Friday, December 10, 2010

Bahasa Melayu, Censorship, and the Delicate Art of Manglish

So after over two years of living in a multicultural, multilingual society, I figure I may know somewhere between 120 and 150 words in the national language, Bahasa Melayu. It's not that it's a particularly difficult language; on the contrary, it's far simpler than languages such as Spanish, French, or English. No real verb conjugations to speak of, no tenses (perfect or otherwise), and no genders for nouns. Even the lexicon is far, far smaller than English. Really, it's just that learning the Malay language isn't functionally necessary for living here as a foreigner. Most people speak some degree of English (or attempt it on signs, as shown here), and as I've witnessed many, many times, English is routinely used between two people whose mother tongue is another language (like two Malays or two Chinese speaking to each other using only English). Still though, I try to pick up a few new words in Malay each month, but the problem is, if they're not common words, and I don't use them or see them regularly, I forget them easily.

One of the joys of living in a multilingual nation is that people here routinely slip in and out of various languages, even in the course of the same conversation. I think that's so cool... if you don't know how to express something in English, then you just switch over to Cantonese, or Malay, or whatever, then back to English, or vice-versa. It's very natural and common here... I think it's brilliant. And it's totally normal for me to be talking to a friend in English, when he'll get a phone call and rapid-fire jabber away in Mandarin, then will flip effortlessly right back to English for me. I've always thought that was amazing being able to switch between different languages like that — and there's no actual translating involved. I can sometimes do this at a very remedial level. I was driving in a steady rain once, and rounded a curve on the highway and saw a flashing sign, Awas! Terowong di hadapan! All road signs here are in Malay, and what was cool for me was that I didn't have to actually translate that in my head or sort it out into English. It just clicked into place exactly what it meant... I equated the words with the ideas and things they represented, rather than with their English-language equivalents. (In English, it's basically, "Caution! Tunnel Ahead!")

Ads and displays are oftentimes multilingual, too. The phrase of the actual ad will be in English, but all the other stuff will be in Malay. Movie posters will have all of their taglines in English, of course, but at the bottom, it will say Di pawagam 31 Dis 2010 or something ("In theaters December 31, 2010"). I wish Americans were as accepting of other languages as Malaysians are. English is happily, if not gracefully, woven into the Malaysian culture in a nation where all of its inhabitants' native languages are definitely not English (Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, Hakka, Hokkien, and probably a dozen indigenous dialects), and nobody really seems to mind. But when signs are posted in English and Spanish in the U.S., some Americans tend to feel threatened. I think having multiple languages in a society is great and often find myself envious of people here who speak three or four languages easily.

However, I have to say somewhat critically, the response I get from locals when I do attempt to speak to them in Malay is not usually encouraging. They usually just laugh at me or don't understand me at all and talk back to me in English. I don't think they're doing it to be rude, but it's very different from the reaction a foreigner gets in Indonesia or Thailand when making the effort to speak the native language (they are typically delighted that you're even trying), instead of just presuming like everyone should speak English, like many Americans are prone to doing when traveling abroad. So between the lack of real necessity to learn the local languages here, and the lack of encouraging response I normally get when I do attempt it, I usually just opt to converse in English.

One of the inherent problems in a country where only a conversational level of English is typically used is a lack of understanding of some of the more esoteric words and phrases in the language (like the word "esoteric," for example!). For instance, the words "already" and "never mind" are routinely and widely misused in speech here. My mechanic will tell me that "The spark plus are spoiled already, lah." "Oh okay," I'll reply, "Just go ahead and replace them." To which he'd reply, "Never mind, never mind, I replace already and call you later, lah." It's completely understandable, just slightly... off. This is not how we use these words in American English. Nor do we add "lah" to the end of sentences, but this is a quirk of Malaysian and Singaporean English.

The amalgam of English with Malay is called "Manglish" (and "Singlish" in Singapore), and it's frequently a source of confusion, frustration, and/or amusement for me. One of my favorite things is how they use double comparatives, as in, "This is much more better," or, "That one is more cheaper." I hear this so often, it's almost starting to sound normal to me. Another thing is how the Malay language incorporates other languages into its lexicon. In English, the borrowed word is usually kept intact, such as the word "rendezvous," which retains its French spelling. In Malay, however, the spelling is changed to fit the strict phonetics of the Malay language. Science becomes "sains," ice becomes "ais," bungalow becomes "banglo," and many words ending with "-tion" in English end with "-asi" in Malay (inspirasi, inovasi, transformasi, telekomunikasi). For some reason, the word wow becomes "wah," as seen in this photo, but oddly enough, the rest of the ad is in English. The line between English and local languages here is continually blurred. Sometimes it's just mixed up altogether.

