Friday, February 13, 2009

Continuances and Remembrances

One thing I neglected to mention about the Canopy Walk was the amazing absence of any warnings, disclaimers, prohibitions, or pretty much anything apart from a sign letting you know that good ol’ German engineering was responsible for the design and installation of the rope bridges. In the preposterously litigious United States, anyone undertaking such a walk would be beaten into submission by a blizzard of signs and legalese. No pregnant women! No one under the age of 12! Must be “this tall” to participate! No people suffering from hypertension, lower back pain, acrophobia, or wildly untrimmed toenails! Don’t blame us if you fall off or the rope snaps clean in two. Walking on a chintzy rope bridge twenty stories above the ground is an inherently risky activity! So sign here, initial here, waive all rights here, and off you go. Here in Malaysia, it’s more like, “Got five ringgit in your pocket? There’s the bridge. Have fun… and enjoy being lost in the jungle when it’s over.”

So in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, we also just did what I would consider basic, entry-level tourist stuff in KL… things I’d take any visitor to do. We took the monorail to Bukit Bintang, a very high-energy part of town right in the heart of the city. It’s really akin to New York’s Times Square… just always bustling with activity, vendors, hawkers, street musicians, and such. There are loads of sidewalk caf├ęs and food stalls around, but the real treat for foodies is one street over on Jalan Alor. There, hawkers serve up a wide variety of food all day and night. I took Matt to one of my favorite places there where we had the “steamboat” dinner. A large pot, almost like a broth fondue, is set up on a burner at your table, connected to a large liquid propane tank that’s set directly by your table. Can you even imagine this happening in the U.S.? No… you cannot (see legal section above). The pot is bisected by a little barrier, and half the broth is spicy, the other half regular. A big plate of food is served alongside the pot, and you just throw it in and cook a bit at a time and eat… you get chunks of boneless chicken meat, fresh enokitake and oyster mushrooms, tofu, shrimp, little fish cakes, crab sticks, squid, octopus, eggs, and more, plus a plate full of Asian greens (pak choy, bok choy, etc.) and some noodles and peppers and sauces. It’s a mountain of food, and I love it. The only thing I wasn’t especially fond of was the octopus… bit too chewy and rubbery for my liking, but everything else was delicious. It only costs about $5 per person, and seems quite healthy, too. It’s probably not for everyone, but I always love a good steamboat meal. Matt really liked it, too.

After that, we went to one of my favorite malls here, the very upscale Starhill Gallery. I like it because, unlike the other high-end malls in KL, it’s kind of dark and classy, whereas the other malls are big and bright and open. In the middle of Starhill Gallery, there’s a nice atrium with great lighting and lots of greenery and water, including a bar surrounded by a big water feature “pond.” We sat at the bar and had a couple of drinks, talked with the bartender, and listened to live music from the jazz combo. It was great. The bartender was eager to show off the wine list, too, especially the 3-liter magnum of vintage Bordeaux (a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, I believe) for the eye-popping price of RM145,000… about $40,000. Needless to say, we just stuck with our 20-ringgit Scotches and gins, thanks very much.

We also visited the Skybridge, the 750-ton, 190-foot-long, double-decker bridge connecting the twin Petronas Towers at their 41st and 42nd floors. I have a friend who works for the Petronas Company, so he got us tickets to visit. (The tickets are free, but they’re issued each day on a first-come-first-served basis, and only a limited number are issued each day.) Here’s a shot of KLCC Park that was mentioned in the previous entry. You can see the Bellagio-like fountain in the lake in the foreground with the KL Convention Center behind it. It’s a shame you can’t go higher in the towers, but being 560 feet above street level still affords some pretty impressive views. For seriously breathtaking views, there’s always KL Tower, the nearly 1,400-foot tall communications and observation tower (fifth-tallest in the world), and it has an observation deck and revolving restaurant over 900 feet above ground level.

The day before Matt left KL, we went to the Kuala Gandah elephant conservation center about 75 km (45 miles) east-northeast of the city in the state of Pahang. The highway, which goes all the way to Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, took us over some very hilly terrain… what might be called the peninsula’s “continental divide” of sorts. Once we got to the center, we signed in, got our visitors’ badges, and headed down to the river where the handlers had several adult elephants in the water.

Contrary to the way elephants have long been portrayed in Western literature, the reality is that these creatures—the largest land animal on Earth—can be incredibly dangerous. Standing next to the largest one there, a 37-year-old male, it was sobering to imagine such a massive animal on a full-blown rampage… and the elephants here are Asian elephants (obviously), not their even-larger African counterparts. Fortunately, these elephants appeared to be very docile, clearly having adapted to their relatively comfortable life and human caretakers. There’s no denying elephants’ intelligence and legendary memory, so they’re fairly receptive to learning routines and desired behaviors and it was fascinating to see them respond to commands and prompts.

