Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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, www.banterist.com. 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
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.
Our hotel was the Tipa Resort, a really nice place within very short walking distance of Ao Nang’s main beach. Since the high season wrapped up a couple of months ago, prices for everything were relatively low. We paid right at $50 each round-trip for the short flight to Krabi, the shuttle bus to Ao Nang was $4, and the room was around $38 a night. While it’s not jaw-droppingly cheap, it was a great price for such a nice room, and as an added bonus, we had a resident iguana thing wandering around posing for pics. Moreover, the resort gave us dinner vouchers for use in their restaurant every night we stayed there. The two vouchers totaled 200 baht, about $6, which was more than enough to cover our food bill; we only had to purchase our drinks. I rented a nice motorbike for $3.65 a day, and Mom was adventurous enough to ride pillion. The relative lack of traffic certainly helped her along with that decision, though. It was free and easy anywhere we chose to ride.
Someone told me Ao Nang is a lot like Phuket was before it got internationally famous, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s on the same bay and is just as easily accessible from KL or Bangkok, the main hubs in the region.
We had some rain our first afternoon there, but after that, the weather was fantastic. Most of the trip was spent relaxing and exploring the area (and eating the wonderful Thai food, of course), including an unintentionally humorous hike. From Noparrat Thara Beach, down the road a bit from Ao Nang Beach, some of the nearby islands are accessible on foot during low tide, so Mom and I walked out and wandered around for about half an hour or so. However, during that time, the tide started to come in, so by the time we headed back to the mainland, our once-dry isthmus walkway was submerged. I had on my regular shoes that morning (instead of my flip-flops), and after appraising the depth of the water in various places, had no choice but to take off my shoes and socks and wade through the warm water. Good thing we didn’t spend two hours out there or we'd have had to swim for it!
There is no shortage of things to do in the area, so on our last full day, we opted to go sea kayaking, which cost us $14 each for about a five-hour excursion. We considered a trip to one of the islands in the bay, but most were 2-3 hours away by boat, and while sometimes the adage, “Getting there is half the fun” is true, when you’re sitting in a tiny, rickety old boat with an outboard motor, chugging across a huge expanse of water, ehh, well… not so much. We already played that game when we took a water taxi to a small island off the coast of Belize in 2003, and that was only an hour and a half’s journey (if that). Two hours? Three? No thanks. So we saddled up in the back of a battered old lorry (small truck with a partially enclosed bed), picked up a few other tourists, and set off on a truly hair-raising trip to the launch point at Thalane Bay. Our lunatic driver was speeding with wild abandon down narrow, curvy roads and although the scenery really was quite nice, we were flying by so fast, it was hard to think of anything beyond hanging on and hoping we didn’t go careening off the road. I think our death-defying trip lasted about 45 minutes and we finally arrived at the bay where we would set off in our kayaks. The lot of us tumbled out of the back of the lorry, said a prayer of thanks, and collected our gear and had some hot tea before heading out to sea. In our group there were three nationalities represented amongst the seven people. Five of us were Americans. Apart from Mom and me, an older couple from Texas had come out to visit their adult son, who was living and working in Bangkok. He and his Thai girlfriend were also with us, as was a woman from Medan, an Indonesian city on the island of Sumatra. We all walked down to the dock, and true to form for the region, there was no safety briefing, no signing of waivers or notices of disclaimers or hazards, just a cursory introduction to the kayaks. (“Here’s your boat, there’s the pile of life jackets.”)
We got into our four kayaks, with the Indonesian woman pairing up with our guide (who was delightful), and set out across the calm bay. A series of outcroppings and limestone islands keep this water very protected from the sea. We got to see vast swaths of mangrove forests and hidden island beaches, along with some very colorful birds and curious monkeys. We stayed out for about three hours, and it took about half that time for Mom and I to learn to properly synchronize our rowing efforts and even then, I doubt we'd have won any competitions. Fortunately though, nobody else was really very good, either, so no kayak ever got left behind and none of us capsized, which is always a plus. It was a great experience and one I’d absolutely recommend to anyone.