This issue is brought keenly to light when watching TV. Not only are the subtitles (in Malay) only a dim approximation of the nuance and complexity of what's actually being said, the Malaysian censors will oftentimes edit out what they think are offensive words (they just drop the soundtrack briefly), while leaving in actual profanity, or censoring the same word inconsistently throughout a program. On one episode of "Family Guy," a show I can't believe is even aired in Malaysia, they censored out the word "prostate" the first 9 or 10 times it was used (in reference to a prostate exam), but left the word in there the last few times. Never mind that it's not even remotely offensive or profane... it was just wildly inconsistent. "Bitch" and "ass" were left intact, however. It was very puzzling. It's also annoying to watch a show that airs somewhat late at night (after 10 p.m.), begins with all the warnings about language, violence, mature subject matter, etc., and then is STILL censored. Then sometimes, they'll show the same program (and same episode) from early evening again after midnight, and paradoxically, the late-night version will be much more censored than the 7 p.m. version was... wow. (Sorry, I mean "wah.") Fortunately, I don't watch a great deal of TV here, but things like this always make it an adventure when I do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rocky Mountain High: Colorado Trip, Part 2

Brace yourselves, folks, it’s another “in the sky” blog entry. Here I am in seat 11J on an Airbus A330/300, currently about 37,000 feet somewhere over the southern Gulf of Alaska in the northern Pacific. We’re well clear of US airspace, and now 4,116 miles (6,621 km) from Tokyo. Got all that??

I’ve made three trips home to Colorado in the time I’ve been living in Kuala Lumpur, and this is really the first time I’ve seriously wished I had had a few more days back home. I’ll be happy to get back to my life and my routine in Malaysia, naturally, but the two weeks I spent in the US just flew by, particularly the second week. This has been a new “exit route” for me this time… instead of flying from the dreaded Los Angeles airport, I instead flew from Denver to Salt Lake City, then flew out from there en route to Tokyo. I was seated on the wrong side of the airplane to get the really impressive shots of the Colorado Rockies as we flew west from Denver, but here’s one decent shot from the right side of the plane, showing the fresh dusting of snow on the northern mountains in my home state. By the time we crossed the Continental Divide and were descending into the state of Utah’s capital city, the views of the still-snowless Wasatch Range of the Rockies were stunning. Salt Lake City’s suburbs go right up to the edge of the mountains (on the left side of the photo), and the rise of the Wasatch Range is pretty dramatic. And here’s the city’s namesake, the Great Salt Lake, a vast body of water with salinity so high, there is little life there (certainly no fish). We actually had a pretty substantial delay once we boarded the airplane, about an hour’s wait while they sorted out some weight and balance issues with the cargo on the plane, but I’m in a window seat with nobody seated next to me, so I have no complaints!

I thought about ending the last entry with this particular photo, but decided to stick it here in this entry instead. This is me snoozing on my mother’s sofa with my 13-year-old Amazon parrot, Shiloh, hunkered down and “nesting” on my chest. I got Shiloh when she was about four years old, many years ago. Unlike most pets, however, Amazon parrots are incredibly long-lived in captivity. Many live 65-75 years, and I believe the record is a male Blue-fronted Amazon who was an amazing 114 years old when he died. Unless I live to a very ripe old age, it’s entirely possible that Shiloh may outlive me. I can truly say she doesn’t look a day older than she did when I first brought her home! Shiloh is a Red-lored Amazon, and although her species isn’t renowned for “talking,” they are particularly affectionate as far as Amazon parrots go, and Shiloh is a loving bird indeed. She does say “hello” and can imitate whistles and laughter quite easily, but that seems to be the extent of her vocalizing ability. My mom has been so good about caring for Shiloh during the time I’ve been in Malaysia, getting occasional help from her friends and neighbors, as well.

