Friday, December 4, 2009

All Hail the Mighty Ramly Burger

It seems that there's typically either so little of note going on in my life that there's no reason to update the blog, or there's so much going on that there's no time to do so. The middle ground continues to elude me. :)

The past six or seven weeks have comprised both of these extremes. My life has seemed like a baseball game... long stretches of routine and boredom punctuated by moments of high drama, tension, and excitement. While this formula works really well for baseball (and it's not too bad for life in general, either, I suppose), it really doesn't lend itself very favorably to consistent blog writing! But now I can take a breath and get everyone caught up on the last month or so...
First of all, let's talk about food. Somehow, this very popular street food here managed to fly under my radar for the better part of fifteen months, and I just don't know how that happened. It's so popular, in fact, that the primary ingredient is routinely smuggled into Singapore from Malaysia to surreptitiously serve the hungry people there. It's called the Ramly burger, and my research suggests that it's been around since about 1979, created here in KL by a man named Ramly Moknin. Someone gave me a year-old copy of Expatriate Lifestyle magazine and there was an article in there about these burgers, and all I could think is, "How disgusting... I've GOT to get one of these!" They're widely available here, and very popular, but somehow I missed them. All Malaysian beef products are banned in Singapore, so vendors smuggle the frozen beef patties across the causeway and sell them secretly there, risking their food-stall license to do so.

And what makes a mere burger worth risking one's livelihood? Well, I can tell you that, by pretty much any measure, this thing is a culinary abomination. It makes McDonald's look like health food. So, as you can imagine, it tastes fantastic. Anything this bad for you surely would.

The burger starts out with essentially the cheapest, crappiest, sad little frozen beef patties that (not a lot of) money can buy. You can get a 10-pack from the freezer at Tesco for about RM5 or so, less than US$2, and the question of whether or not any cows were actually involved in the creation of this product might even be debatable. (Note the unintentionally humorous "90% pure meat"—not beef, but meat—sign.) Anyway, Ramly burger carts are, for reasons unknown, almost always found next to 7-11 convenience stores. Everyone apparently knows this except me, so when I asked a friend of mine about this mysterious burger, he said, "Oh sure, there's a stall near my place that has the best Ramly burgers in town." (Indeed, the cart had a little certificate pinned to it from a local newspaper declaring the fat-and-calorie bomb burgers there to be the best in Klang Valley for 2009.) So I was eager to try this thing and then hate myself in the morning for it. First, the vendor cooks a patty on a hot griddle. Mine was cooked in a puddle of dirty grease. Yum. The bun was then split and buttered (likely with some palm oil derivative) and placed face-down on the griddle. Next, he cracked an egg, muddled the yolk around and spread it out very thinly on the hot surface (about 10 inches/25 cm, then placed the burger patty of doom into the center of the fried egg, then folded up the sides of the egg around the meat, like a little parcel. Some cooks will butterfly the beef patty, slicing it horizontally. This guy didn't, though. He simply seasoned the patty with something called Maggi seasoning, added liberal squirts of mayonnaise and sweet chili sauce, and a dash of thick Worcestershire sauce. His wife was on veggie patrol next to him, so she added a few bits of slivered onions to the burger. The toasted bun was set open to receive the egg-wrapped burger, onto which she added a handful of shredded cabbage or some sort of local lettuce (not like iceberg or romaine lettuce -- it looked very cabbage-y). Then the cook added more mayo, more chili sauce, a bit of mustard, and something that looked like BBQ sauce, mashed the top bun onto it and wrapped it up. There may have been a slice of cheese added at some point, but who would have ever seen it under all that muck and despair? So to recap, we have some beef-like product, fried in a lake of fat, a fried egg, the equivalent of a heaping tablespoon of mayonnaise, the same amount of sweet chili sauce, and a few scraps of cabbage and onion to make it a balanced, nutritious meal. I felt my arteries hardening and my cholesterol rising just watching it be made.

My friend had his burger made, too (it's a fast process) and we walked over to the open-air area of food stalls and tables and prepared to eat this thing. A girl came over for drink orders and I ordered an apple juice, kind of in the same logic as people who order a triple-scoop ice cream sundae with extra chocolate sauce and nuts, and a diet Coke. I will say this: ordering fruit juices at a food stall in KL is a different experience than getting fruit juice at a restaurant in America. It took over ten minutes to get the juice back to me because it's fresh -- they actually pulverize and juice the apples. I should have taken a picture because I foolishly ordered a large ("Small or big?" she asked) and it was huge. HUGE. Probably a full liter of juice. They ask if you want sugar added, but I didn't. It was great, but wow... next time I'll get the small version. The one I had was like an apple orchard in a glass.

As for the Ramly burger...? YUM. Look at this picture. Disgusting, isn't it? What a mess. This was a four-napkin burger and I still felt like I needed a shower afterwards. But ohhhh what flavor. From a calorie and saturated fat perspective, I'm pretty sure this thing would outpace a Big Mac, but wow, it sure tasted good. I'm determined never to get addicted though. Perhaps once a month as a treat. Truly a guilty pleasure.

There's much more news to share -- I'm currently back home in Colorado for the holidays, but will return to KL in early January. I'll be sure to update again soon!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tent Revival, Tesco Style

So there I was, aimlessly pushing my shopping cart ("trolley") through my local Tesco hypermarket, doing my biweekly grocery shopping. Then, about midway down the milk and cheese aisle (a very expensive aisle indeed, given the price of dairy products here), I stopped dead in my tracks, listening to what sounded like a familiar tune on the store's PA system. Now, as a point of background information, I've found that Asia in general likes old American soft rock and pop music from the 70s and 80s. I clearly remember sitting in a restaurant in Bali once a few years ago, amazed when "I Honestly Love You" by Olivia Newton-John came on the stereo, followed by an early Backstreet Boys song. So I've come to expect this. I was in a store the other day and found myself humming along to Kenny Rogers' old early-80s hit, "Lady." But nothing could have prepared me for this.

I literally stopped my cart (oh look, New Zealand butter is on sale this week!) and listened, thinking, "No, that can't be what I'm hearing." It was the melody of "Blessed Assurance," one of the most popular of Christian hymns. My first thought was that something else had just been set to the tune. But no... they lyrics were in English and then the full choir came in, four-part harmony... "Blessed assurance / Jesus is mine / Oh what a foretaste of glory divine...This is my story / This is my song / Praising my savior / All the day long..." I couldn't believe it and resumed my cart-pushing, chuckling away at the dichotomy of this full-on Christian hymn being played over the PA system in a Malaysian supermarket as dozens of Muslim housewives, all bedecked in their colorful headscarves and accompanied by their husbands, navigated their trolleys through the aisles, blissfully unaware of the irony. Now, even though I've pretty well disavowed myself of any organized religion in my adult years, I grew up in the Methodist church and "Blessed Assurance" was always one of my favorite hymns. I never had an inkling all those years ago that, someday, I'd be living in Malaysia, and certainly never in a million years could have imagined that I'd hear that hymn while wandering through a grocery store here!

