Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Selamat Tahun Baru 2009!

Happy New Year from Malaysia!

I'm actually on the Malaysian island of Penang now (about 2:30 a.m., January 1, 2009), but Kuala Lumpur made the front page of both MSNBC News's and USA Today's websites!

Photos and stories from the New Year holiday in Penang will be coming soon!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bali: Observations, Recollections, and Musings

Well, my recent holiday in Bali was enjoyable, as always. This was my seventh time visiting “The Island of the Gods,” and, in all likelihood, my last for awhile. I may scoot down there one more time if there’s a serious promotion on airfare while I’m here in KL, but otherwise, I want to discover and explore some new places while I’m living in Asia.

In all my trips to Bali, this was the first one about which I can truly say the weather was just not that great. There was a fair bit of sunshine, but there were more cloudy days than usual, and definitely more rain than I’ve ever seen there. I’ve been once before during the rainy season (November 2006) and in those two weeks in Bali, it rained one time, at night. It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise how much shine the rain takes off of a tropical vacation, no pun intended. It really limits what you can do, and casts a bit of a pall over everything. That said, it certainly didn’t rain the whole time, not by any stretch, and I had plenty of fun. I did loads of shopping, which is pretty unusual… bought clothes, some new Reeboks, books, DVDs, spices and foodstuffs, and a bunch of toiletries. I’m not sure why, but good, name-brand products (like Nivea and Biore) are noticeably cheaper in Indonesia than they are here in KL, so I tend to stock up a bit when I’m there.

As ever, the food was one of the highlights. Apart from the local cuisine, which I always love, Balinese cooks have flat-out learned to cook Italian food, no doubt because of the huge tourist trade on the island and the global appeal of Italian cuisine. One of the restaurants (called "Chasers") in the beachside town of Legian has some of the best pizzas you can imagine. They make the dough by hand , grate the cheese by hand, and bake the pies in a wood-fired clay oven, directly on the stone. The result is a perfect, crisp crust, and as any pizza aficionado will confirm, the crust is far and away the most important component of a good pizza. The restaurant sells any of their pies, which are about 11-12” in diameter, for Rp. 26,000, roughly $2.40. On this trip, the exchange rate between the dollar and the rupiah was as favorable as it’s ever been in my five-plus years of travel to Bali. On my first trip there, in June 2003, one U.S. dollar would buy about 8,400 rupiah. On this one, it was over 11,000. Most of the trip was paid for by dollars because the exchange rate with the Malaysian ringgit wasn’t as favorable.

On my second day there, I met this girl through a friend of a friend there whose boyfriend, a fellow from Australia, had been killed on a motorbike not far from where I was staying the day before I arrived. They were actually making the arrangements to send his body back to Melbourne. I was pretty horrified, because I ride a motorbike there, too. I actually had a bit of trouble going to sleep that night, just thinking about it. Later in the week, though, more details about the accident emerged, and while making it no less a tragedy and a loss, it did offer a bit of explanation. First, the guy had never ridden a motorcycle before, and I’ve read in three different guidebooks that Bali is no place to learn to ride. Second, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Third, he had been drinking. Truly a recipe for disaster… an inexperienced rider with no helmet and a buzz. That made me feel better about my own chances, honestly. Not only do I have loads of time on two wheels in the U.S., I’ve ridden motorbikes on my last four trips to Bali, working my way up gradually from renting them only in the relatively calm Ubud area to riding in the chaotic Kuta-Legian area, to even taking lengthy road trips from the beaches through the capital city of Denpasar up to Ubud and beyond. I’m always very attentive and follow the Balinese way of driving/riding, which is basically to say you do whatever the hell you want (anything goes if you’re on a motorbike, I’m not kidding) and “watch your front.” That’s your only area of responsibility—that which is directly in front of you, and when everyone follows this method, it works surprisingly well. I also always wear a helmet in Bali… given the crush of traffic in the southern part of the island, it’s uncommon to exceed 25-30 mph, and often it’s much slower as you weave around cars stopped in barely-moving traffic… but I’ve read about low-speed bicycle accidents where the rider hits his or her head just right and it’s fatal. So I always wear my helmet. Finally, I would never even think about riding a motorbike after I had been drinking. Apart from the obvious safety issues, cabs are simply too plentiful and FAR too cheap in Bali for there to even be a question about it. Reading about tourists who return home from their Bali holiday in a pine box in the cargo hold of an airplane is one thing; having it happen to someone who is only one-off from a person you know is quite another. It certainly made me just that much more aware of things as I was riding around. (I logged 150 miles on that little Honda in six days!) I love Bali, but I definitely don’t want to die there.

I only took my small point-and-shoot camera with me this time… didn’t want to be heaving my big ol’ Nikon around with me. I managed to keep my sunset shots to a minimum, but it’s hard to resist shooting at all as I was standing on the beach with that legendary Kuta sunset over the ocean, so I included a couple of the best shots here. After seven trips to the small island of Bali, I find that I am whipping out my camera less and less and just enjoying the time there more and more.

One of my friends, Delon, (who I met through my good friend Dendy in Jakarta) went with me to Ubud for a short part of my trip and one of my favorite memories was the hike we took along the Camphuan (/chomp-OO-ahn/) Ridge near the village of Ubud. The overcast skies lent a wonderful quality of light to the dense grasses on the ridge, and as we hiked along the crest of the ridge, we could hear the roar of the river, far below and away. The abundance of green was just amazing. I stumbled on this baby green iguana too, who was kind enough to let me get a close-up picture (no amazing zoom lens here) before darting back into the foliage. Note the apparent Boy Scout troop along the trail in the top picture. They're actually middle school students—uniforms are de rigueur in Bali—and the school is just next to the trailhead.

