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!