Jesus Christ, ladies and gentlemen... brought to you by Tesco.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Written September 24-25, 2009

From seat 61-A… I’m sitting on a 747 at 37,000 feet typing on my new little netbook, en route from Minneapolis to Tokyo. I packed two suitcases just as full as I could pack them (one was exactly at the 50-pound limit) and my mom dropped me off at the airport in Denver this morning and I took the short flight to Minneapolis (this is a shot of the city from the plane) where I got off one plane, walked from one concourse to the next, and immediately boarded my flight to Tokyo. It was a complete breeze, much easier and less stressful than transitioning from domestic to international in the craptacular Los Angeles airport. I didn’t have to go through a second security screening, didn’t have to walk a mile, and didn’t have to leave the building or recheck my bags. Even though it was a smooth (if not leisurely) connection, I can truly say I have not been alone on these planes: The first leg of my trip back to KL was 100% full, and I swear, even on this huge 747 that holds 403 people, I think this one is, too. As we were taxiing into position for our takeoff roll, the captain told us our takeoff weight was 833,000 pounds and we’d hit 190 mph as our rotate (takeoff) speed. I always think it’s cool when airline pilots provide information like that. I figure the vast majority of the flying public doesn’t care, but for some of us, powered flight is still an amazing feat… that a huge vehicle carrying over 400 people and weighing nearly a million pounds can roll down a runway and leave the earth.

Now, in truth, I have to admit that, despite my misgivings and fears, Northwest has redeemed itself pretty well. Not sure if it’s the merger with Delta or what, but even though I do feel like a cattle on its way to slaughter back here in coach class, the service on and timeliness of the flights has been surprisingly good. The only thing keeping the longest of the flights (11-12 hours) from being pretty much on par with the top-tier airlines like Singapore, Malaysia, and Cathay, is the lack of a personal TV monitor in the seatback. On-demand audio and video is a truly wonderful amenity on any long-haul flight. The leg from Tokyo down to Singapore (also long, but a mere 7 hours compared with 12) is on an Airbus A330 which is not only equipped with personal seatback TVs, but also power outlets so you can have limitless laptop time. If and when Delta/Northwest upgrades its 747 fleet for the epic trans-Pacific flights, life will be good!

So concludes a whirlwind ten days back in my home city. The first few days were so enjoyable, but also strange. I felt like a visitor in my own neighborhood. I checked my garage at my house, where all of my things are being stored, along with one of my vehicles. I expected everything to be under a layer of dust and for there to be an apparent sense of the passage of a year. But it was exactly as I had left it and it looked (and felt) like I had just been gone for a weekend vacation, not away for an entire year. It was if time had stood still. Very odd. However, as the days passed, that feeling was replaced by one of belonging and normalcy, and as I slid into the second week of my time in Denver, I found that I had, in many ways, almost forgotten what my life in KL was really like. I have always been a person who largely lives “in the moment” and seldom longs for times past or dreams of a future that may or may not come. And thus it was so here. When I’m in Malaysia, at least after the initial culture shock subsides, it feels just as normal and natural to me as when I’m anywhere in my home country. Yet being back in Colorado, with the warmth of summer quite literally giving way to the cold of winter during my stay, it all felt just as comfortable to me as well. Towards the end of my stay, as much a product of my familiarity with home as anything, I felt like my life and experiences in Malaysia were just a distant memory, not a reality to which I’d be returning in very short order.

Lunch is being served… let’s see what’s on the menu and I’ll resume writing after I eat…

Hmm… well it wasn’t that great, but not awful. There was a shrimp cocktail with three good-sized shrimp (with lemon and cocktail sauce, even!) and that was good, but the little dish masquerading as a salad was just tragic. A few scraps of wilted Romaine lettuce, a single piece of radish, and three sad, sad slices of tiny cucumber. Only the packet of Ranch dressing saved it from being a complete failure. You can put Ranch on anything and make it taste better. The entrée I chose was some sort of chicken thing with rice and cooked carrots. It was alright. I had some chardonnay and green tea with the meal. I feel better having eaten, but that was certainly no gourmet meal.

So during my somewhat short stay in the U.S., I ate Mexican food a couple of times, had some terrific margaritas, took a drive into the mountains to see the fall colors, ate pizza with real pepperoni (sorry, Malaysia… beef pepperoni just doesn’t cut it), went to a party, spent time with friends and family, reconnected with my Amazon parrot, Shiloh, went to two baseball games, wandered around a weekend Italian culinary and cultural festival, and witnessed a typical Colorado drastic change in weather. This past Sunday, it was 85°F/28°C in Denver with lots of sunshine. The next day, it was about 45°F/8°C (as a daytime high, mind you) with rain, snow, and general gloom and despair. This sort of mind-boggling weather change is common in Colorado. The last three days made me almost miss the perpetual warmth of KL!

Really, the only thing that kept my trip back home from being entirely enjoyable was having to deal with the former tenant who was renting my house. Although she had moved almost all of her belongings out of my house, enough was left behind to cause difficulty with cleaning and getting things ready to try to rent the house out again to a new tenant. After several days of her not returning my messages, not taking my calls, and missing meetings we had scheduled to finalize her move-out, I was under enough time constraints to have no choice but to consider the house abandoned and remove what was left in the house. Needless to say, after that, my former tenant became very interested in communicating with me, but of course, it was too late at that point. I also had to screen and hire a new property manager to handle things with the next tenant, as well as do a few other things I had on my list to do before heading back to Malaysia. My last four days in Denver were incredibly stressful and almost wholly unenjoyable, compounded by the miserable weather. When I left KL, my friends there all wished me a “good holiday” and such, but I told them that, because of the house rental situation, as well as some other financial and business matters to which I had to attend, it wasn’t really what one would think of as a quintessential holiday. There were definitely pockets of fun and enjoyment, though, but if anything, it was a working vacation.

But for now, currently flying high over the Canadian Rockies on a track that will see Alaska and the Arctic, it’s back to the relatively simple life I lead in Malaysia. Back to my students and my friends, my culinary adventures, and my traveling, photography, and writing. I will say this, though… my trip back to Denver suggests to me that I won’t have any real problem re-acclimating to my American life when I do move back. I’ve read books written by expatriates that claim the move back to the U.S. is more difficult than the initial move abroad. I can certainly see why, and I’m not saying it would be effortless for me. I know I’ll miss my life in KL… the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had… I’ll be reflective and introspective for a long time after I return, I’m sure. But I think I’ll adapt and get back into my American mindset and routine with not too much difficulty. I’ll be a changed person though, presumably for the better. I wish more people could experience life outside their own comfortable routine, if only for awhile. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me so far, and I know I’ll look back on my life overseas without a scrap of regret.

Well, it’s now 5:30 pm in Denver, 6:30 pm in Minneapolis, 8:30 am tomorrow in Tokyo, and 7:30 am in KL. I’ve logged about four cumulative hours of flight so far, and I’ll arrive at KLIA in just about 24 hours (that includes a short connection in Tokyo and a lengthy layover in Singapore). When I’m in Singapore’s excellent airport, I plan to avail myself of the transit hotel and club facilities so I can arrive back in KL at least somewhat rested and refreshed on Saturday morning.

I’m going to try to get some shut-eye now… I didn’t sleep well at all last night, nor very long, so my eyes are getting droopy. Thanks for reading! More from the other side of the world later.

Seven hours later…

I think we’re perhaps three hours or so from Tokyo, maybe even a bit less. I slept a bit, had a snack which was pretty good (a small cucumber-and-egg sandwich with fresh fruit and a couple of cookies), and watched two movies on the overhead screen. It feels like nighttime of course (half past midnight back in Denver), but when I lift the shade, it’s still daylight outside. I’m not sure exactly where we are now, but I believe it's somewhere north of the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. I can smell food, so I’m guessing the flight attendants are heating up our final meal of this long flight. I’ll have scrambled eggs with sausage and potatoes, along with orange juice and fresh fruit.

