Saturday, September 10, 2011

Penniless living

I was reading yesterday's theSun newspaper when I came across a feature about Heidemarie Schwermer. I'm not even sure if I can pronounce her name correctly, but this 69-year-old German lady has been living her life in Germany for the past thirteen years without money. She has given up her health insurance, doesn't own a house and hop in between houses that are willing to provide her accommodation in exchange for work she can do for the owners, such as mowing the lawn. She pretty much swears by barter system to get herself food and whatever else she needs.

The pretty remarkable woman.
The idea of this decided lifestyle first came into being twenty-two years ago when Schwermer moved with her two children from Lueneburg village to a part of Germany where homelessness was a big problem. Shocked by the plight of the homeless people and moved by her belief that nobody should be excluded from the society just because they didn't have money, she started a swap shop (called Tauschring in Germany) where people could go to exchange skills and items with each other -- no money involved. Well, the concept took off better among the retirees and the unemployed than among the homeless, but the idea was there. Schwermer then realized that she could live a simpler life of less possessions by downsizing her wardrobe to ten coat-hangers worth of clothes and by giving away all her books to a secondhand shop. Still not quite finding the satisfaction she needed, she figured that money didn't give her happiness. So, she decided to embrace the bartering ways and gave nomadic living -- out of her apartment and into different people's houses every week or so -- a try. The plan was to live like this for twelve months, but she must obviously have loved this lifestyle because her experiment has extended to thirteen years so far, and I'm quite positive she has no intention of changing her ways.

This lady has got to have some real guts to be able to do what she does. I mean, to give up your health insurance when you are already in your advanced years? I'm still a teenager and I don't think I'll give that up. You know, because you never know. And since she doesn't need money to survive, Schwermer gives away her monthly pension to acquaintances in need of money. Even to my closest friends, I think I would have to part with my cash through gritted teeth. And because she is living such a radical life, of course it's interesting and worth being written into a book or two, from which the first book earned her a lot of money that she just gave away to random strangers on the street. To be able to just part with your money like that must have taken a ton of generosity, but since that money was earned through her principles of living without money, parting was only fair. Hogging them would have been major hypocrisy. Anyway, giving away something is easier when you don't need it. To sustain such a lifestyle, she accepts vegetables from her friend's garden sometimes -- another thing that wouldn't work for me as I don't know anyone who actually plants his own dinner. All of Schwermer's earthly possessions are fitted nicely into a little suitcase that moves around with her. Talk about packing light.

Schwermer hopes to see the world function without the need of money. It sounds really idealistic to live in such a world, but I honestly find it really funny if I have to walk into Cotton On, march to the salesgirl and tell her I'll give her half dozen of the walnut muffins I just baked in exchange for the yellow tank top. What would other girls bring in? A potted plant? A limited edition Katy Perry postage stamp? It's amazing when one woman lives her life without the need for bills and coins in her pocket, and actually thrives doing so. But I wonder if it would be amazing still if almost seven billion people have to crack their head on a daily basis trying to figure out if a chicken is worth three times of mowing the lawn. Still, mankind has been through the barter system phase, so it's not impossible for them to go back there. Then again, it must have not worked out quite well to have the need for currency be introduced into society.

Even for a woman already liberated from the grasp of currency, Schwermer still has to have savings of 
€200 in case of an emergency, and also because she still has to pay for her train rides. I guess you can't be totally free from the usage of money and consumerism until the day comes when every single person on earth declares money as obsolete. That would be a very long way to go — that is, if money is really a bane to humanity. I'm not too sure about that. I still prefer the idea of flashing some cash for an ice cream cone instead of having to sweep the ice cream maker's front yard for it. However, what I really admire about Schwermer is her courage to swim against the current, to be the odd one living differently from the consumers of the commercial world. You have to have a certain amount of self-assurance to roll like no one else.
Heidemarie Schwermer and her suitcase.

Photo source:

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Woe to Commercialization

I spent the Merdeka and Hari Raya holidays in Malacca with my family, I ate too much durian cream puffs, and I'm never ever going back there during a public holiday if I can help it.

Throughout my family's stay in Malacca, there wasn't a tourist spot that wasn't overflowing with humans. When we first arrived at Jonker Walk, we wanted to eat at our favorite cendol and nasi lemak shop, but the queue was crazily long. We wanted instead to eat the famous chicken rice where asam fish was also served, but the queue was crazily long. We thought then that we could try getting some satay celup Jess had with her classmates a week earlier that was, according to her, really delicious, but the queue was crazily long. No, wait, there was hardly a visible queue for satay celup. So many people crowded outside the shop's entrance, they seemed to blend into a blob of humans spilling unto the road. So I ended up eating a lot of durian cream puffs, partly because they were so reasonably priced for such delicious treats that my mum didn't mind buying them in dozens or so, and also because they were eaten in replacement of what could have been my family's proper meals if those other shops weren't so crowded.

Seriously, Malaysians and foreign tourists alike have got to find a better place to explore in Malaysia other than this UNESCO site of Malacca. I don't think the crowd would have been this bad if UNESCO didn't recognize Malacca as a World Heritage Site three years ago. Such recognition is always a blessing and a curse at the same time. But, I am not going to judge people's choice of holiday destination since I myself have been there for like the twentieth time in my lifetime -- and still loving it. I think many people can't help but fall in love with the charm of this place, especially in the touristy areas where the buildings and trademarks are either reminiscent of Chinatown, remind us of this land's history with the Portuguese and Dutch and British or showcase the beauty of the Peranakan culture.

I've always adored the feel of the old-style architecture of centuries-old shophouses. I love how the boldly colored wooden doors and walls, and the different colors and patterns of tiles plastered to the floors and walls of the narrow front porches, give each house its quirkiness. They make Malacca so charmingly photogenic. And they definitely have more personality than the modern houses of today that try to look minimalist but to me only look like boring, assembly-line produced residential buildings.

I wish Malacca doesn't become an overrated, over-commercialized tourist site. Oh, I think it already sort of is. That's the curse of being a world heritage site. However, I can't deny that putting Malacca up there as some precious heritage to be protected has its good, because that is the only way to make sure these precious buildings do not get destroyed, however commercialized this process may have turned into. I hope with my fingers crossed that the old charm never dies.