And here’s my Jeep! Woo hoo! So now, all four of my cars have made an appearance at some point on my blog. The intrepid Tiara and somewhat-new Kia Spectra back in KL, and there was one shot of my beloved Toyota MR2 Turbo in my garage in Denver on an entry from 2009. And this is my Jeep… a vehicle with an engine so large, it would literally break the bank to drive in KL. In Malaysia, road tax is calculated based on engine displacement, whereas in Colorado, it’s based on the residual taxable value of the car. Thus, new cars are expensive to license, but go down dramatically as they age (and their value decreases). So in Colorado, this Jeep runs about US$35 a year to license. Since it has a monster 5.9-liter V8 engine, however, it would cost a bomb to license in Malaysia… a completely staggering RM14,734.50 a year, or US$4,765! It’s a 1998 Grand Cherokee, so the entire value of the vehicle isn’t much more than that, anymore. Maybe if the US had a similar road tax formula, we wouldn’t have such an onslaught of huge, gas-sucking vehicles on the road. The vast majority of cars in Malaysia have engine displacements of about two liters or less, and those cars are perfectly suitable and capable. That said, though the Jeep isn’t exactly fuel efficient, it is a fantastic vehicle for taking into the Colorado mountains. It’s actually the third Grand Cherokee that I’ve owned, and each of them have reliably taken me on some of the roughest, rockiest, and most breathtaking backcountry roads imaginable. Though it’s largely senseless to own such a trail-capable, gasoline-hungry, all-wheel-drive vehicle in most places, in Colorado, it’s completely logical. I’m just glad I have a more fuel-efficient car to drive most of the time there. When I lived in Denver, the Jeep was mostly used just for hauling things and for off-road adventures in the mountains.

Back to the photography, this picture here is from Echo Lake near the base of Mount Evans, the dominant peak of Colorado’s Front Range just west of Denver. We actually got some light snow shortly after I snapped this photo. Though the sun’s angle ensured a high-contrast sky, the clouds nestled in and around the jagged terrain of the mountains really gives a sense of height and grandeur. As with most of these shots from the Rockies, it’s best to click and enlarge them if you really want to see the photo properly.

As in the photo above, one of the things I like to do at high altitudes is to use nearby trees or rocks to either “frame” the photo or to lend a sense of perspective (mostly related to the perception of height). In the two following photos, taken on the high mountain road between Evergreen and Idaho Springs, elements in the foreground are really used simply to convey the magnitude of the vast conifer forest in the background.

Back in the lower elevations, we stopped off in the westernmost suburb of Denver, a town called Golden. We went into a bar and had some draft beers and appetizers. One look at this plate of nachos, in all their disgusting, decadent, and delicious glory, and you’ll understand why so many Americans are overweight. This is the sort of rubbish we eat… I don’t do it often myself, but on occasion, it’s a lot of fun to bond with friends and family over a pitcher of beer and a plate full of future obesity. What a mess.

I’ll take a break here and watch a movie or see if I can get some rest… will pick this back up later on.

Well, the flight from Salt Lake to Tokyo didn’t crash, so apparently their weight and balance calculations were correct. We chewed up a LOT of runway on the takeoff roll, though, and the angle of attack on the climb-out was pretty shallow, too, so I’m thinking that aircraft was pushing its maximum take-off load. Anyway, that flight was uneventful, but the delay in Salt Lake meant a bit of a scramble to catch my next flight in Tokyo, as there was only about a 40-minute window. However, I made it, my luggage made it, and I had a great seat (exit row) on the seven-hour flight down to Bangkok and slept almost literally the whole flight, waking only long enough to eat about half of the lackluster dinner they served. It does seem to be pretty hit-or-miss with Delta’s food, from what I can tell. Some are quite good, some are very forgettable. None are up to the standards of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific.

So now I’m sitting at the gate in Bangkok, awaiting the final short flight back to KL. I only flew Delta between Bangkok and Denver; the KL portion has been served by Air Asia, and I will not make that mistake again. I spent a solid hour arguing my case with them about my checked luggage. What a nightmare. I have one bag that’s about 24 kg, and another that’s 13 kg. Look at this picture! How much trouble could that one little suitcase in front possibly be? I “prebooked” my luggage for 25 and 15 kg, so I figured that would cover me. However, their site won’t allow you to put two bags on one leg, so I put the 15 kg on my outbound flight, then proceeded to e-mail them via their website TWICE from the United States regarding the luggage issue. The site clearly says that they would respond to my inquiry within five days – I didn’t get a response to either e-mail, the first of which was sent a week and a half ago. So what I learned here is that when their site says “supersize your baggage!” and offers you different weights for different prices, that weight is for all your checked luggage combined, not per piece. You’d think the site would state that pretty clearly… but it doesn’t. So because of this lack of clarity and the total non-response to my e-mails, I had no clue, and they tried to charge me 2,150 Thai Baht or something for “excess baggage,” which is a fairly huge sum for a small suitcase (it’s about US$80, I believe). So I went round and round with various people, none of whom were empowered to do anything, naturally. I was never belligerent or abusive (I actually never even raised my voice); I just kept stating my case over and over again and refusing to leave the counter. I didn’t think that their failure to do their job (responding to my inquiry) was something I should be penalized for. As I told the agent, had they responded within five days as the site said, and explained things, I never would have brought the second little suitcase. In the end, I wound up agreeing to pay about 850 Baht, which is more than I’d have cared to pay, but better than it had been. What a bloody nightmare, seriously. They also allow your carry-on bag to only weigh 7 kg, which is complete rubbish. The empty bag itself probably weighs half that, at least! Delta allows carry-on bags to weigh up to 18 kg, which is actually pretty generous (mine weighs about 14). I’ll not use Air Asia again for any final leg of a return flight from the US if there’s any chance of checking more than one bag! Consider this a lesson learned.