Later still…

Greetings from seat 12-A en route to Singapore. I have no seatmate this time, so I have a bit more elbow room, hooray! It’s now September 25th, 4:15 am in Denver, 7:15 pm in Tokyo. For the first time, I’ve had absolutely no downtime at all on this multi-segment flight. When I arrived in Minneapolis, I immediately went to the gate for the flight to Tokyo and the boarding was already well underway. Similarly, once we landed in Tokyo, I had to go directly to the gate with no time to sit or wander or anything. As before, the flight was already boarding when I arrived. None of the connections have been so tight that I’ve had to hurry, but it’s unusual to not have any sort of layover so far. That will change in Singapore, where I’ll basically stay overnight for a six-hour layover before catching a very early Malaysia Airlines flight to KL. The next entry will be from home!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back in the States

Written Friday, September 18th...

Well, I’ve been back in the United States for about five days and it’s been interesting to say the least. One of the primary things on my to-do list during my visit was to settle the rental of my house in Colorado. The person renting it was unsure whether or not she’d stay on, and it seems as though she’s not. Actually, since she hadn’t paid rent properly this month, I actually told her she needed to leave. So I’ve had to deal with that, along with some car maintenance, household chores for my mother, and the blizzard of untended business and financial messes that have piled up in my absence. It’s definitely not been fun, but there have been some good times outside of the more business-oriented aspect of my visit. I’ve gotten to see good friends, eat some wonderful foods I hadn’t had in a long while (and drink some fantastic margaritas). Yesterday, my mom and I took a drive into the mountains just west of town. September is my favorite month in Colorado… daytime temperatures are usually around 75°F (24°C) with cool, crisp evening temperatures around 45-50°F (7-10°C). Perfect weather, and the leaves on all the aspen trees in the mountains are beginning to change to a brilliant yellow. So we headed into the high country to see the autumn colors. The weather was terrific, and though the leaves weren’t at their peak color, they were well underway, and the scenery was beautiful.

Another thing I’ve been doing is shopping for things to take back to Malaysia with me, typically things that are either very difficult to find there or notoriously expensive. I even had to go to a thrift store to buy a second suitcase to fill. Fortunately, it was laughably cheap (about US$4), so it’s veritably disposable at that price. It’s completely filled, mostly with food or food-related things. I also bought a new little Garmin GPS for one of my friends in KL since they’re about three times more expensive there. Also, for those who have read since the beginning, you may remember that one of my suitcases was destroyed on my initial flight to KL (between Denver and Los Angeles). A notable casualty of that suitcase shredding was one of the speakers for my bookshelf stereo system, so I’ve been making do with only a single speaker ever since. I brought back the lone speaker and bought two new ones (different style) to replace it. Martini glasses, bacon bits, soft corn tortillas, and all kinds of other assorted things will make opening those suitcases back in KL a total joy for me.

One thing I’ve been made very aware of in my short time back in America is how comparatively uncomplicated my life in KL is. In his seminal work, Walden, Thoreau urged the reader to live a simpler life, and there’s definitely a great deal of merit in that philosophy. I think for a lot of Americans (and indeed people in plenty of other countries), we replace serenity and contentment with just a lot of frenetic activity. For many people, if they were asked to stop, reflect, and really ponder how content and satisfied they were with their lives, their initial thought would be, “I’m too busy to really think about that.” As Shakespeare wrote, “ a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Potentially depressing, but also illuminating and all too often true… but changeable.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

En Route...

Well, I got everything taken care of and packed my bags and one of my friends graciously drove me to the airport, which is so far away from KL, I'm surprised they can still legally call it Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

I checked in with Malaysia Airlines for a whopping 39-minute flight to Singapore. (It's such a short flight because KLIA is already so far south of KL, it's nearly halfway to Singapore already.) After landing, we were taxiing to the terminal and I got to see my first and second Airbus A380s. One was a Singapore Airlines plane, the other was flown by Qantas. Now the world's largest passenger airplane, it really just looked like a regular big plane... until I saw it in relation to a Boeing 777, itself a huge jet. The A380 is mammoth... not so much because of its length (it's barely longer than a 747), but because its double-decker fuselage makes it just look so fat and massive. I can't wait for the day I fly on it. There are only 19 of these planes in passenger-carrying service in the world right now, so to see two in a span of a couple of minutes was pretty cool. I'm kind of an aviation nut, so I'm always fascinated by airplanes... my 7.5-hour flight from Singapore to Tokyo is on an Airbus A330, a twin-aisle medium-range jet. Despite being operated by Northwest Airlines, that flight should be okay since we at least have personal TVs in the seatbacks. Not sure if it's on-demand audio and video or not, though. However, in Tokyo, I change over to a Boeing 747-400 whose cabin clearly hasn't been dragged into the 21st century as it has only overhead TV screens. That should be a fun 11-hour flight, shouldn't it?

And for the first time, I'm not arriving in the U.S. at either of my normal gateway cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead, we'll be flying over Alaska and Canada into Northwest's main hub at Minneapolis. It's one of the few semi-major cities in America that I've not been to, so I'll at least get to cross that off my list as payment for the misery I'm sure to endure on this flight. (I figure if I just assume it's going to be sheer hell, even if it's mediocre, it'll seem great.)

Okay, it's about 1:15 a.m. now, so I'm going to take a nap for awhile and then freshen up for my 5:40 a.m. flight to Tokyo... more later!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Satu Tahun... One Year

I just got home a little while ago from one of my tutoring classes and am eating a bowl of tom yam, a spicy, citrusy Thai soup that I talked about on this blog months ago. I don't have it often, but I always enjoy it when I do! I thought I'd write a quick blog entry while I eat...

So just in case National Day, Ramadan, and the Hungry Ghost Festival weren't enough, we're also observing the Mooncake Festival here in KL. And just for fun, it's also Nuzul Quran today, yet another public holiday here, a Muslim holiday commemorating, I think, God giving Mohammed the Qu'ran. Also, on top of all of that, Saturday (September 5th) was my one-year anniversary in Malaysia. Oddly, it didn't make the calendars here, but I'm sure it was just an oversight.

One year in KL... I can hardly believe it's been that long. It's one of those things where it seems to have flown by, yet thinking of things from my early days here feels like it was so long ago.

I'm heading back to the other side of the world soon for a visit, and I'm taking some Chinese mooncakes with me to give to friends and family. I may need to try a few different kinds of these things before I do that... they're a bit unorthodox to a Westerner. Remember the dim sum from the last entry? The place we ate was one in the Tai Thong group of restaurants here; supposedly, their mooncakes are quite good, so I bought four of them. I did try one of them already, but it's one of the newer varieties, not a traditional "old-school" mooncake. It was a snow skin type (white crust made from glutinous rice paste) with tiramisu filling. I can tell you, it didn't really taste like tiramisu, but it was delicious. A thick chocolate-like paste (someone assured me it wasn't chocolate at all, but rather a sweet red bean paste) surrounded this firm green center, which may or may not have been a duck's egg yolk, dyed green (probably not... more on the egg yolk thing later). This particular type of mooncake must be refrigerated, so that one had to be eaten here. The rest that I bought are the more traditional types and don't require refrigeration. Dinner's over, so I'm about to try another one here and have taken a couple of pictures of it to share with you!

But first, what is a mooncake and why are they eaten? So glad you asked!

