to “Please set passengers alight”. Okay. WHUMP. The list of banned books includes cultural tomes like Disloyal Young Wife, Banana Dream, and Virgin Teacher (from Hong Kong, that bastion of free speech), How to Take Your Own Nude Portraits (a sensitive pastime from Portugal), DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Khalil Ghibran’s The Prophet. Signs all over Malaysia bring you crashing back to reality. “Death for dadda” they say. Angst-ridden teens could experiment by dragging their dads onto the streets, shouting “Dadda” every time a policeman walks by. In truth, dadda means drugs. And it carries a mandatory death penalty.
Neighbouring Singapore is no slouch when it comes to the death penalty. By some accounts it had the highest per capita execution rate in the world during the Nineties. Drug trafficking here carries a mandatory death penalty. On the brighter side chewing gum which was banned for many a long year is now permitted if it is of the “therapeutic” variety. Video tapes will still need to be screened and censored first but you may bring in one litre of spirits, one litre of wine and one litre of beer. The alcohol allowance does not apply if you have come in from Malaysia. 

Hong Kong offers a duty free allowance of 60 cigarettes, 15 cigars and a litre of alcohol yet, just over the border, China permits 400 cigarettes (600 if your stay is over six months), two bottles of alcohol of not more than 0.75 litres (and four bottles for stays of over six months).  Smoke your lungs into oblivion in Vietnam too with 400 cigarettes and just a smidgen more alcohol at 1.5 litres.

Centuries old customs are mystifying. But Americans have borrowed a leaf or two from the Asian manual. Books banned in the USA at one time or another, include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Fanny Hill and even Voltaire’s Candide.

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