Note that any of these hiking shots can—and should—be clicked on and enlarged for proper enjoyment. :)

Before heading back to south Bali, Delon and I stopped for lunch at one of my favorite places in Ubud, Bebek Bengil—the Dirty Duck Diner, so named for a flock of ducks who, during construction, waddled in from the rice paddies amongst which the restaurant’s many pavilions are built, and left their muddy footprints all over the place. We ate a combination of Italian and Indonesian foods, finished off by the finest cappuccino I’ve ever had. No joke… look at the perfect crema at the edge of the foam! While we were there, it started raining (we were in a private pavilion overlooking the rice paddies) and our leisurely lunch turned into three hours of waiting, because neither of us was keen to make the hour's ride on motorbikes in a steady rain. It was fine, though… we talked, played card games, visited with some Japanese tourists, ordered drinks, and watched the workers adjacent to our pavilion. They were working on a decorative stone sidewalk and kept working until the rain got heavier (note the one worker who donned his motorcycle helmet to shield his hair from the rain), then they crouched in pair under small tarps, laughing and carrying on. I’ve said this before, and it’s no less true now… if I could be reincarnated, I would absolutely want to come back as a Balinese. It’s really the only way to truly know the intricacies and complexities of the marvelous culture there, and they are simply the most content people I’ve ever experienced. There’s just an innate satisfaction and peace in everything they do… and they’re always quick with a big, gushing smile, for tourists like me, and for each other as well. Once the rains stopped, the workers cast off the tarps and got back to work, chattering and laughing away.

Bali has long since been a bit of a cash cow for the Indonesian government (some 80% of foreign visitors to Indonesia go to Bali and Bali alone), and they’re exploiting it now more than ever. When I first began going, a 60-day visa was free on arrival. That changed a couple of years ago and now, a 7-day visa is US$10, while the maximum 30-day visa is US$25. Considering the huge numbers of foreign visitors who come to Bali alone, this is an enormous amount of money. No one knows where it goes or what it funds. Moreover, when you leave now, the international departure tax is highest from Bali, 50% higher than it is from Jakarta, about US$15… this is a brand-new and very unwelcome development. So for every foreign visitor to Bali, around 2 million a year, the government is getting either $25 (total) or $40, depending on the length of the stay. It’s a staggering amount of money, especially by Indonesian standards… an average of $65 million a year is a LOT of rupiahs. Where does it all go? The locals sure don’t know. I can personally assure everyone it’s not going to upgrade any of the infrastructure on Bali. And this greed (let’s call it what it is) may ultimately backfire: Having to add US$40 per person to the cost of a vacation could well make a family of four or five seek other holiday destinations in the region. For those not expressly interested in Bali’s unique culture, much of the appeal lies in Bali’s affordability. There are better beaches elsewhere, and verdant rice paddies, tropical jungles, and fantastic food are in abundant supply throughout southeast Asia. Like many of the Balinese with whom I spoke, whose livelihoods depend on tourism, I hope these increasingly obnoxious fees are reduced or, in the case of the visa fee, eliminated. There seems to be little chance of that, however. Like any tax, once that well has been tapped, it’s awfully hard to find the resolve to shut it off.

For me, the next travel stop is the island of Penang, here in Malaysia. I’m going with friends to ring in the New Year. It’s my first time to Penang, and I’m really looking forward to the trip. It’s about a five-hour drive there from KL, and the island is connected to the peninsula by the 8.4-mile-long Penang Bridge, one of the longest over-water bridges in the world. Penang is rich in Colonial history and famous throughout the region for its food. Read about Penang here… it’s one of the most popular destinations in Malaysia for locals, so it should be a fun place to spend New Year’s!

In two months, I’ll be going to another island… Phuket, Thailand. That’s /Pooh-KET/. I always wondered how to pronounce that place and only learned it a few years ago. Gotta be careful with that one, especially if you try to say it with English pronunciation! This gorgeous island was one of many devastated by the massive Indian Ocean tsunami that struck four years ago, but has mostly recovered since then. I have literally not heard anything but good about Thailand so I’m really anticipating that trip.

Have a very happy new year and I’ll be back with pictures and stories in 2009!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Customs Foibles and Christmas Dinner

Merry Christmas!

So in an effort to get misdirected with less frequency, I ordered a really nice Garmin GPS unit from the States and had it shipped to my mom in Colorado, who then shipped it to me. Flying the parcel around the world proved to be pretty straightforward – and quick, too. Once it arrived here in Malaysia, however, the wheels completely came off the process. Here is the account of what happened… I just have to get it all down in writing before I forget it. Honestly, I couldn’t do anything besides laugh throughout all this. The hardest part was keeping track of all of the steps in the process so I could get it in the blog. Hand to God, I’m not making this up or embellishing it at all. Forgive the epic length, I couldn’t leave anything out without detracting from the story. This was how I spent today… Christmas Eve 2008.