More later once I’m back in KL!

Okay, so I’m back and largely recovered from the flight(s). It was about 22-23 hours of actual flying time, and I reckon around 35 hours or so of total transit time. Here's a shot of all the stuff I brought back this time. Like before, it's a lot of food and things I either can't get easily in KL (or at all) or things that are much cheaper in the States. I brought back two suits this time, too, as well as a car stereo for the Kia. It was really odd returning this time… even though the time in Denver went by really quickly, I felt like I had been gone from KL for a long, long time. When I walked in my condo, it seemed almost unfamiliar to me. That’s never happened before. The sensation wore off soon enough though, and I was back to work and right back in my routine as of the next day.

So it was an enjoyable visit all in all. I got to catch up with friends and family (and my parrot), my mom’s surgery went smoothly and all the news was good, and I got to enjoy some great food and soak up some incredible weather. If the flights weren’t so very long (and costly), I’d surely go back more often! The shot here is of Bear Creek, not too far from where my mother lives… very nice area for hiking and wandering. And the final picture is from our last foray into the mountains, this scene of the Never Summer Mountain range from the Peak-to-Peak scenic highway near the small town of Nederland, Colorado. What a beautiful day that was!

More entries to come soon as we head into the final months of 2010.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Colorful Colorado

Though my home state of Colorado offers scenic beauty at any time of year, autumn is by far my favorite season. The days are still mostly warm, and the evenings are cool and crisp. Last year, I visited in September, so I wrote about my love for this time of year in the Rocky Mountains then. This year, I got to fly back home to visit in early October... most of the leaves at higher elevations in the mountains have already hit their peak color (and some have fallen off the trees completely), but lower elevations are still covered with golden yellow aspens, and the trees in Denver are just starting to change colors. It's just a wonderful time of year, a few short weeks where the transition from summer to winter yields a comfortable climate with plenty of clear, blue-sky days, punctuated by the brilliant colors of the changing leaves.

It's been an enjoyable holiday... getting to visit with friends and family. My mother is recovering from major surgery now, so we've been trying to get her out and about a little more each day as she works towards her recovery. One day, we took her brother and his wife, who were visiting from Atlanta, into the foothills and along the Front Range, where I snapped many of these photos. In the afternoon, as we returned to Denver, we stopped by an open-space park in the foothills west of the city. The sun was low in the sky... that "magic hour" before sunset, so the quality of light was outstanding. The warmth of the setting sun, the long shadows and deep contrasts between shadow and light made for a very enjoyable hike along the creek. This stem of scrub oak leaves, a deep red color, was backlit by the sun and really caught my eye.

One thing about life in the mountains is that there's a real struggle for life above a certain altitude. Yet life always finds a foothold and manages to carry on. We went over Squaw Pass, just west of the city, which reaches an elevation of over 11,000 feet (3,350 meters), and trees have a hard time growing there. Yet they still find a way... here is what I thought was a nice shot of a young tree which was growing and thriving in the most inhospitable home... the side of a rocky cliff high in the mountains.

Down at lower elevations, life takes on a much more recognizable shape. Here, a mule deer buck pauses during his "fattening up" for the coming winter. People in Colorado are very accustomed to wildlife... seeing deer, elk, foxes... even in the suburbs of Denver, it's not unusual.

I'll add some more pictures and write more in a second entry later. I have a couple of full days left here in Colorado, so if the weather cooperates (there's snow in the forecast), we'll head back up into the mountains and I'll take some more pictures. This last photo was taken looking over a rocky outcrop towards a forest that, although already filled with plenty of barren trees, still shows bright yellow swaths of aspens amongst the evergreens. I'll always consider Colorado to be home... no matter how far I wander. :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Back to Bali

Get yourself a drink and a snack… this is going to be a lengthy post. It’s another entry being composed on my netbook while cruising along at 37,000 feet. I’m on board an Air Asia flight back to KL from a nice, but far too short vacation in Bali. It’s really the first true break I’ve had since starting my job back in January, although there was a brief weekend in Langkawi for Chinese New Year. This time I went with one of my friends who is now living and working in Singapore and stayed for a lightning-fast three nights. This was my ninth trip to Bali since mid-2003… it’s hard to believe, really. I think five (or maybe even six) of those trips came while I was living in the States, and the balance have occurred since moving to Malaysia. So here we go... and remember, any of these pics can be enlarged by clicking on them (and some definitely should be).