After playing with them in the river and getting them all clean, the handlers rode the seven elephants to a pair of long pavilions nearby where we could feed them from piles of fresh fruits and vegetables. I had never touched an elephant before, so it was truly remarkable. The trunk of an elephant, which is strong enough to push over a small tree, is also dexterous enough to pick up a paper clip. It’s incredibly sensitive, too. The first elephant I fed explored with the tip of its trunk, searching for the chunk of papaya I had in my hand. The skin on the tip of the trunk was surprisingly soft, and the animal was very gentle, but clearly hungry! The one I fed first was a 9-year-old female. After that, I went over to an 11-year-old male and fed him and “petted” his enormous head (more like the left side of his face, really). Asian elephants have smaller ears than Africans, and are notably hairier, too – a thin coat of very coarse, dark hair peppers their skin. It really was just a terrific experience, and it’s all free, too. The conservation center does virtually no advertising that I’m aware of and it’s not even publicized. Indeed, three of my local friends here to whom I mentioned the center were completely unaware of its existence. It’s probably a good thing: with any real publicity, the place would probably just be overrun with people.

Once the pachyderms were all fed, people were invited to ride them (the biggest males could easily hold five people) and then swim in the river with them. Two orphaned babies were brought out, too, each about the size of a horse, and they played in the river as well, swimming, rolling over in the water, sticking their chunky feet up in the air… it was such an entertaining and fascinating way to spend the afternoon. I got to feed some fruit to one of the calves after they emerged from the water. One of my favorite things about the baby elephants was the way they could take a thick stalk of sugar cane and just crush it with ease, making this loud SNAP. I’ll definitely go back there again… and will take a change of clothes so I can go swimming with the elephants. We didn’t do it this time, because we were in jeans and didn’t want to drive back to KL a muddy, wet mess.

On the way back to the city, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand where one guy was selling jackfruit and another was selling durian (pictured). A Chinese family were at the durian stand, partaking of the fruit and chatting amiably with the vendor. They invited us to have some of the fruit, and both Matt and I eagerly accepted. I have been wanting to try durian for awhile, but didn’t want to buy a whole fruit since it’s not only a large amount, but is also quite expensive, especially for the most popular cultivars (there are different strains of durian and everyone seems to have their favorite). This was the D24 cultivar, among the most prized from what I understand. I snapped a picture of the fruit in my hand… it looks like a yellow heart, doesn’t it? The thing is, durian isn’t firm or crisp in the least. A very thin fibrous layer (completely edible and virtually unnoticeable when you’re eating it) covers the essence of the fruit: a creamy, custard-like flesh. If you can imagine a slightly thicker version of vanilla pudding, that’s about the consistency of fresh durian. I failed to warn Matt about this and he bit into his like it was an apple. Ha ha… what a mess. And what about the taste? Well, I rather liked it, which I’m told is unusual for Westerners on their first try… seems like that for white folks, it’s very much an acquired taste. But Matt and I both really enjoyed it. For Matt, it was a pretty fruit-tastic week here, because he got to sample five fruits that were new to him: durian, rambutan, jackfruit, mangosteen, and dragonfruit.

The taste of durian is really difficult to describe, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying. One oft-quoted description is from the noted naturalist, Alfred Wallace, who wrote, “The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-colored pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavor are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. ... as producing a food of the most exquisite flavor it is unsurpassed.” I love that he declares the flavor indescribable… and then proceeds to describe it. Awesome.

Matt and I also got some jackfruit, which is, I believe, the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. The individual fruit can reach massive proportions, considerably larger and heavier than a watermelon. Workers often wear hardhats when harvesting the fruit. A 60-pound jackfruit falling from a height of even 15-20 feet could do some serious damage! (Durian, which looks like a medieval weapon of some sort, and whose name is derived from the Malay word (duri) for “thorn,” is no slouch itself. Indeed, there are signs around 80-foot durian trees in the region advising wanderers not to linger, lest they be clobbered by a falling durian.) Although it’s not an extraordinarily flavorful fruit, I eat jackfruit on a semi-regular basis, and the unofficial regional dish of Yogyakarta, Indonesia is a delicious jackfruit curry called gudeg, something I had there on my first visit back in 2006.