First, a little social history. As I’ve mentioned before, KL is a multicultural city, but instead of being a true “melting pot,” a better analogy might be three different foods on one plate. (The expats like me are in a breadbasket off to the side.) The foods intermingle and run together a bit at their respective peripheries, but for the most part, the main course stays put and doesn’t get mixed up with the vegetables, and the potatoes stay in their section of the plate, too. That’s KL. The three main ethnic groups generally keep to themselves, although there is some interplay at the fringes. It’s not unheard of, but it’s quite uncommon, to go out and see a large group of people with a mix of Chinese, Malay, and/or Indians. Most frequently, the group will be homogenous. A profoundly uneven distribution of wealth in the country led to long-simmering tensions and horrific race riots in 1969 (not too long after we had race riots of our own in America). This in turn led to new social policies and law that ensured a certain percentage of the nation's wealth would be held by Malays and indigineous peoples here. Even today, real estate is priced at two levels: the standard rate and the lower bumiputra rate, the word literally meaning "sons of the soil."

Nowadays, everyone seems to get along quite well in KL... the children are taught from an early age here that it's a multicultural society and that everyone must respect each other and get along. That notwithstanding, however, each group certainly has its opinions about the others and they've shared these with me, as well as critiques of their own race, too. One basic thing I'm told is that, if you're dealing with a company staffed by Malays (and I'm told this by Malays as well as Chinese), any hope of efficiency goes right out the door. Malays are as a nice a people as you could hope to meet, but they definitely don't get in much of a hurry. Ever. Conversely, Chinese seem very business-minded, and dealing with them in business is an entirely different kettle of fish.

So there’s your background information. My day today illustrates this social juxtaposition all too well. It actually began yesterday when I went to my mailbox and found a letter from POS Malaysia, the postal carrier/courier service here. My parcel had arrived! It only took six days, too. So according to the letter, I had to either self-clear the package through customs, appoint POS Malaysia as my agent, for the sparkling fee of RM49.50 (in addition to all the other myriad charges), or appoint a third party. I figured I could manage. So I drove down to the local post office and got some directions on how to proceed. Though it made absolutely NO mention of it in the letter, apparently I had to go get some sort of approval code from a third party before I could even consider claiming the package. So glad I asked.

SIRIM is the Malaysian equivalent of UL (Underwriters Laboratory) and they test and certify all things electrical. There are little “SIRIM” stickers on every outlet and switch in my condo, on appliances, power strips, etc. It’s just as ubiquitous as the “UL” in America, and the “CE” on virtually every piece of electronic equipment you own. So I was told that I had to go to SIRIM in Section 2 of Shah Alam (west of KL), get the required approval codes (two of them) for a non-electrical device (it’s electronic, a subtle but real distinction) that they had never seen nor inspected, and then, and only then, I could drive clear down to the airport, which is remarkably far from KL proper (an hour’s drive easily) and deal with customs to get my package. Now clearly the only thing preventing me from sucking down a double Scotch before embarking on this hellish journey was the fact that I’d be doing so much driving. So I set out for Shah Alam, a town to which I had never gone before. From where I live, it’s not terribly far… maybe 25-30 minutes to SIRIM’s campus. I actually have mobile GPS in my new handphone that I got two weeks ago, so it helped me find my way. It’s no replacement for a standalone GPS unit, but in a pinch, it’s much better than nothing. So I found Building 9 at SIRIM and then found the correct counter with the help of a genuinely kind Malay woman, all bedecked in her traditional gown and headscarf, who told me that it was lunch hour (1:00 to 2:00, and I arrived promptly at 1:30, naturally), so the counter was quite closed, but that I was welcome to go eat in their cafeteria if I hadn’t yet had my lunch, which sounded good to me. I had some beef rendang, steamed rice, a fried egg, and some clear soup with iced “teh tarik,” tea with sweetened condensed milk. All of this was laughably cheap, about $1.40 total, which is one huge advantage of eating where the locals eat.

Afterwards, I went back to the counter and filled out two forms, then was told (at 2:15) that they would call me around 5 p.m. with my approval code numbers. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor and expressed my profound disinterest in waiting three hours for a code, the guy asked me if I’d like it faster. I’m not kidding. Well yes, that would be lovely, I said. Wasn’t aware there was an Option B. Again, so glad I asked. No problem, I was told, just have a seat and it’ll take about 25 minutes. I was already laughing, but believe me, things just keep getting better. So I got my numbers, paid an eye-popping RM110 for a “special approval stamp fee,” a “processing fee,” and some other riffraff. Then, papers and codes in hand, I set off for the damned airport, which is nothing less than a road trip here. And we all remember how well my last road trip ended, right? Yeah. Wait for it… wait for it…

So, some days later, I arrived at the giant POS Malaysia complex by the Low Cost Carrier Terminal at KLIA. Pay careful attention, because you’ll lose the thread here if you don’t focus. I actually lived this story and my head swims at the attempt to narrate it. After parking, I first had to stop at the security kiosk and surrender my driver’s license, sign in, and be issued a vistor’s badge. Then I went inside to this big room with many counters, a side room, another side room, and an across-the-way room, down a hall. First stop was Counter 5, where they examined my paperwork from SIRIM and told me I had to go across the way and down the hall to Room 2. So I went to Room 2, gave them my paperwork, they produced a sheaf of customs forms which I had to sign, then I had to go to Counter 4. Back down the hall, across the big room, to Counter 4, where they looked at the papers, stamped them, then directed me to the side counter, Counter 2, where I actually claimed the package. Yes!! But no. We’re just getting started, kids.