Among the more laughable highlights was one of our final meals. I was craving a good pizza, and more than a few places along the beach trumpeted “authentic” Italian food, “great pizza,” blah blah blah. We chose one and ordered a pepperoni pizza. It arrived with a meager scattering of pepperoni (though presumably actual pork pepperoni, something that’s exceedingly difficult to come by in KL) and an avalanche of green peppers, one of my least favorite things to put on a pizza. Mom is no fan of green peppers in general, so we both balked at this pepper-laden pie. I asked the waiter to explain, and he said that the menu was quite clear on this issue. However, they seem to think green peppers are called “paprika” in English. I went round and round with two people there, not getting angry or anything, but letting them know in no uncertain terms that paprika is a powdered spice derived from the red bell pepper, but not the pepper itself. In many countries, what Americans (and Canadians and Britons) call a bell pepper is called capsicum, and I’ve learned and accepted that. The waiter went so far as to bring a whole green bell pepper out from the kitchen to show me, as if that would clear up any confusion. “Paprika,” he declared plaintively, holding out the pepper to me like some absurd talisman. I was like, “I know what it looked like before you chopped it up!” I later discovered that, in some European countries, mostly the Scandinavian region, the peppers themselves are indeed referred to as paprika (although green peppers would almost never be called simply “paprika,” but would include “green” in the native language, such as “groene paprika” in Dutch), so I’m glad I didn’t lose my head completely. But come on! So let me offer this advice to any American traveling abroad: Ask about every ingredient on the damn pizza you order. I’ve now had to learn the hard way about capsicum and paprika. There’s even confusion about the sauce, because in many places, the sauce is called “tomatoes” on the menu. I like tomato-based sauces just fine, but have no desire to have actual whole or sliced tomatoes on my pizza. (When they say tomatoes, they usually mean tomato sauce, by the way.) I’ve read that Italians may have invented the pizza, but Americans perfected it, and the best pizzas in the world are to be found in America. So maybe we’re just a bit more particular about our pizzas. In the end, we just asked them to pick off all the green peppers and re-bake it for a couple of minutes. Needless to say, the final product was fairly craptastic, but at least it was insanely cheap, I suppose. Sigh.
So after a few days in Ao Nang, the consensus was that we both liked it, paprika pizza notwithstanding. Accessible, inexpensive, and enjoyable… hard to go wrong with a vacation destination if those three conditions are met. I certainly wouldn’t mind returning again someday. Three nights is a good amount of time there, too… one more night wouldn’t have been bad, but for me, at least I think it’s a bit too low-key (at least during the offseason) for a longer visit.
Monday, July 20, 2009
So my mother has flown over to visit from the United States and is staying for 17 days. So far, she’s really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, this is the time for haze in the Klang Valley, owing to hundreds of fires on the huge island of Sumatra, which is immediately to the west of the Malaysian Peninsula. Local farmers there set fire to the jungle to clear it for crops. This can’t be done during the rainy season, so as soon as the dry season is in full swing, which is typically early June, all the little Sumatran farmers rush out and ignite the jungle in a mass slash-and-burn exercise. The smoke from the hundreds (sometimes thousands) of fires burning simultaneously is carried by the prevailing winds over the Straits of Malacca and on over to the Peninsula, where it settles in the Klang Valley. The massive amounts of traffic and burning that occur in and around KL itself only exacerbate the problem. Because of this, KL is regularly shrouded in a haze that varies from minor to outrageous. In 1997, it was so bad, drivers couldn’t safely see the cars in front of them and the Malaysian government ordered all nonessential businesses closed for days. It was nearly as bad again in 2005, as shown in this photo from Wikipedia, but apparently 1997 was the granddaddy of all hazy seasons. There are days when a providential combination of wind and rain cleanse the air and allow for clear skies, but more often than not, the haze persists, and it will stay with us in varying degrees until the rainy season begins again, around September or October. So far this year, it hasn’t been too bad overall, but it definitely mars the views of what is actually a lovely city, built amongst the hills and valleys. I took a couple of pictures from my carpark, looking out over Damansara Perdana. The first one was on a clear day about three weeks ago and the second one, taken from the same location, was taken two days later. It looks like it’s overcast, misty, and rainy… but it’s not. That’s just haze.