It’s a short flight from KL down to Bali, a little under three hours. Here’s me on the tarmac at KL’s airport, about to board the morning flight. Woo hoo! When we arrived at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali, I got a bit of a nasty surprise. When I first started visiting Indonesia, the visa for Americans (or anyone) was free and valid for 60 days. In 2004, however, someone in the Indonesian government had the epiphany that a lot of money could be made by charging all these sucker tourists. Never mind that Bali was barely more than two years removed from the October 2002 bombing that completely decimated the entire tourism industry there. The Balinese shrieked in protest, but the Indonesian government still implemented a charge for the visa on arrival for nearly every country from which it drew its tourists… US$10 for a seven-day visa, $25 for a 30-day visa, which was now the maximum stay allowed. Since moving to KL, it’s no longer necessary to stay in Bali for two weeks to justify the flight (that was about a 25-hour sojourn from Denver), so I could just pay $10 and get a week-long visa and be fine. Well, not anymore! In the year since my last visit, they’ve scrapped that nicety altogether. Now, whether you stay one day or a month, the visa is $25, thank you very much. Greed is alive and well in Indonesia. Coupled with the outrageous departure tax that is actually 50% higher in Bali than in other places such as Yogyakarta, a family of four will see a whopping US$160 in entry/exit fees added to the cost of their holiday. My question remains: Where the hell is all this money going? It’s got to amount to a HUGE sum of cash given the sheer hordes of visitors descending on Bali (and other places in Indonesia, although over 80% of visitors to that country go to Bali and Bali alone). I can report quite frankly that, apart from now having a few jetways for passengers to use, that money is not going to markedly improve Ngurah Rai airport.

So anyway, I was bitter over the more than doubling of the visa fee for about two minutes, then got over it. Happily, in exchange for paying 150% more, at least they did away with the bloody full-page visa stickers they have vandalized my poor passport with for the last five years. On a page that can normally accommodate at least two entries and exits (four stamps), and usually three of each, Indonesia plastered a giant sticker, then stamped it. This was a persistent source of irritation for me every time I visited. Passports in America are not cheap at all, and I don’t need the very limited number of pages in mine consumed by stickers that cut the number of uses in half. One time, an Indonesian immigration officer in Jakarta put the giant sticker in my passport, then proceeded to stamp the opposite page (instead of stamping the space on the sticker as he should have), screwing up two pages instead of one. I was not amused. So yeah, apparently enough people fussed about it that they finally did away with the whole sticker program altogether and went back to a plain old stamp, like every other country in the world. So that’s great. I don’t see that $25 visa fee ever disappearing, though.

Since that horrible bombing in 2002, and the far-less horrible one in 2005, Bali visitor numbers have rebounded spectacularly. In fact, I think in many ways, Bali is a victim of its own success. There was just a crush of traffic in and around Kuta, which at times was just laughable. The tiny little roads and alleys were never, ever meant to accommodate anything close to the onslaught that’s unleashed on them regularly now. As Bali’s popularity has grown, so too have their prices, coupled with general inflation and cost-of-living increases. Tourists still seem to gladly fork over the cash for the higher prices, and so Bali’s wealth relative to the rest of Indonesia is substantial. So this draws quasi-immigrants for a share of the tourist cash – not really immigrants of course, since they’re still Indonesians, but they’re not Balinese. They mostly come from neighboring Java, itself the most populated island on Earth, and also from Sumatra and Sulawesi. I’ve even met workers in Bali who came from Kalimantan (on the island of Borneo) and East Timor. The allure of relatively easy money is very strong and the Javanese, in particular, have long cast a jealous eye towards their far more popular and wealthy neighbor to the east. So Bali, though a very small island in the grand scheme of things, has a population of some four million, perhaps more. And at times, it seems they’re all packed into the sprawling, congested Kuta-Legian-Seminyak conurbation.

Another thing the flow of money and rise in wealth has done is enabled many, many more locals to buy cars and motorbikes. A few days in South Bali and you might be tempted to think that every motorbike ever made is there. Of course, I’m not an idle observer to all this madness. An oft-misquoted portion of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that “the measurement of position necessarily disturbs a particle’s momentum,” and this has been expanded to imply that you can never be a completely neutral, non-impacting observer to any phenomenon. Your mere presence alters the equation, however minutely. And so it is with my presence in Bali. Though I observe these growing issues, as a tourist, I bring my money, I rent motorbikes, keenly aware that I’m a small contributor to the very problems that are diminishing the appeal of Bali for me.