I had to surrender my visitor’s badge here, which, I was told, would be returned to me after the package had been cleared. I now had to take the parcel and go back to Counter 5, where I got still more paperwork, was told to open the package. (Here, use our box cutter!) More stamping here, then off to the lady at Counter 6, about ten feet to the right, for a new computer printout and another stamp and a lot of questions about my GPS and how do I like Malaysia and do I mind not having seasons and what am I doing for Christmas and… well, at least the people were friendly. Then it was back to Room 2 for the mysterious customs duty calculation. I handed in my paperwork, waited and waited, then a guy emerged with the figure of RM104.76. I looked in my wallet and after gassing up my crappy car, topping up my stored-value Touch-n-Go card (for the toll gates), and paying the extortionate SIRIM fees, I had precisely RM103.00 in my wallet. I told him, “I’m sorry, this is all I have. It’s going to have to do unless you take Mastercard.” Which, naturally, they didn’t. ATM nearby? You must be joking. So he massaged the figures for another 15 minutes—again, no exaggeration—which resulted in a massive RM1 (exactly) reduction. Someone not only needs to brush up on his math skills, but I could have walked out to my car and found enough in coins to pay for that 15 minutes of my life back. Then I got to go to Counter 5 again so they could take their copies of the new ream of paperwork I had been issued, do some more fun stamping, then they sent me to Counter 1, where I was actually supposed to pay for this.

Now, if you’ve been following along, you’re possibly thinking, “He’s still RM0.76 short,” which was indeed the case. The poor woman just looked at me, and I was like, again, “I’m sorry, RM103 will just simply have to do. It’s ALL I HAVE.” I can’t even express how worthless 76 sen (cents) is, even here. It would be like paying for something that cost $35 in the States, and being like 18¢ short. It’s not nothing, but it’s certainly no big deal. So after a few tense moments, she accepted that I wasn’t kidding and didn’t actually have 76 sen stashed in my hair or anything, capitulated, and let me go. More stamping, more stapling, a signature. Sigh. So I went back to Counter 2, everything marked PAID, thinking I could reclaim my visitor’s badge, which would in turn allow me to reclaim my driver’s license. WRONG!!!! I had to go back to Counter 5 AGAIN for just ONE MORE FREAKING STAMP! (“Telah Ditaksir JK 6 Dikeluarkan” which is something like, “Estimate was issued by JK 6,” I think.) And then back to Counter 1 where the man stapled everything, took his copies, then gave me the visitor’s badge back. At this point, I just couldn’t help but laugh at how completely preposterous this had all been. It was almost a parody of actual business practices. Or something you’d see in a sitcom or a Saturday Night Live sketch. Literally one person could have done all of this. Sign here, stamp stamp stamp, here’s what you owe, okay thanks for all your money, stamp, staple, stampity stamp, here’s your package, have a nice day, Merry Christmas. Not even counting the two people in security, I seriously dealt with six different people over the course of 50 minutes and there was no other person being served in there. Just me. Fifty minutes. Six people. Finally, I left the building, exchanged my badge for my license, signed another book, then actually got in my car and left.

Still not done yet. Remember the ominous road trip allusion awhile back? Yeah, well, about three whole miles down the road, I heard this odd sound and looked in my rearview mirror to see this cord-like debris flapping about on the road. Did I just run over it? Was crap falling out from under my car? Should I be concerned?? About a minute later, I noticed my previously frigid air-conditioning was no longer frigid. Moments later, it wasn’t even cool. I didn’t run over anything… that was my fan belt being shredded and thrown out of my engine compartment. Honestly, this didn’t even remotely faze me. After blowing a head gasket, a mere fan belt is small potatoes. I just kept merrily on driving, roasting away in my car, and got back to the Damansara area about 45 minutes later where I was welcomed by six hundred thousand other drivers on the LDP (the highway near my neighborhood). By this time, it was nearly 6 p.m., five hours after I set off on this odyssey. I called my mechanic, a Chinese guy named Sim and asked him if I could bring the car by in 15 minutes or so for a belt replacement (his shop is a half mile from my condo). Sure, no problem… so I got there, he took me in immediately, had the new fan belt on within 25 minutes, it was only RM85 (about US$23) for parts and labor, and off I went, air-con ice-cold once again. The contrast between the package fiasco—all Malay staff at both SIRIM and POS—and the car service—all Chinese staff—was genuinely startling and I’d probably not have given it a thought had the two events not happened in sequence.

If you’re wondering at this point why I went through all of this grief and didn’t just buy a GPS here in KL, the reason is that they’re extremely expensive here as they’re somewhat new to the scene. A basic Garmin nuvi 205, for example, which is very entry-level, runs about RM1,300, close to US$370. I got one from the States, the nuvi 680, which is far better with a larger screen, a better GPS receiver, and loads of features such as Bluetooth and FM transmitter which allow me to not only transmit MP3 songs through my car stereo, but will let me take and make hands-free calls via the Bluetooth connection with my mobile phone, and the caller’s voice will transmit over the car stereo as well. Additionally, it has MSN Direct which, when I return to the U.S., will give me live traffic updates, gas prices, weather forecasts, local movie times, etc. As for maps of Malaysia, there’s a site with free downloads of good Malaysia and Singapore maps for Garmin devices, so I just download the data onto an SD card and pop it in the GPS. Even with all of the costs on this end—fees, duties, petrol cost to get there and back, tolls, etc.—it was still considerably cheaper for this much better unit (which I can happily use in the U.S. as well) than it would have been to buy a bare-bones model here locally.

