Tottering around totem poles

Totem poles are more than just fancy pieces of wood

A totem pole

I have a penchant for scouting, discovering or hunting for something unusual, unnoticed, rare or even bizarre when I travel. When I visited Singapore, I did all the routine things encompassed in the phrase, ‘been there, done that’. I window-shopped till I dropped on Orchard Road, went on a night cruise on Singapore river, ogled at tall buildings, ate at roadside stalls and gambled in a casino on somebody’s money. Of course, I lost. But it was a small amount. “Loser,” my angel investor remarked. 

Indeed, so far I was a loser, having not found something which excited me. Finally, at the Gardens by the Bay, while going through the ritual of appreciating exotic plant species and trees from across the world, I spotted a totem pole. Soon, I found that there was not just one, but several of them. I started tottering around them.

It instantly reminded me of the totem poles I had seen in my hometown. Many Indian tribes like Santhals, Kamars, Todas, Koliya and Gond have their totem poles. The context may be different, but totem poles, as a rule, have almost the same function across the world.

Totem poles are made out of large trees where huge logs are carved with figures or symbols. Native Americans made them and painted them, but the ones I saw were made of seasoned wood by the craftsmen of East Timor or Timor-Leste, an island state in Southeast Asia.

The carvings on the hardwood ranged from the basic to the intricate. The carvings symbolise or commemorate their ancestors and their cultural beliefs. Perhaps, they narrated legends and significant events.

Most visitors, I noticed, passed by these totem poles without a second glance, but the seasoned and weathered totems had a spell on me. Now totem poles can be ugly, monstrous or aesthetic depending on the individual perspective. For me, they are aesthetic. They reminded me of Pablo Picasso’s cubism art.

As a bonus, I also discovered what I would like to describe as ‘cousins’ of totem poles sourced from Malaysia and installed in Gardens by the Bay. Although they resemble totem poles, they are a cross between totem poles and driftwood made out of dry trees and branches fashioned to hold pots with fresh flowers.

I don’t take selfies. Noticing my enthusiasm for these totem poles, one of my friends decided to take my picture with a totem pole and then remarked, “You look like one of them.” I did not take offence. After all, I had an affinity with them.

Totem poles seem to inspire me to look for scarecrows during my next travel trip. They are equally exciting, at least for me. And yes, next time, I will take a selfie with a scarecrow.

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Tottering around totem poles

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