The saving grace of all this madness has, in the past, been found in Ubud. Once a completely unremarkable inland village, tourism and Western expats such as Walter Spies, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, have transformed Ubud into Bali’s cultural heartland. I would get my fill of sun, sand, and general hedonistic abandon in South Bali, then beat a wearied retreat to the lush green valleys and ridges of Ubud, which provided an altogether different experience from that of Kuta.

This time, however, proved to be just more of the same. We took the motorbike up to Ubud, usually an hour-long journey. (Here's a shot of the bike on a relatively quiet stretch of roadway.) But we stopped in Denpasar to shop, then stopped at a wonderful roadside warung (food stall) to enjoy a distinctly Balinese lunch, something called babi guling. An oasis of Balinese Hinduism in a vast archipelago dominated by Islam (Indonesia, though a secular state, has the largest Muslim population in the world), Bali is the place for pork-lovers to go. Babi is pork (and pig) in the Indonesian language, and this dish comprises all manner of meats and treats from a slow-roasted suckling pig. You get it all… the meat itself, juicy and tender, the crispy fried skin (known to Southern Americans as pork rinds), sausages, pork satay, fried slices of liver, something red and fried whose origin I probably don’t want to know, but it was yummy, a piece of the smoked and roasted skin with a bit of juicy meat attached (which scraped right off), and a pork-rich clear soup. It’s all served with rice and veggies, and we washed it down with iced tea, and this was all still a veritable bargain at Rp. 25,000 (less than US$3). It was absolutely delicious… the first time I’ve had babi guling in probably four years.

So owing to the leisurely ride north, we didn’t arrive in Ubud until shortly after 3 p.m. and it was a complete nightmare. The traffic was completely appalling and it’s only because we were on a motorbike instead of in a car that we ever reached our destination at all. As we later learned, that’s the worst time to try driving in or around Ubud as numerous tourist buses arrive from the south and disgorge hundreds of people into the town. So the dozens of buses blend with the regular traffic and turn it all into the seventh circle of hell. I was completely gobsmacked, really. I mean, I expect it in Kuta, but I had never seen this sort of jam in Ubud before. However, we got to my favorite hiking spot at Campuhan Ridge (chomp-OOH-ahn), seducing as always with its many shades of green and fantastic views of the steep valleys cut on either side by rushing rivers. We spent awhile hiking, and then went to an art gallery, one of many in and around Ubud, which turned out to be an interesting experience.

This particular gallery is run by an old-ish American lout who has been in Bali since the late 70s. We spent a few minutes talking with him and I wish I could say it was an engaging and enlightening conversation, but ten minutes into things, I got a very clear picture of who he was. Spouting off near-racist commentary and getting virtually everything he said about Malaysia dead wrong, he embodied that nasty expat character I’ve heard about and read about but have taken great pains to avoid. He lives a life of unimaginable wealth and comfort compared to most of the people around him, but is barely able to conceal his contempt for them. Fat, miserably belligerent, and ignorant, he was like an even less-likeable version of Archie Bunker. You know the type. The people who don’t know anything, but have somehow managed to not only be oblivious to their blatant ignorance, but to actually wear it like a badge of honor. You can’t tell them anything, so don’t even try. So this piece of work started babbling about the “MAY-lays” and how everyone in the whole region is fundamentally a “MAY-lay” (that’s how he pronounced Malay, not “muh-LAY,” as is correct). Now, the Indonesian race is definitely descended from Malays, but he was carrying on about even Chinese Malaysians and Chinese Singaporeans still being Malay (they are completely not). Then he launched into some absurd diatribe about how the Chinese control the Malays and “keep them Muslim” because then they can’t drink because once a Malay (“MAY-lay”) gets hold of alcohol, you can’t control them. My god. I’m not sure where he went with that idea, because at that point, I had just tuned out and concentrated fully on not rolling my eyes completely out of my head. So I waited until he took a raspy breath, redirected the conversation for about fifteen seconds, then politely bid him good day.