So I got home at 6:40, took a very quick shower and got dressed up for my dinner with friends at the Westin Hotel in the heart of KL. It was a lavish Christmas Eve buffet, and it was the most twisted thing I think I’ve seen, and I’ve seen Christmas trees standing next to palm trees (witness the last picture below). I think that people here don’t quite know how to truly deal with Christmas. They’ve seen it on TV, they may have experienced it in places where it’s really celebrated, but it’s like taking a picture of a fine painting. The two just aren’t the same. One’s real, one’s a reproduction. It would be like the Denver city council trying to organize a big Chinese New Year festival. They may have read about it, some of them may have been to China or Hong Kong and experienced it, but it would still just be a one-off facsimile of the real thing. That’s Christmas in Malaysia. The hotel actually had a theme for the dinner, too. (“Christmas,” I guess, just wouldn’t do.) It was the Wild, Wild Westin Christmas 2008. Christmas trees, Santa Claus and his hot chick elf wandering around, and every staff member wearing a big Stetson hat. I’m not kidding. Mariah Carey singing “O Holy Night” on the sound system was followed by the live band doing a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Surreal. Disappointingly, there wasn’t a nativity scene with Baby Jesus in leather chaps or Joseph outfitted with a holstered Colt .45, but I did get a bandana and a sheriff’s badge at my place setting. It kind of took the glamour right out of dining on foie gras terrine, spectacularly fresh sashimi, and beef Wellington, but in all fairness, I had a wonderful time and was so grateful to have been invited. The food was great (click on the menu picture to see what we ate), the company was marvelous, I learned a little Cantonese, and as my uncle requested, here are some people pictures to go along with the food pictures. The girls aren’t Thai lovelies, but they are quite pretty all the same. (I’m going to Phuket, Thailand in two months, so I’ll fill that request then.) Note that, per my above observation, everyone in the group is Chinese. Except for that one weird white guy.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year -from Malaysia! As the street banners here proclaim, “Selamat Hari Krismas dan Selamat Tahun Baru!”

Bali stories and photos in the next entry, plus an answer to the question, "What in the world is a Prosperity Burger??"… :)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Let's Eat!

All the guidebooks say the same thing: Malaysians love to eat. But it’s true… it really doesn’t matter what time it is, either. I’ll drive by the mamak stalls (small local food stands) in my neighborhood at midnight and there will invariably be a crowd of people, all sitting at little plastic tables in the street, enjoying the company and the cheap food. Shopping may be a close second, but eating is unquestionably the national pastime in Malaysia. The confluence of so many unique cultures ensures the availability of a panoply of strange and delicious dishes at all hours, any day of the week. One of the most ubiquitous dishes is nasi ayam, or chicken rice. This local staple is one of my favorites. Fresh roasted whole chickens are hung on hooks in the food stall and the proprietor has a large, thick wooden chopping block and a cleaver. When you place your order, he chops the roasted meat into bite-size pieces (usually boneless, but this seems to vary a bit from place to place, as does the amount of chicken meat – it’s quite generous where I go). It’s served on a plate with a thin brown soya sauce and thinly sliced cucumbers, and generously garnished with an Asian leafy herb called mitsuba that looks similar to cilantro, but tastes very different. Along with this, you get a plate of steamed rice, a bowl of clear soup (sort of a chicken broth, sometimes even complete with a soggy, rubbery chicken foot, which I flat-out REFUSE to ever eat), and two accompaniments: a finely minced ginger sambal, and a standard red chili sambal. This all costs RM3.80, barely more than a dollar. Other favorites at the same price include pork noodles and char kuey teow, pronounced /char kway taow/, a delicious wok-fried dish comprising wide, flat noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, and little fish cakes.

I eat fresh fruit on a near-daily basis. Pineapple, jackfruit, mango, papaya, melon… these are all good choices. One of my favorite choices is fresh pineapple with asam powder on it, a blend of sugar, salt, and tamarind powder. It’s sweet and sour and balances perfectly with the pineapple. There’s a mobile stall that comes to my office park every day and serves up fruit and fresh fruit juices. It’s all quite cheap of course… a quarter of the whole pineapple, skinned and cubed right in front of you, then served in a baggie with a thin wooden skewer, is about 28 cents.

I haven’t stopped cooking, but the truth is, it’s easier to go out to eat here, and it’s cheaper, too. There’s no way I can make a dish of pork noodles for one or two people for less than I can go buy it at a Chinese food stall. Plus, as an added bonus, there are no dishes to wash when you eat out. (Automatic dishwashers are a profound rarity here. The tap water, however, is quite soft, so hand-washed dishes dry sparkling clean, free of water spots.) Mostly, I just make my homemade Javanese sambal (those are the ingredients and one of my knives in the picture above, a good one to enlarge) and keep it on hand to use for frying up rice and noodles. I bought a big aluminum wok at IKEA, one of the best stores ever for furnishing a place in an inexpensive and minimalist way (the wok was about $4.50) and I use it all the time. My kitchen here has a smooth-top radiant stove in the “main” kitchen, but there’s sort of an “auxiliary kitchen” off to the side, what locals call a “wet kitchen” due to its floor drain and direct exposure to the outside. (When I forgot to close the sliding window yesterday, a wild afternoon thunderstorm ensured the wet kitchen lived up to its name. Whoops.) In this secondary kitchen, I have a gas-fired cooktop and another sink. It’s also where my washer is, and I bought a small countertop oven and put it in there as well. Very little food is cooked in ovens in Malaysia, so the vast majority of homes don’t have them. The freestanding stovetop/oven ranges so common in the U.S. are virtually unheard of here.