The Chinese family who were kind enough to share their durian with us further educated us on some of the methods and traditions of enjoying durian. First, durian must not be paired with alcoholic beverages or a terrible feeling of sickness will follow. (I must add that, although I didn’t feel sick, I felt weird for several hours after eating the durian… as if I was sweating from the inside... and this was all without the benefit of alcohol!) Second, durian is considered a “warming” fruit, and, as I discovered, it does at least seem to elevate one’s core body temperature… it’s a curious sensation. Many people counter this by eating mangosteen afterwards, which is a “cooling” fruit. Oddly enough, durian and mangosteen are called the king and queen of fruits, respectively, and it seems only fitting that they should be paired this way for eating. If no mangosteen is available, you can pour cool water into the husk of the durian, the inside of which is clean and shiny white, and drink the water from the husk. This supposedly “cools” the body and prevents “durian sore throat,” but only if you drink from the husk. Nobody has ever accused the Chinese of being short on traditions and remedies. So we all stood in a circle, passing a bottle of water around, drinking from the spent husks of the king of fruits.

Half an hour later, we were driving along and the air was suddenly filled with the noxious, overpowering stench of durian. I looked at Matt, with this “What the hell?” expression and he covered his mouth guiltily. Durian burps. I wasn’t affected as badly but for the rest of the drive home, every ten minutes or so, Matt would roll down the window a bit when he felt another burp coming out. Ah, the revenge of the durian! Only now do I understand the love-hate relationship people have with this fruit!

I have an upcoming "birthday trip" to the island of Phuket, Thailand in about two weeks, and about a month and a half after that, I’ll be taking a short flight up to Bangkok. I’m really excited because I literally have not heard a bad word about Thailand. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been there has had only positive things to tell me about it, so I hope it lives up to its reputation. I have a nine-day break coming up in about six weeks too (the Bangkok trip is the weekend after my break), so I have to figure out somewhere to go and something to do.

Finally, on a personal note, my dear old dog, Alex, died yesterday (February 11). I adopted him from the local shelter in Denver in early 1992 when he was just eight weeks old. And for 17 years—nearly all of my adult life to date—he was my good and faithful dog. He spent the last five months of his life being pampered and cared for by my mom, who considered him to be her “grandpuppy.” Here are some pictures of Alex, including one of him sound asleep in a big cardboard box, and one taken along with my parrot, Shiloh. Alex was never quite sure what to think of the bird, I believe, but he got along with her quite well, and never seemed jealous or bothered by her presence. For the most part, Alex was a good and gentle dog. He had started going downhill before I moved to Malaysia last September, but just kept soldiering on, despite two episodes where I drove him to the vet, thinking it was his time, only to have him “cured” of some malady and see him summarily spring back to life. My mom and her good friend Jane—along for emotional support—took him to the vet last week, similarly thinking it might well be his last trip to the vet, but were told Alex had pneumonia and pancreatitis, as well as another infection, all quite treatable. A few days later, however, he had a stroke, and couldn’t even get up anymore… so my mom took him to the vet and they put him to sleep.

I remember vividly the first time in my childhood that reading a book truly affected me. It was while I was reading the now-classic Charlotte’s Web, and late in the book, when Charlotte, a true friend to the very end, takes her final breath, the line that reduced me to a mess of blubbering tears (I was 10, mind you!) was quite possibly the saddest, most heart-wrenching line in children’s literature: “No one was with her when she died.” Alex suffered no such ignoble fate. My mom held him as he died and I’m so grateful for that. My true hope was that his time would come before I left the U.S., because being with him when he passed away should have been my burden. It wasn’t to be, though, so I feel truly fortunate to have a mother who was willing to bear that burden for me. Although dogs are often marginalized and overlooked here in Southeast Asia, many Americans can understand what it means to lose a loyal companion after 17 years of memories and good times. Pets are considered by many to be a very real part of the family, and their loss is felt quite keenly by those whose lives they touch. So long, sweet dog.


Barb said...

I couldn't get through the part about Alex without tears streaming down my face! He was the best ever dog and such a sweetie. I miss him!

Bambi said...

my thoughts and prayers are with you (and mom!) over the passing on of Alex. As a family with a household literally full of animals (2 dogs, 3 cats, 3 rabbits, 2 ducks, 1 cockatoo, 1 cockatiel and a bunch of hermit crabs), we also include them as family members. Having lost a few over the years, I know how difficult it is. I find that the
pain does get easier with time and
holding on to all those wonderful memories of happier times. I would imagine that not being with him at the time would be difficult, but I sure know your mom did her best loving him through to the very end!

I enjoy reading you blogs of your travels. I catch up on them every now and then and especially love the photos. Thanks for sharing your trip with all of us! I am so glad Bethany & I made that trip to colorado and we were able to reconnect with long lost family!

Chad M. said...

Thanks for the kind words... Alex was definitely a good, good dog and it will be very strange indeed returning to a home in which he's no longer present.

barbmerchant said...

nearly 10 months after Alex "left" and I still cry like a baby reading about him. It still seems strange without him around! Sweet old dog for sure.