As many cultures have calendars based on the lunar cycle, the Chinese being among the most well-known of these, it stands to reason that the moon itself is a particularly auspicious symbol. In Chinese culture, the eighth lunar month is set aside for lunar worship and moon watching. On the fifteenth day of this month, the Mid-Autumn Festival is held. Mooncakes are such an integral part of this festival, that it's become colloquially known as the Mooncake Festival. The traditional mooncake has a thin pastry-like crust that's been imprinted with the Chinese characters for longevity and harmony, a thick, dense filling made from lotus seed paste or red bean paste, and in the center, a salted duck egg yolk, which symbolizes the moon. Yes, a "salted egg yolk" sounds odd to me, too, but they're hugely popular here. In the markets, I see boxes of eggs packed in damp, salted charcoal. The eggs can also be soaked in brine. Over about a two-week period, this salt-cures the egg, and the yolk solidifies and becomes bright, deep orange in color. From that point, the egg can be boiled or steamed and eaten or mixed with other foods. And as you now know, the yolk can also be put into a mooncake! It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I've come to realize that a culture that's been around for 5,000 years is bound to know a few things about a few things! Besides, Americans put egg yolks in their cakes, too, right? Sure, they're mixed up and cooked, but they're still there, right?

The mooncake I'm eating now does not have a yolk in the center, unfortunately... I was hoping to try one. This one has a filling of green tea and lotus seed paste, and it's wonderful, much to my dismay... rather hard to stop eating it. It's very dense, and only slightly sweet... quite nice to cut into thin slices and eat along with a cup of green tea. Tragically, I've managed to eat nearly half of it as I've been sitting here writing. Curse you, evil mooncake!! (Here's a great blurb about the Tai Thong mooncakes I bought, along with all the new flavors they've introduced this year... they really are excellent.)

Anyway, that's about all for now... just a short entry to share the joy of mooncakes with everyone. More to come soon!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Slices, The Sequel... "And Dim Sum More"

Lots of things are happening around here lately...

First, it's Ramadan again. What's kind of interesting to me is that pretty much no one here calls it that, though. It's always just referred to as the "fasting month." Ramadan follows a lunar calendar so it's at a different time each year. This year, the Malaysian Independence Day (August 31) falls during Ramadan. I don't think it makes either one any more special, but it's a somewhat unusual occurrence. (Click on this picture I took from my car at the intersection of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan P. Ramlee near the center of KL. There are a few things that stand out to me: The Malaysian flag all over the place, the women wearing headscarves on the left, the almost surreal amount of trees and foliage at a fairly major intersection, and—of course—the ever-present traffic.) Ramadan itself throws the whole city into a very different rhythm because Muslims can't eat or drink during the day. So the food courts and stalls are not at all crowded during lunch, but after the evening call to prayer (usually around 7:30, but it varies a bit), there's a palpable buzz in the city as nearly half the population prepares to eat, then all at once, hundreds of thousands of Malays (mostly) descend ravenously on restaurants and food stalls throughout the city. Try getting a seat at virtually any place at 8 p.m. and you'll be out of luck. A lot of the hotels and nicer places have nightly "buka puasa" (breaking the fast) buffets. I've read studies that suggest that many followers actually gain weight during Ramadan since they fast all day then basically gorge themselves in that one evening meal. In any case, even though it's only the Malays (and a minority of Indians and other non-Malays) who observe it, Ramadan affects the entire rhythm of KL for a month. For me, only experiencing it for the second time, it's pretty interesting.

In my neighborhood, there's some construction going on (as always) -- Since my car was in the shop, I took my camera and walked down to the village. It's not at all uncommon to see cars like this with a sheaf of parking tickets stuck under the wiper. It always makes me kind of chuckle for some reason. So here in Damansara Perdana, the big PJ Trade Center is nearing completion and three new condo blocks are going up. Each of them is an offshoot of an existing development, but only one is being built on the same site as its predecessor (Metropolitan Square). One, which I've mentioned here before, is Armanee Terrace II, and its site is adjacent to the existing development, which is just mammoth. The other is something called Ritze Perdana II, which is on a different site completely from the original. I looked at an apartment at the Ritze. (Note the extra "e" on the end... that tells you it's really fancy) It was barely over 400 square feet and they wanted RM1800 a month, so it was a very short visit. My days of living in micro-studio apartments are solidly behind me. In any event, here are some shots from around the neighborhood. The sky was threatening that day, so I took my umbrella with me, and sure enough, as I was walking back home, it started pouring. It was a wind-driven rain, though, so the umbrella didn't do much good. By the time I got back home, my shirt was only somewhat damp, but my jeans (from about mid-thigh down), socks, and shoes were totally soaked. Rainstorms are becoming noticeably more frequent in the last couple of weeks, so it would seem we're making the transition back to the rainy season. The picture is from my condo, but it doesn't nearly do justice to how hard it had been raining five minutes earlier.

The project I'm most excited about, though, is one that's sorely overdue. A proper intersection is going in at the junction of two perpendicular streets. Damansara Perdana is quite small, as KL suburbs go, and there's only one main road into the village and it's not a through street. It dead-ends by my condo, actually. But as you go to leave the area, there's a road to the right that leads to Ikea, The Curve, Tesco, and all sorts of other eating and shopping places. But you can't turn! They've halfheartedly barricaded the junction with poles and such (see the photo), and so everyone has to drive clear down to the main interchange and do a U-turn, then drive up the hill and turn left. Again, words—and even photos—are really insufficient to truly convey the stupidity of this system. But now, with the construction of some new office blocks, it seems they finally saw the need for building an actual, proper intersection. They've cut in what will be some turn lanes, added new curbs as necessary, widened the roadway itself in a couple of places, and presumably will put in a traffic light or four. Better late than never, I guess, and as I think about it, this will be Damansara Perdana's first traffic light. (Others nearby are actually in Mutiara Damansara.)

In food news, because you know there has to be some of that, one of my friends introduced me to this great restaurant in Petaling Jaya, not too far from where I live. Everytime he talks to me, he carries on about some restaurant he has to take me to. I tease him and tell him his whole life revolves around food... but that's as close a thing to a national passion as Malaysia has, and I'm rather fond of good food, too, so everybody's happy. Anyway, we go to this place called Imperial Garden for dim sum... not only is the food great, but as it's on the 7th floor of a building, the views are pretty decent, too. I'm a big fan of dim sum, especially the shrimp dumplings. Even as we're eating, my friend is talking about other food and other restaurants I have to try. It's almost comical how much Malaysians love to not only eat, but talk about eating!

I'm going back to America in two weeks' time for a short visit. I'm really excited about going back, and September is my favorite time of year in Colorado... that wonderful period of transition between summer and winter. The aspen leaves in the Rockies usually hit their peak of color in the third week of September, so I should be there just at the right time. I have been compiling a veritable laundry list of things to bring back with me, too... after nearly a year here in KL (September 5th is my one-year anniversary), I'm starting to miss some of the things I never gave much thought at all when I lived in Denver. Isn't that always the way? It's usually the ill-noticed, mundane things we miss the most.

I'm doing something I thought I'd never do, though, and that's taking a U.S. airline on a trans-Pacific flight. On my numerous trips to Asia and back, I've always stuck with airlines known for quality and service, namely Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysia Airlines, all five-star airlines. America does a lot of things really well, but air travel is not one of them, so I was loathe to fly with an American carrier for that long a flight. However, I found a really good deal on Northwest (US$850 round-trip to Denver... usually it's at least $950-1,100 even to the West Coast), and the price difference between that flight and one on a good airline was large enough to make me bite the bullet. If it's nearly as abysmal an experience as I think it might be, I won't do it again... I'll pony up the money. I do get to fly Malaysia Airlines down to Singapore, at least, but that's only an hour's flight. From there, it's Northwest Sucky Airlines up to Tokyo (7.5 hours), then across the Arctic to Minneapolis (11 hours), then a short two-hour hop from there to Denver. This picture pretty much sums up my opinion of Northwest.