Another favorite of mine is tom yam—pronounced /tome-YAHM/—arguably the most famous soup in Thailand. It’s a delicious, immensely satisfying soup, and, like nasi goreng in Indonesia, every cook’s version of tom yam is slightly different. Near my condo, there’s a restaurant staffed almost entirely by Malaysians from the northern states of Perak and Perlis, up on the border with Thailand. They serve a tom yam that opens your sinuses and brings tears to your eyes, but leaves you craving more and more. It’s an incredibly complex soup, and it’s amazing that a mere liquid can be bursting with so many dramatic and divergent flavors. Tom yam is made from a rich chicken stock to which coriander leaves, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onions, garlic, lime juice, a bit of fish sauce, Thai chili paste, and sliced Thai chili peppers are added. Some cooks add tamarind paste, some add large wedges of tomato, others add a bit of curry paste and choppings of leafy green vegetables... every region has a unique version. In the end, however, the result will be a marvelous blend of hot, sour, and citrus flavors. The restaurant I frequent serves up several different varieties… shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetarian, a red version (merah), and a slightly milder white version (putih), each served with a side of steamed or fried rice. One of my friends here calls tom yam the perfect food.

Sushi is about as popular here as it is anywhere else, and one of my favorite places is a small restaurant called Ichiban Boshi in the KL Pavilion mall. An ostensibly refrigerated conveyor belt snakes through the entire restaurant, in reach of nearly every table, and an endless line of sushi dishes parades by, each covered by a clear plastic dome, and you simply pluck your choices from the belt and are charged according to the number of little plates left on your table at the end of the meal. You can also order from a menu, and the resulting meal is really enjoyable. Each of the sushi plates, usually with two pieces of sushi, or four pieces of a roll, costs RM4, about $1.10, so it’s not an especially expensive way to eat sushi. I even tried jellyfish. It wasn’t bad, but it was quite spicy, and I’m in no big rush to eat it again.

Dessert! I don’t eat much of it (never have), and it’s not offered in local restaurants in the manner to which Americans are accustomed (following a meal). Naturally, Western restaurants such as Chili's and TGI Friday's have full dessert menus, definitely best avoided! One of my friends here is from the Philippines and is doing basically what I’m doing here: experiencing life outside his home country. One day, he brought over this Filipino dessert called kutsinta. It’s similar in appearance to flan, but that’s where the similarity ends. Kutsinta is a moist brown rice cake, made very simply from rice flour, brown sugar, water, and a bit of lye water (potassium carbonate). It’s dense and not very sweet at all. It’s topped with freshly grated coconut. Here, I served it with a splash of Cointreau liqueur and some small yam cookies (they’re beyond fantastic… easily my favorite cookies here).

So all this writing of food has naturally made me hungry. It’s Sunday morning here, so I’m going to get showered and dressed and head over to the adjacent town called Taman Tun Dr. Ismail (simply called Taman Tun or TTDI here), and visit their wet market. Some of the wet markets here are, for lack of a better word, disgusting… one I read about in the local paper is terminally plagued by rats. Nothing like having to kick hordes of rats out of your way to buy your produce, eh? The one in TTDI is famous throughout the Klang Valley, so I’m hoping it’s a bit nicer. Anyway, it’s essentially a farmer’s market, and is supposedly the place to go for the freshest greens and fruits and such. I’ve never been, despite living right near it, so today is the day!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Introducing... Malaysia's Fabulous Northeast Monsoon!

In Peninsular Malaysia, there is no real day-to-day difference in the weather when it comes to temperature. It's about 87-88°F every day and plummets to 72-74° every night. Occasionally, it will get a little warmer, and sometimes it stays relatively cool, but for the most part, life here three degrees north of the equator hums along in a very narrow range of temperatures. The two actual "seasons" here are the dry season and the rainy season, but even these are not distinct. From what I can gather, the peninsula here is subject to two monsoonal flows during the year. The Northeast monsoon, from November to March, brings loads of moisture and characteristically heavy rains from the South China Sea (which lies northeast of KL). The eastern coast of the peninsula gets more rain than the west coast (KL is near the west coast). The rainfall is so prolific there that a local tourist island off the east coast, Perhentian, is effectively "closed" during the worst of the rainy season. The Southwest monsoon runs from late May to October, and typically brings drier weather, although it can (and does) rain at any time of the year.

So we're definitely in the rainy season now, and it's living up to its billing. It honestly rains at some point almost every day, and although last Sunday was the first Sunday since I moved here three months ago that it didn't rain, it rained yesterday morning, was dry for the rest of the day, then started raining again last night and has rained, quite literally, all day today (Monday, December 8). This is a bit of a shame for the locals since today is a public holiday here. (It's called hari raya haji, a day of celebration marking the end of the annual haj—the Muslims' pilgramage to Mecca.) It's been a mostly light to moderate rain, but it hasn't let up for a long time, and it's kept the temperatures down, too. I've talked to friends today who say they're very cold—it's been 74°F all day—and you can imagine their reaction when I tell them it was 4°F in Denver last week. (Snow and -15°C, I tell them, which actually means something to Malaysians. The Fahrenheit scale is greater mystery to metric system users than Celsius is to Americans.) This picture was taken from my balcony around noon... the clouds and mist settled into the treetops of the surrounding hillside jungle and really made for a picturesque, evocative sort of mood. I definitely recommend clicking on and enlarging this picture.