Mom arrived at KLIA early in the morning after an epic flight. On all of my trips to Asia, I’ve flown west, heading out from San Francisco or Los Angeles across the Pacific, but for some reason, it was much cheaper this time to fly from New York, so I booked Mom’s flights from Colorado to New York (via Dallas), where she got on a Malaysia Airlines flight to KL with a fuel stopover in Stockholm. Regardless of which direction you travel, you can’t escape the fact that Malaysia is pretty much on the complete opposite side of the world from Colorado. The total travel time for her to get from Colorado to KL was about 33 hours, with about 25 hours of that being actual flying time. What can I say? Earth is a pretty big planet and 12,000 miles (19,000 km) is a lot of distance to cover. So after arriving at 8 a.m., I had to ensure she stayed awake all day and well into the evening to “reset” her body clock and help overcome any jet lag, although it’s not as severe when traveling from west to east, as she did. We visited KLCC Park and wandered around, managing somehow to keep her awake until about 9 p.m.
The day after she got to KL, Mom visited my dentist, Dr. Yong, here in Damansara Perdana. The major impetus for her visit to Malaysia was that her dentist back in Colorado had told her that she needed three crowns on her teeth, maybe four. With only minimal insurance (and even “good” dental insurance in the U.S. is woefully inadequate when it comes to anything beyond fillings), she was looking at close to $5,000 U.S. for the work. So I told her, “Come to KL, get the work done for one-tenth that amount and enjoy an actual vacation on top of it and it’ll still cost a fraction of what just the crowns would cost in the U.S.” So that was enough for her to justify taking the trip. So she and Dr. Yong hit it off exceptionally well (my mom thinks that women make better dentists) and after the exam and consultation, Dr. Yong told her that she didn’t need crowns at all, so she had all the work that she actually needed done, plus a bit of cosmetic work done that she’d been wanting to do for many years, for only RM710, which is about $200 U.S. It was a bitter slap in the face regarding the state of healthcare in the States. I’ve thought for awhile that there’s a bit of collusion in the dental profession, at least in Denver. Dentists are very quick to proclaim you need root canal therapy, a build-up, and a crown – that comes to about $2,000 per tooth, a much more profitable venture than a $100 filling. Dr. Yong is also a periodontist and dental surgeon, so she can handle the complex work as well, rather than sending her patients to a specialist. (In Colorado, a visit to the endodontist for a root canal job, for example, can cost about $900, a chunk of which goes back to your general dentist for the referral, I’m sure.)
So anyway, Mom had all her work done over the course of two visits and, since, not needing crowns, she spent even less than she had allocated to begin with, she mentioned going to Bali with some of the savings. I found reasonable airfare (about $115 each, round-trip) and booked the flight. It wasn’t as ridiculously cheap as the flight to Thailand (which was right at $50 round-trip), but Bali is about twice as far from KL as Krabi, so it all seems to make sense.
On Friday, we went to Kuala Gandah, the elephant conservation center in Pahang. It’s about an hour and a half’s drive from home, and a breathtaking RM13 or so in tolls (one way). Pretty much all highways in Malaysia are toll roads, but you do get your money’s worth. The interstate toll roads here are well-maintained and generally of top-notch quality. So this time around, we got there in time to get “full-access” passes (a limited number are distributed each day), so we not only got to feed and touch the elephants, we got to ride them and swim in the river with them as well. I rode the largest elephant into the river, where he was given a command, then fell over on his side in the shallow water. It was really fun. One of the added treats was a cadre of young boys from the local village coming down to the opposite bank of the river and climbing up in tall trees to get a closer look at all the people playing in the river with the elephants.
On our last evening in KL before leaving for Thailand, I took Mom to one of my favorite bars in the city, a restaurant and bar called “Shook!” which is on the lower level of the stunning Starhill Gallery mall. Even after not seeing me for over four months, the bartender (who is awesome) remembered me and totally took care of us. There was a live jazz combo and a lady also came out and sang a few numbers that were just terrific. If you ever have the chance and want a good drink in a nice environment, weekends at Shook are highly recommended… ask for Nazeem.