Anyway, my mechanic (whose name is Sim) has informed me that, after about three weeks, my car is finally ready. It has a replacement engine and everything works again. I also had him do some other routine maintenance and also replace the clutch since everything was already disassembled. The total cost for the engine, its transport from another state, and all the labor was a measly RM1200 (less than US$340), which is positively amazing to me. I'll be happy to have my car back! I'm so grateful to Sim for letting me use his car in the meantime, but it's a 27-year-old Nissan Sunny, so it's over twice as old as my Proton and as much as I like to demean my little car, it's actually pretty decent, and it's in good condition overall.

I picked up my car a few hours ago and so far, so good... the new engine actually runs better than the old one did. I tried to give the mechanic some extra money for letting me use his car, but he wouldn't take it... he kept saying, "No no, too much! It's too much!" I did finally convince him to take the change from paying the bill, which was only RM35 ($10). What a nice guy. Here's a picture of all three of the guys who worked on my car. Sim's the one on the right.

So a couple of nights ago, around midnight, I smelled smoke so I went out on my balcony. There, literally in the middle of the road at the dead end was a massive, smoldering bonfire. (Well, really not much fire, just a lot of smoke, so I guess more of a "bonsmoke.") I didn't know what was going on, but there were a few Chinese people milling around. A couple of ladies were sitting on the curb, somberly burning things. I didn't know what they were burning, and I couldn't really see much at all properly because of the trees, but if it was a party, it was a pretty dull one... they weren't making much noise at all. They were wrapping up, but as they left, I saw all the litter, and the fire was left to burn itself out. I was not amused so I got my camera and went downstairs with the idea of photographing this mess and showing the pictures to the property management company later, asking them why they were paying our security company RM30,000 a month if they're just going to let people do these things right in front of the condo! When I got down to the street, I just got more confused... there were full containers of food left here and there, fruit, beers, sodas, and lots of candles, incense sticks, and little Chinese flags stuck in the ground. I saw that the fire had mostly died out by then, snapped my pictures, and headed back upstairs, quite baffled and still a little annoyed. (It was a huge mess... and what a waste of perfectly good beer!)

Well, the next day, I found out that it was all part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Chinese tradition, the living pay respects to (and feed) their deceased ancestors during this time. The seventh lunar month is regarded as "Ghost Month," and the fifteenth day of that month is Ghost Day. So the full containers of food and beer and such were left to feed the ghosts of dead ancestors. Well, I'm just so glad I didn't go down there with a garbage bag in hand! The fire and a lot of the litter was owing to joss paper, a sort of "spirit money" that is burned to give the dead ancestors some money to spend in the afterlife. A good article on this fascinating tradition can be found here. For some reason, after learning about all this, that photo of the three cartons of food, all neatly lined up, spoons arranged in formation... opened and ready for the ghosts to enjoy... I don't know, it's all just a bit creepy, isn't it?

Okay, let me get some photos thrown into this mess of an entry and get it posted! More about the upcoming mooncake festival and my one-year anniversary in Malaysia to come soon!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Slices of Malaysia Living

And greetings once again from the tropical jungle we call Damansara Perdana. This photo was taken by me on a stroll around my neighborhood the other day. I love it.

Really not much to report, so I thought I'd just throw together a little compendium of life here as I approach the one-year mark of my time in Malaysia. Although it's predictably hard to believe a year has gone by so quickly (don't they all?), it's frankly disturbing how fast 2009 is zipping by. The last six months in particular have just been a blur.

Currently my little car is in the shop again with its second fairly major problem in a year's time. I noticed some coolant leaking from it and the temperature light came on, so my initial thought was that there was a leak somewhere in the coolant system. Well, there was, in a manner of speaking... but tragically, the leak was actually a small crack in the engine block (basically the bottom half of an engine for the non-mechanically inclined among us). Under the high pressure present in an internal combustion engine (seen here in happier and fully assembled times), the coolant that normally circulates through the engine was being forced out through this small crack in the fatigued metal. Now, a cracked block is a pretty serious matter, one that usually involves replacing the block. This crack is very small, however, so there is some faint hope that the crack can be arc-welded and sealed. They tried doing a straightforward flame weld but that only melted the alloy around the crack. Arc welding uses a strong electric current to coalesce the metals at the point desired. They'll use argon as a shielding gas, since oxygen obviously encourages combustion. This is all well and good, but unfortunately, it means longer down time for my car. They actually have to disassemble my engine and send the block to the welding shop so that it can be arc-welded from the inside. The only reason it's not cheaper to just find a dead Proton Tiara somewhere and scavenge its engine block is that labor here is very inexpensive. Something along these lines would be completely cost-prohibitive in America. Amazingly, though, my saintly mechanic has given me his car to use as long as mine is languishing at his shop. I couldn't believe it, but he insisted it was fine, he could ride a motorbike. I need hardly mention that this would never, ever happen in America unless you were a dear, personal friend of the mechanic already. And even then it would be questionable.

Now, lest you think everything about Malaysians is sunshine and roses, permit me to gently disabuse you of that notion. Take littering, for example. The tendency of Malaysians to discard their rubbish with utter impunity is simply rampant. Obviously not everyone here does this, but anecdotal evidence has shown me that those who don't think twice about littering aren't exactly an endangered species here. Whether it's dropping cups and bags and wrappers and cartons wherever their usefulness to their owner has ended, or actually chucking entire bags of household garbage out of their car onto the side of the road (no exaggeration), littering is a real problem here. It's not even a matter of a lack of proper waste receptacles (although sometimes that's admittedly an issue), it's really just sheer laziness and disrespectfulness. I took this picture in the elevator lobby of my condo to really just drive the point home. I did not set this photo up in any way whatsoever. The damned garbage can is right there, yet someone couldn't be bothered to walk those four long steps to dispose of their trash properly. After snapping this picture and rolling my eyes, I threw the trash away. Unbelievable. But this is a real issue here and I don't know what people think happens to their bags of crap and styrofoam chicken rice containers and various other detritus when they just leave their rubbish on the sidewalk or in the landscaping. There are people whose job it is to sweep up and tidy the streets (at least in my neighborhood), so we're not awash in debris, but honestly, come on. Remember the big "Keep America Beautiful" campaign back in the late 70s or thereabouts? Apparently, Americans used to be litterbugs, too. Some doubtlessly still are, but if I saw a bag of trash being heaved out of a car on a highway in Colorado, I'd probably drive off the road in complete shock. I think it's safe to say that, at least in my home state, littering is very much the exception, not the rule.

The flip side of that coin is that, for all the thoughtlessness of littering that's on full display here in KL, graffiti is very uncommon. It's the exact opposite in Denver. No litter, tons of graffiti. I think I'd rather have KL's problem because you can teach people not to litter. It's a malleable social behavior. Although, to me, both littering and tagging show a callous disrespect for the greater society in which the offender lives, littering is usually borne of a degree of ignorance. The person simply doesn't know any better. They haven't been taught not to litter. Conversely, tagging is a conscious decision to vandalize something and is more of a crime that must be forcibly deterred. (Hello, Singapore caning!) Instances of tagging are seen around KL from time to time, but not on anywhere close to the same scale I've seen in American and European cities. In Denver, large fences actually have to be erected on overpasses to inhibit tagging (it doesn't always work), but here in KL, a city which has never met a patch of land on which it didn't build an elevated roadway, there are no anti-graffiti fences nor any graffiti on the overpasses.