Obviously, the big problem with all this rain is flooding, and the east coast sees heavy flooding almost every year during the Northeast monsoon. Here in the Klang Valley, the incessant rains take their toll on the steep hillside slopes amidst which, and regrettably, sometimes on which KL is built. Last Thursday, not far from where I live, a large retaining wall in a commercial area failed, and the resulting landslide buried—and destroyed—eleven cars. The failure was perilously close to an office building and the debris and dirt was very nearly pushed out onto the highway.

I took this picture from across the highway today, in the rain, and you can see the mangled remains of five cars. (Those flattened things by the palm trees on the right were actually two cars.) This is a good photo to enlarge to really appreciate the damage that tons of concrete and earth can do. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

That wasn't the case two days later. Late at night, while residents slept, a massive landslide struck the Taman Hillside area of Bukit Antarabangsa. (In the first photo, the circled apartment building is actually where I lived for my first month here. That large patch of denuded forest is the landslide, so you can see how close it came to the building. My ex-housemate reports that he's looking for a new place to live now. Rather understandable.) Fourteen large houses were destroyed. Some were buried, others were simply forcibly shifted off their foundations. These pictures are from the local paper, and don't really offer sufficient resolution to appreciate the scale of the disaster. Four people were killed, many more injured, and one is still missing. Over 3,000 have been evacuated as the area is deemed unsafe.
Coincidentally, this landslide occurred almost 15 years to the day after one of Malaysia's most notorious and tragic disasters, the Highland Towers collapse. Less than half a mile from Saturday morning's landslide, on December 11, 1993, ten days of continuous rain caused the weakening and failure of a retaining wall of the parking garage under a 12-story condominium building. The entire structure collapsed. As I've mentioned before, buildings here—even those such as the Petronas Towers—are constructed with reinforced concrete, not steel girders like many large buildings in the U.S., so the sheer mass of this building must have been incredible. The collapse killed 48 people, and the other two apartment blocks in the development were evacuated and condemned, and—of course—looted and vandalized over the years. They still stand there today, completely gutted and in a terrible state of moldy disrepair... only the concrete skeletal superstructures remain. Locals believe the site to be haunted and late-night forays to the abandoned towers are apparently a spooky rite of passage with some Malaysian teens... kind of like an eerie midnight visit to a graveyard by kids in the U.S.

Already, comparisons are being made between this latest slide in Bukit Antarabangsa and the tragedy of 1993, which resulted in a great flurry of lawsuits, all of which ultimately resulted in, to the dismay of many, everyone being absolved of any liability whatsoever. So now, accusations are flying in the media here that lessons weren't learned, the local councils are corrupt, developers are greedy and foolish, there's no accountability, etc. This should all sound quite familiar to Americans, as pointing fingers and filing lawsuits are two of our most time-honored ways of reacting to disasters. One op-ed piece here suggested that Malaysians are acting too resigned over this tragedy and not outraged enough. Further hillside developments have been halted, of course, but few believe that this latest ban will be upheld or enforced any more stringently than previous ones.
The last picture here shows the destroyed Highland Towers building shortly after its collapse in 1993, along with the two remaining condo blocks.

Hasn't this been a cheerful entry? I'll try to make sure the next one isn't as dismal. For now, though, the rain has finally stopped, so I think I'll go swimming. I mentioned this a little while ago to one of my friends, whose immediate response was, "On a cold night like this??" Yes, these brutal, frigid 75-degree nights... how will I survive much longer here? :)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Home may be where the heart is...

...but it's sure not where the Malaysians are. My goodness, these people just refuse to go home and stay there. It doesn't matter what time of day or what day of the week, there is a veritable hornets' nest of traffic almost everywhere. "Hey honey, let's get in the car and go sit in traffic. I know we don't have anywhere to actually go, but hey, we've got a perfectly good car, so we might as well use it and drive around!"

You expect it at rush hour, or at the mall on a Saturday, but I've been in gridlock at 9:30 p.m. on a Monday, in heavy traffic on the highway at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and even surrounded by cars at 3 in the morning. It just doesn't matter. When it comes to traffic in KL, there's really no "good," only varying degrees of "bad." I know I've carried on about it in past posts, but I can't overstate how maddening the traffic here can be at times. I tried to go to a new supermarket near my condo at 8 p.m. on a Monday. It was a 40-minute odyssey and this place is quite literally less than two miles away. This picture, taken from a monorail station, shows a fairly normal traffic jam. (Note the opposite side, going towards the top of the photo; the nearer side is clear because of a red light a hundred meters back.) Malaysians just don't like to stay home. Eating out is a national pastime here, and it's often easier (and cheaper) to eat out than to cook at home, and about the only thing more popular than eating is shopping, so I figure most of them are either going to shop or eat, or maybe just to enjoy the wondrous experience of creeping along at 5 mph in a blizzard of 5,000 other cars on the highway. I'm told that oftentimes, on weekends especially, Malaysians will go to the malls here not so much to shop or buy things, but just to enjoy the free air conditioning. I'm not sure if that's actually the case, but I suppose it makes sense. Running the A/C units in one's home for hours on end can add quite a bit to the month's energy bill, but it only costs ten ringgits to pile the kids in the car and go spend a few hours at the mall.