So a word about the accommodations this time. In past trips, I’ve always stayed either in luxury resorts, small hotels, or family-run bed-and-breakfasts. On my second trip to Bali, I stayed in a place that called itself a villa, but it was really just a fancy hotel in a different package. A true private villa is essentially like staying in a home, complete with everything you’d expect in a home. And that’s where we stayed this time… a lovely private villa in the village of Kerobokan Kelod, about 10 minutes north of the energy and bustle of Seminyak, and about 20 minutes from the general chaos of Kuta and Legian. Though staffed, we were largely on our own, with a stocked refrigerator operated on the honor system (take a beer, mark it down). There was also a larger fridge for guests to stock with anything they wanted. A small, but really nice (and deep) swimming pool was in the back garden, complete with a Jacuzzi and steam room. Of course, the foliage was just gorgeous, typical Bali. We had access to a good-sized library of books, music, and DVDs, and plenty of relaxation and privacy – the whole villa can only sleep 8 people and even that would be a stretch. It was expensive by Bali standards, about US$80 per night, but by American standards and certainly by Singaporean standards, where a basic 3-star hotel room can go for over US$200 per night, it was still good value for money. I definitely like the private villa experience. The bathroom was huge, too! I could only get about a quarter of it into this picture. It really was a nice place. I rented the motorbike in the photo above for about Rp. 35,000 per day and we were set. As challenging as navigating the roads of Bali can be, particularly the minor village roads, and especially at night, I was actually really proud that I never got us lost, or worse, killed. I’ve written on here before about the risks and travails of riding a motorbike in Bali, and I’m always fastidiously careful.

As ever, the food was a memorable part of the trip. Really, good food adds so much to any enjoyable vacation, doesn’t it? Continuing the “mmm… pork” theme, we had bacon every morning with our excellent breakfast spreads. Take a look at this! It was really a much better breakfast than I expected… a full complement of eggs, toast, cheese, butter and jam, bacon, orange juice, coffee, and three types of fresh fruit. Great way to start the day, even if we only once did it before 10 a.m. Ha ha … hey, it’s a vacation, right?

Another near-ritual I’ve grown to love is having bakso and Bintang on the beach at Kuta while awaiting the sunset. The former is a meatball noodle soup, the latter, a local pilsner beer. Once upon a time, the combo would cost only Rp. 15,000 (ten for the beer, five for the bakso). These days, it’s more like Rp. 27,000. But the beer is still ice cold and the bakso is as good as ever. The atmosphere on the expansive stretch of sand is so enjoyable... everyone is just relaxing and having a good time. It's the embodiment of the spirit of a vacation. Cheers!

I’ve written previously about the outstanding pizzas served up out of the scorching hot, wood-fired oven at Chasers, on Jalan Benesari in Legian. Here’s a picture to prove it. Once again, “porkapalooza” continued… ham, salami, pepperoni… YUM. Now, toppings and cheese matter a lot on a pizza, and of course the sauce plays a prominent role, but the crust is definitely the most important part of a pizza, and the crusts of Chasers’ pizzas are brilliant, cooked to crisp perfection on the stone floor of the oven. If I’m being totally truthful, this place may turn out the best pizzas I’ve had outside of America… and that includes my trip to Italy. Though they’ve naturally raised their prices over the years, it’s still a great value at Rp. 34,000 (just under US$4) for any pizza or pasta dish on the menu. If you’re in Bali and craving a good pizza, I recommend this place. Just go during a busy time of the day, so the fire in the oven is being continually stoked and kept blazing hot. That searing hot stone is the key to the perfect crust. Wow… now I’m hungry. Ha ha.

I’m not much of a flower aficionado in general, but put a camera in my hand and I’m drawn to the colors and shapes of flowers almost as much as I am to waterfalls and lakes. My two favorite flowers are the blue columbine, which is the state flower of my home state of Colorado, and the frangipani, which actually grows from the branch tips of a very weird-looking tree that usually looks half-dead since its branches and limbs are largely barren. Oddly enough, and I don’t really know what the reason for this is, many cultures in Southeast Asia associate the frangipani with death, funerals, graveyards, and in the case of Malay culture, vampires. Some folklore holds that the trees provide hiding places for ghosts and demons. (The sap of the tree is poisonous, but poses no harm to humans apart from being a skin irritant.) In Bali, the flowers are routinely used for temple offerings. Frangipani flowers are just amazing. They’re incredibly aromatic, particularly at night, and the scent is truly beguiling. They come in numerous colors, are usually perfectly formed, even in their bud state, and with their five-petal spiral arrangement, possess a wonderful symmetry. Once they fall from their tree, they still retain their shape and powerful fragrance. If you drop the fallen flowers into a basin of water, they will float perfectly and will stay vibrant for many days. This shot of the still-growing yellow frangipani flowers was snapped from the balcony of our villa. This other one? I don’t know what it is, looks sort of like something in the lily family, but it sure caught my eye. This is definitely a nice pic to enlarge (as is the frangipani pic).