On to funnier business... one of my friends and I were wandering around 1 Utama, one of the truly gargantuan shopping malls here, and went into a department stores. We were poking around in housewares (my favorite department... I love kitchen gadgets) and they inexplicably had a display of greeting cards amidst the spatulas and frying pans. Now, I don't even pretend to try to understand things like this any longer... I just roll with it. Anyway, this one greeting card just stood out. I don't think I need to set it up too much here... a picture truly is worth a thousand words. I whipped out my camera phone and snapped a picture of the front of the card. Of all the flowers they could have photographed to go along with the written sentiment, they chose the most phallic flower on Earth. Yup. "Thinking of you, baby... BOING!" I love finding unintentionally funny stuff like this.

Another thing happened here some weeks ago that I found particularly amusing. I was at an upscale pet store at the Ikano Power Center, yet another mall near my neighborhood and there was a bit of a ruckus around a large wire cage full of some sort of creature. Several people were clustered around it, all oohing and ahhing over whatever animals were in there. I peered in and saw the little critters and thought, "No... surely not..." So I asked one of the employees to confirm my suspicions, and sure enough: prairie dogs. I just died laughing. I told him that, where I come from, these things (although undeniably cute) are considered a pretty major pest. It gets better... not only do they sell prairie dogs as pets, they sell them for vast sums of money because it's an imported pet, so there's a certain status and prestige to it. (Pretty much anything in Malaysia that's been imported is a) considered superior to anything locally-made, and b) almost guaranteed to be expensive.) After converting the ringgits to dollars, one of these little tunnel-boring rats costs about $200. I told one of my friends back in Denver, where you can scarcely open your car door without hitting a prairie dog colony, and he said, "Two hundred bucks for ONE prairie dog? Are you joking?? I'll send you a whole box of them, we'll get rich!" I was so amused (and kind of mortified) at the whole prospect of pet prairie dogs, I actually went back a couple of days later with my camera. While I was there, I asked to hold one, but changed my mind when I saw how very unamused the little rat was at simply being extricated from his cage. These rodents are, in the wild, pretty much at the bottom of the open prairie food chain. Eagles, hawks, foxes, badgers... everybody loves to eat prairie dogs. So after being chased and stalked and devoured for thousands of years, they've understandably evolved into a rather nervous, skittish little animal. And after watching them in action in the pet store, I can assure everyone of this immutable truth: They're not remotely interested in being your housepet. They don't want to be held, they don't want to be cuddled, they don't want to be touched. When someone picks up a prairie dog, the poor animal likely just instinctively assumes the next line in that song is being eaten. I snapped a picture of the little rat desperately trying to get away from the pet store clerk and into the relative safety of the other dozen prairie dogs (most of which were huddled back the far corner of the cage). They were all squeaking and barking, clearly agitated and unhappy. I decided to pass on the great "prairie-dog-holding" experience, played with one of the parrots instead, and left, still astounded that this place was selling prairie dogs as pets!

Naturally, Malaysia does not have the market cornered on "stupid-yet-funny." Not even close. I found this gem on the Internet from a Wal-Mart store in the U.S. You know, because nothing says, "Happy Mother's Day" like a box of magnum-sized condoms. And the thing is, nowadays with the ubiquity of both the Internet and camera phones, any previously localized gaffe like this, whether in a small-town Wal-Mart, or on a local newscast, will be spread worldwide in short time, and preserved forever.

In other (non-condom-related) news, one of my biggest frustrations with living here in KL is unquestionably the driving. The crazy drivers? No. The quality of the roads? No, they're pretty good. Driving on the left? Nope, I manage that just fine. It's the actual "system" of roads in this city. It's almost impossible to convey in words or pictures how retarded the road system here is. Basically, it's a rat's nest of elevated roads, highways, toll plazas, slip roads, and ramps. And probably 80% of them are one-way. If I drive someplace, logic would suggest that I could just reverse course to come back home, but no... I have to take an entirely different route because of the prevalance of one-way roads. Many times in KL, quite literally, you "can't get there from here." There is no logical hierarchy of roads here (e.g. such as the progression: controlled-access interstate highways, divided highways, multilane roads, major arterials, minor roads, neighborhood roads, alleys, etc.). Everything is just cobbled together with little or no planning or traffic engineering and as a sad result, KL enjoys the traffic problems of a much larger city. Let me just say it clearly with no candy coating: The entire road system here is functionally, irreparably, and undeniably broken. The only real solution is to clear out the entire population, level the city, and start over again. And given that, relative to local income, cars in Malaysia are among the most expensive in the world, you'd think that this would act as a disincentive to buying and driving cars, but that is absolutely not the case at all. And people here drive everywhere! KL is the Los Angeles of Asia. I guess the logic is that if you're going to spend that much money on a car, you better well drive it every single day, whether you actually need to go anywhere or not.

I do enjoy living here overall, but in my year here, my top three gripes about living in KL are:

  1. The aforementioned road system, or miserable lack thereof.
  2. The painfully slow "broadband" Internet. They have no problem charging a mint for it, but it doesn't even come close to hitting the advertised speed, which in itself is nothing impressive (1 Mbps).
  3. The outrageously high price of not only alcohol, but anything alcohol-related (corkscrews, cocktail mixers, martini glasses, and so on).
Like I said, though, living here is still pretty okay... if you're not sitting in a traffic jam, it's a laid-back, easy place for an expat to live. Take a look at this photo... and click on it and enlarge it. This is another shot of the thick, lush jungle right by my condo. I'm in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city, minutes away from top-notch shopping and dining, yet this is what I have literally steps outside my condo... look at all those shades of green!

That's about all... I'll go ahead and publish this and start on the next post with details about my upcoming trip back home to Colorado... and the outcome of my car saga. I'm fairly certain it's going to involve buying a replacement engine block or a replacement car. Either one is acceptable, I suppose... I got my car for next to nothing (especially by Malaysian car price standards) and it's been a great little car for a year. So if the block can't be repaired, I'll find the most economical way to get mobile again. Life goes ever onward...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Of Tumbles and Toilets...

Now, my mother’s good humor over most of her visit is all the more impressive because of two things. First, the woman simply cannot stay upright. I don’t know if it’s an inner ear problem or what, but apparently she considers any venture wasted if she doesn’t fall down or collapse in a heap at some point. She does this at her home, she does it hiking in the Colorado mountains (recently breaking her arm), and she does it on vacation, too. She didn’t get through her first day here in Malaysia without taking a tumble. For reasons that I can only guess, most rooms and halls and such here are a little step up from their adjoining common spaces. My guess is that it’s to keep rainwater from going into people’s homes, etc. During really heavy rains here, the corridors of the condo buildings (which are covered, semi-interior halls, but still exposed to the elements at points) get very wet. Therefore, there’s a little step up to get into my condo, probably about two inches. Well, that’s all it took. We were heading out to go to KLCC or something, and she took that tiny step down into the hallway and just fell spectacularly. Now, at the moment, of course, it wasn’t funny… Mom went sprawling and all her various sundries were littered around her and until we figured out that she was completely okay, it didn’t really strike me as humorous. But only until it was determined that she wasn’t hurt. THEN it was funny as hell and I chuckled about it almost every time we left the condo from that point on.