Parking is a problem of near-epic proportions in KL. The general idea seems to be "park wherever you can fit your car." It's such a major issue here that double-parked cars are all in a normal day's business, and companies here actually make pre-printed signs that you can buy for your dashboard: "Sorry to inconvenience you. Kindly call (write your handphone number here) to have car moved." So if you double park, you just throw that on your dash and go about your business. If you're the one barricaded in your spot by a double-parked car and wish to leave, and there is no phone number provided (or if you call the number and get no answer), the accepted practice is to simply get in your car and lay on the horn until the person comes out to move the car. Presumably, when you hear honking, if you’ve double parked, you are expected to scurry out and see if your car happens to be the one causing the problem. I'm at work now, on my break, and this is actually happening as I type. Someone is trying to leave, so they're just honking until they get satisfaction.

The vast majority of illegal parking goes unnoticed and unpunished. However, it’s not always so tidy. There are two entities that can ticket you for parking infractions here. One is the local council of the area where you park. These tickets are usually shrugged off with complete impunity. There is no penalty for not paying these tickets, and from what I’m told, no real expectation that anyone will pay them. If you actually take it to pay the fine, you're greeted with surprise and skepticism. "You're here to pay your ticket? Really? Hmmm. Okay, well thanks, I guess." Curiously, however, if you do show up to pay, you get a discount to go along with their thanks. The other entity who can ticket your car is the actual police, and supposedly you have to pay those, but it seems very random as to whether the tickets actually get entered or not. I’ve talked to people who have gotten tickets, tried to look up their summonses online or go to pay them, only to be told, “No, there’s no ticket issued, no problem here.” So you can see why there’s little to dissuade people from just parking anywhere and any way they damn well please. :)

And how about this picture?? Look carefully. Did I ever in my wildest dreams think I'd see a "University of Denver" decal on a car in Malaysia? No, I did not. --->

Despite the perpetual 88-degree days, the calendar assures me it's December, so that must mean Christmas is coming soon. I've been asked a lot whether or not people here celebrate Christmas, and while the answer is somewhat ambiguous (it's recognized and observed, and is in fact a national holiday, but not truly celebrated like it is in the U.S.), there can be no doubt that the malls celebrate it with every bit as much fervor as those in the States. I've asked my students, and the answer is usually more of a shrug than anything, which to me means, "Not really." Some of them have trees up in their houses, but not many. This picture is one of the displays at a massive mall called Berjaya Times Square. There are eleven floors of retail therapy to be found in this behemoth edifice, along with a roller coaster, a movie theater, and all sorts of other craziness, and if that isn't enough to pop your eyes right out of their sockets, get this: A Papa John's pizza is about to open there. Seriously. I believe it's the first in Malaysia and will almost certainly be as tragically pork-free as the pies served at Pizza Hut and Domino's. (Yep, both of those are here, too.) At some point while I'm here, I plan to make a list of all the American companies who have pitched their tents in KL. The list is really amazing. You expect McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks... but Borders bookstore? Chili's? TGI Fridays?? Ace Hardware? Yup... they're all here, as are many, many more. I'll write a whole entry about it at some point, I'm sure, but the simple truth is that that America has exported so much of itself to KL (television series, radio programs, restaurants, shops, etc.), there are many days where I really don't feel that I've moved to a foreign country at all, but rather just changed cities.

And then I get my energy bill which doesn't have a single word of English on the entire thing, reminding me that, even though there's a Burger King down the street, this isn't America. The bill I got was my first full-month's bill, too. I got one last month, but it really didn't count so much since I moved in on October 5th, then was in Jakarta for five or six days, too... so it was for October, but not the full month. This one was for the entire month of November, and it came to a grand total of RM67.40, as you can see here. That's about $18.50 at the current exchange rate. Quite cheap, but I'm pretty judicious about the use of my air conditioners... there are four in my condo, but mostly, I just use the one in my bedroom when I sleep, setting it at 23°C (73.4°F), which keeps the room very pleasant. Otherwise, I'll typically turn on the air-con in whatever room I'm in, let it run for 30-40 minutes, then turn it off and let the room fan circulate the cool air, and that's plenty good enough. I had initially budgeted over twice that amount for the energy bill, so this was a really pleasant surprise! Don't even get me started bragging about the water and sewer bill, which was a whopping RM7.60 for the month. Seriously... it's like $2.00.

Take a look at this... another genuine Malaysian oddity (although it's rather common in Indonesia, too). This is a "to-go" beverage. "Hi, could I get an iced coffee in a bag to go, please? Thanks." It's really quite handy, and the red tie around it is looped and holds very tightly, so you can just carry it by the "handle." It's easy to get every last drop out, and this beverage isn't really coffee, but a popular NestlĂ©-made drink called "Milo" — a mocha-malt sort of beverage. It's quite good, and I've gotten rapidly accustomed to getting my drinks in a baggie. I'm not sure if it's better or worse than a waxed paper cup, from either a convenience or ecological standpoint... I think it's just different. And that was really the whole point of this move, wasn't it?

So I have to report here that I got my first Christmas card—indeed, my first piece of actual mail addressed specifically to me—from one of my family members. My mother's aunt, Patsy, sent me a card from Illinois. The envelope was postmarked November 22nd in St. Louis and it arrived in my mailbox here on December 2nd. Ten days to get here, literally the other side of the planet. I think that's pretty good! So thanks, Aunt Patsy, for being the first to send me anything here! :)