Most unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me, but one of my friends gallantly agreed to recreate the scene for me so I could photograph it for posterity. Awesome. You definitely want to click and enlarge this one for the full effect.

In the spirit of self-deprecation, any fall which doesn’t really result in injury has the potential to be funny, including my own. A couple of Christmases ago, Mom and I were driving away from my house and heading down to Colorado Springs for Christmas dinner with our good friends and I realized I had forgotten something, so I went back into the house, got what I had forgotten and sprinted back out. Well, to my misfortune, we had had a good bit of snow and some of it had iced over and I just went flying. I wasn’t amused at the moment, but within minutes, since I wasn’t terribly hurt, I was laughing at what it must have looked like, kind of replaying it in my head in slow motion. Happily, no one was present with a camera and a blog.

Within another couple of days, though, she fell again, this time somehow failing to negotiate a huge curb (seriously, like six or seven inches high). She went down in a heap, landing squarely on one knee, but this time, on a metal rain grate. That one wasn’t funny, and it’s a wonder she didn’t wind up bleeding from it. Her knee is still sore, though, nearly a month on. Naturally, being the compassionate and loving son I am, I stood there haranguing her, just happily adding insult to injury: “What’s wrong with you, woman? Can’t you even walk?? How could you not see that giant curb?? Quick! Get up! People are coming!” Apart from not breaking the skin on her knee (or breaking the knee itself), it’s also astounding that she didn’t smash her camera into a dozen pieces. It was in her hand and when she fell, she landed on two things: her knee and the camera in her outstretched hand. That was a true blessing found in a disaster, because even though the fall was bad, falling and destroying your camera on day two of a three-week trip to Asia would have been far worse.

The second thing that challenged my mom, besides walking, was the thing every Westerner visiting Asia dreads: the squat toilet. Men are lucky indeed… perhaps as few as only 15% of our visits to the bathroom necessitate sitting. Women get to do it every single time. Now, in truth, some of these squat toilets are not that bad. But more than a few are. Malaysia’s are generally better than some others I’ve had the horror of experiencing, but that’s not really saying much. Even the cleanest of squat toilets, as seen in one of these pictures, will usually elicit something along the lines of, “What am supposed to do with that?” from an uninitiated Westerner. The really bad ones just set them on an immediate U-turn, usually muttering, “I think I’ll wait,” or, “I damn well don’t have to go that bad,” or some variant thereof.

In the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing last year, one of the great tasks beset upon China was, quite honestly, outfitting the venues with a certain percentage of Western toilets so as not to traumatize the hordes of visitors. One night, I was at home (back in Denver) and was chatting online with a friend of mine and we were talking about the upcoming Olympics and somehow started talking about the squat toilet and did some web surfing to that end. We both, at our respective computers, landed on this website where, in side-splittingly funny fashion, a New Yorker by the name of Brian Sack wrote a hysterical diatribe in the form of a “how-to” guide for Westerners in China (or anywhere) who find themselves confronting these unfamiliar toilets. I offer a portion of the guide here, edited for length, but with full credit going to the author and his website, Here we go… a primer on using the squat toilet:

Rule One: Exhaust all other possibilities.

If you are truly in need and condemned to use the squat toilet, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are several thousand miles from friends and family. No one has to know.

Proceed as follows:

Most stalls do not have toilet paper. This is the best time to realize this. Either take paper from the general dispenser in the bathroom area or preferably bring your own as it will be made of tissue and not plywood Carpaccio.

Approach the squat toilet apprehensively and make sure it's not covered in stool. If it is covered in stool, choose another stall. If another stall is not available, accept the cards that have been dealt you.

Close the door to the stall, knowing full well the handle has more germs on it than the entire population of Botswana.

Place your feet on the appropriate foot grids, assuming they are not covered in stool. If they are covered in stool, place your feet on the least fouled space you can find, being careful to maintain balance.

Unfasten and drop your trousers and underpants, making sure that they do not make contact with the urine and stool-covered surface area.

Grimace and ask yourself if a country with such a toilet can or should ever be a superpower.

Assume a squatting position like a competitive ski jumper. This is a good time to pretend you're not a miserable tourist with your pants around your ankles, squatting over a barbaric poo hole.

Use your right hand to prevent the soiling of your trousers and underpants by holding them off the ground and pushing them forward, away from any Danger Zone.

In your left hand should be the assortment of paper/wipes/anti-bacterial sheets you intend to use after you are finished with your production. Be sure not to drop any of the objects in your left hand as they will be rendered horribly irretrievable should you do so.

If you are able to maintain balance for several seconds, you are ready to begin bowel evacuation. At this point the bulk of your focus should be towards the quick evacuation of your bowels without soiling your clothing, missing your mark or—God forbid—losing your balance and falling.

After you have completed your bowel evacuation, DO NOT STAND UP. Remain squatting and miserable.
Continue using your right hand to prevent contact of your trousers/underpants with urine/stool. Place your tissues and wipes in your left hand on top of your underwear/trousers and select the items you need for wiping.

Wipe and curse culture simultaneously, all the while maintaining the squatting position.

Once sufficiently wiped, humiliated and traumatized, you may stand and re-underpant and re-trouser yourself. This is a good time to reflect on your life and also a good time to try blacking out these last ten minutes—like a freshly-sodomized felon might do.

The filth-covered flush button is behind you and may or may not work.

Open the door to the stall, again knowing the handle has more germs on it than a decade of scrapings from Paris Hilton's tongue.

Exit the stall and never, ever, ever get yourself into a situation where you have to do that again. But first, wash your hands until they bleed.

So there you have it. Another funny (and frankly educational) dissertation on the nuances of using a squat toilet can be found here. Read it before you travel abroad. The one found here, at Wikihow, is a bit more clinical and even includes a video. You may require a wee bit of therapy after visiting this site, but it’s definitely informative. Unfortunately, I didn’t impart this wisdom to my poor mother prior to her visit, but after the horror of her first squat toilet visit, she did some research online and gained a bit of insight which made the rest of her visit a bit more tolerable.

Oh, and she didn’t fall anymore, either!

One more picture just because we all need a bit more laughter in our lives…

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mom's Visit: Bali, Indonesia

We flew back to KL on Wednesday afternoon, arriving back at my place around 5 p.m. The very next morning, we got up and once again made the hour-long trek to the airport and caught an 11 a.m. flight to Bali. This was, almost unbelievably, my eighth trip to Bali (and tenth to Indonesia), but I still felt a little rush of excitement as the plane made its final approach and I caught glimpses of the crescent of Kuta and Legian Beaches on one side of the plane, and Jimbaran Bay and the sheer cliffs of Ulu Watu on the other side. The most immediately noticeable difference between Ao Nang and Bali in the month of July? The crowds. The high season in Ao Nang is around March and April. In July and August, however, Australia has its school holidays, and they inevitably swarm Bali… in all my trips there, I had never seen it so overrun with people. We checked into my usual hotel and I rented a motorbike and headed for the Carrefour store to stock up on some things I can’t find in KL. This time, however, Mom flatly refused to get on the motorbike. I can’t really blame her: The traffic in and around Kuta was just beyond belief. I got misdirected on the way back and, even on a motorbike, it took a long time to get back to the hotel. I say “even” because in Bali (and to a lesser extent, even in KL), motorbikes just go wherever they want… between cars, around trees, up on the sidewalk, you name it. There was a crush of traffic (the photo you see doesn’t remotely convey the reality of it), but it was all barely moving, so being on two wheels was an advantage. One thing I had told Mom was that the Balinese had learned to cook Italian food quite well, so I took her to a nearby restaurant that evening for some good wood-fired oven-baked pizza, and it was delicious… the polar opposite of our pizza debacle in Thailand. The oven was hot, the crust was nice and crisp, there was plenty of pork pepperoni, and not a scrap of green pepper in sight. A couple of cold Bintang beers rounded off the meal and it was wonderful. To be frank, though, apart from that meal and the relative calm of our hotel, there wasn’t much to love in Kuta this time around. It was simply too crowded. So the next day, we checked out, I rented a Jeep Wrangler-like car, and we headed north to Ubud.

One of the things I have always loved about this small island is that you can honestly have any holiday you want there… you can do the “fly and flop” thing and bake on the beach at a five-star resort in Nusa Dua, you can live it up in the hedonistic clubs in Seminyak, you can shop in Kuta, you can have an adventure holiday whitewater rafting or parasailing, you can hike to the top of a volcano, you can scuba dive off the east coast, you can have a culturally educational vacation in Ubud or the villages surrounding it, or you can go further afield, leaving the tourist centers of the island behind you and really delve into the real day-to-day life and culture of Bali. It’s all available and accessible. My trips to Bali from the U.S. were typically one to two weeks long, so I’d combine some time in the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak conurbation with a stay in Ubud or one of its nearby villages and effectively have two holidays in one. If I’m being honest, though, on this particular trip, heading up to Ubud was more like a desperate escape from the chaos of Kuta.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast near the heart of Ubud that’s run by a Balinese man named Ketut and his wife Wayan. I had stayed there three times before, and it’s a lovely place – a compound of various rooms and pavilions built on the side of a riverside cliff, descending seven levels. For the deluxe rooms, which is what we had, each room is on its own level, so there’s a real sense of privacy. The rooms are exceptionally spacious and there is an outdoor area for dining or relaxing with a book as well. This was much more appealing to Mom, and after the crowds and general pandemonium of Kuta, understandably so. After we got settled in, I took her to my favorite spa, the Milano Salon, where she had an hour-long facial and a pedicure, and I had the two-hour mandi lulur, a Balinese massage combined with a body scrub using crushed nut shells and Javanese spices. That’s followed up by a cucumber and yogurt body mask, so it’s quite a lengthy and relaxing experience. We both enjoyed our time there. When we were walking back to the car, a young Balinese boy was selling tickets to that night’s performance of the kecak (KEH-chock) dance, and it was beginning in about half an hour, so we bought tickets from him (about $5 each) and drove to the temple where the dance was being performed. Though the kecak dance has its roots as a Balinese trance ritual, its modern incarnation was primarily created in the 1930s by the German-born painter and musician, Walter Spies, and is now the only Balinese dance that is performed exclusively for tourists. The performance tells a story from the Hindu epic called the Ramayana. In it, a battle is depicted where an evil king kidnaps the Princess, Sita, and is fought by Prince Rama to effect the rescue of the Princess.No musical instruments are used, but rather the accompaniment is provided by a chorus of over 100 men and boys, each clad in a black-and-white checked sarong, wearing a single red hibiscus flower behind their ear. The chorus makes a distinctive “chaka-chaka-chak” vocal sound, perfectly synchronized and syncopated. It’s quite difficult to describe in words, so I’ve included a short video. The performance was about an hour long, but the video is only slightly over one minute, so you’re seeing just a fraction of the story as a whole. At the end of the kecak dance, a large pile of coconut husks is set ablaze and a man, who has been put into a trance, runs through the flames and embers, then firewalks on the superheated husks, sending sparks and embers everywhere. I’ve seen a number of kecak performances, and this was probably the most dramatic and impressive of the trance dance/firewalks that I’ve seen.

Ubud is not only the cultural heart of Bali, it’s probably its gastronomic heart as well. The range of cuisine is broad, from simple food stalls called warung to what is arguably some of the finest dining to be found anywhere in Indonesia at a gourmet restaurant called Mozaic. We had three excellent meals while we were in Ubud… at Bebek Bengil (the “Dirty Duck Diner”), Kafe Batan Waru, and Nomad. I would enthusiastically suggest these restaurants to anyone visiting Ubud. As our trip to Bali was quite short, so too, was our time in Ubud. We spent one night there and a fair part of the next day, visiting the huge central market and taking a midday trek along the always-stunning Camphuan Ridge trail. After lunch, we proceeded to drive back down to Kuta, getting embroiled in a spectacular traffic jam which really tested the patience of both of us. It was awful… it took us well over an hour to go barely a mile. We finally got to where we were going, completely frazzled. I returned the rental car, and we walked (with our luggage) a short distance to a charming restaurant off the incredibly jam-packed Jalan Legian (Legian Street), and like most places in and around Kuta, once you get back off the main road, even a short distance, the transformation is almost magical. We ate a light dinner at this poolside café complete with a large waterfall and lush landscaping and were able to totally decompress. Our waiter was delightful, as was our taxi driver who returned us to Ngurah Rai airport, so it was a nice way to end the trip.

As an aside, the most remarkable thing happened while we were at the café. A day and a half earlier, I had dropped in to a moneychanger shop to exchange some Malaysian ringgit for Indonesian rupiah, and the SIM card from my phone had, unnoticed by me at the time, fallen out of my wallet. This was my KL SIM card, basically the key to my communicative existence in Malaysia. I had removed it from my phone upon arrival in Bali and replaced it with a local (Indonesian) carrier’s SIM card in order to have phone service there. I had very carefully put my regular SIM card in the flap with my driver’s license inside my wallet. However, when I was changing my money, I flipped up said flap to extricate a RM100 note that was tucked underneath, and that’s when the SIM card fell out. I noticed it late that night when Mom and I were eating at Nomad in Ubud. I was aghast at my carelessness, but pretty much knew that’s where I had to have lost the SIM card, because it was the only time I’d ever flipped up that driver’s license flap. So, on a lark, while we were at the café during those final moments in Bali, I walked across the street to the moneychanger, and before I could even ask if anyone had found a SIM card, immediately saw it on the floor. It had slid about 90% under the edge of the front counter, and just a tiny sliver of it was poking out. It’s bright red on one side, and that side was facing up, so it was quite easy to see. I seized it ecstatically, gushing like a fool to the poor woman behind the counter, who actually understood my happiness and relief, I think. Almost everyone in Bali is on a similar prepaid SIM card plan, and losing your SIM card can be disastrous. For me, it wouldn’t have been a complete nightmare, because all my contacts are store in my phone’s memory, not on the SIM, and I think I could have gotten another card with the same phone number (not sure on that one), but it would have been a hassle, and probably sort of expensive; my understanding is there’s a RM50 fee for replacing a lost SIM card, plus the cost of the new SIM itself (about RM9), plus the loss of the RM30 I had recently topped up the card with. However, finding the card I had lost and not having to deal with any of that, was, to quote MasterCard, priceless. I couldn’t believe my great fortune that a lost SIM card—and you know how tiny those things are—was right where I had lost it, a full day and a half earlier at an extremely busy moneychanger on what is easily the busiest street in Kuta, at the busiest time of the tourist season. It was truly amazing.

We boarded a night flight back to KL, and three hours later, arrived at the airport and hopped a bus back to the city after enduring an epic wait in immigration queues. Owing to that and the airport’s sheer distance from KL itself, we didn’t actually get back to my condo until about 3 a.m., so I give my mother props for being a good sport and enduring such a whirlwind week of travel.