In pursuit of some real relaxation despite the short holiday, I vowed to do two things. One was to find a book (I knew ahead of time about the villa’s library) and read it. The whole thing. The second was to get a long massage. I succeeded on both counts… not only did I read a really good novel, getting completely absorbed in the myriad characters and arc of the story, complete with plot twists and a dénouement that wasn’t revealed until the final page of the book, but I also got TWO lengthy massages, the first a 90-minute affair, pretty straightforward, and the second, a full two-hour Javanese mandi lulur. This treatment combines a 90-minute body massage with an exfoliating green tea scrub and a cucumber-yogurt body mask treatment, followed by a soak in a scented bath and a serving of ginger tea and biscuits. It’s a staple of Indonesian massage, and it’s money very, very well spent, I promise. (It’s also a complete bargain by US standards at about $20 for two hours; and even by Malaysian standards, pretty cheap as well… less than RM65, which will get you a basic one-hour traditional massage in KL.) I could easily go for one of these treatments on a monthly basis… very therapeutic and de-stressing!

More later… we’re descending for the approach to KL.

Back at home now and fully unpacked, a day later. In retrospect, this was a good trip, just a bit too short. Two or three more nights would have been great. Despite all the minor irritants with South Bali’s growing congestion, the island itself is still enchanting. One just has to look a little more closely now, and endeavor to push beyond all the tourist trappings. The rich culture, the warm and friendly people, and the amazing food are all still very much present. I’ll conclude with a few more photos…

This is a shot from Kuta Beach one evening at sunset. Though not the quintessential electric orange sunset that Kuta is famous for, the deep blue tones made for what I thought was an evocative photo.

This is a photo of the detail of one of the stone carvings at a temple we visited near the village of Kedewatan. I have no idea of its age, but it seemed pretty old to me. This next shot is a wider view of one of the temple structures. The level of craftsmanship in the wood and stone carvings I see in Bali (particularly the things not specifically produced for the tourist trade) continues to amaze me.

One of the things I most like about Bali is that, for the self-initiated, the island can give you almost any sort of vacation you want (outside of snow skiing). If you want a rich, cultural experience, one where you can learn the language, cooking skills, art, or music, you can have that. If you want an adventure holiday, filled with parasailing, diving, and river rafting (and even bungee jumping), Bali offers that, too. If you want a laid-back "fly and flop" vacation, doing little but relaxing on the beach, well of course, that's no problem at all. Though the island is suffering from both general overpopulation and certainly a glut of tourists and tourist-related trade, it still retains its inimitable charm. While certainly not as fresh and new to me as it was in my first few visits, Bali is still a great vacation spot and there's still plenty to explore there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Two-Year Mark!

Mmmm... chicken rice, one of my favorite local dishes. I can't believe it... two years in Malaysia. It's gone by so quickly in many ways. I arrived here on September 5, 2008. Everything was different and exciting and new. And now I've lived here for two full years -- learning the culture, eating the food, meeting the people. I feel that, for the most part, I've done what I set out to do. I think that if jobs were plentiful back in Colorado, I might be at least considering a return home. But in reality, it doesn't make much sense to move back and be unemployed.

My job here keeps me busy, probably almost too much so. About three weeks ago, I got to go down to Singapore to host a VIP event at our office and executive lounge there. Honestly, for those unfamiliar with fine wines, this sort of thing wouldn't make much of an impact. However, for people who know wine, and know the very best wines, telling them that I got to drink all five of the legendary wines from the First Growth estates of Bordeaux evokes a sense of envy and wonder. These five wines are regularly among the most expensive and highly sought-after wines in the world. As I told my guests that night, even getting to pop the cork on any one of these wines would be a treat. To have the opportunity to drink all five in the same night is an event of singular rarity, something that for many on hand that night, would indeed be a once-in-a-lifetime
chance. Here's a snapshot of me before opening the bottles... from left to right, Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild, and Château Latour.

That's the wondrous thing about life, isn't it? We never really know what's just around the next corner. As recently as four years ago, I'd never have even dreamed that I'd be living in a foreign country, and even after arriving here, the prospect of being in senior management for an international investment company in Asia, serving up the finest wines in the world to our happy Singaporean clients never would have even entered my wildest dreams. That's not to say the job is a great dream — most of the time, it's a true job. Frustrating, tiring, overly demanding. You know... work. But this great journey, this life I feel so fortunate to lead, always surprises me with fascinating twists and turns. Not all of them enjoyable... not by a long shot. But if everything was always terrific, we wouldn't even know the difference. The rough patches just serve to make
the good times that much more enjoyable. And without this attitude, and this weird sense of adventure, I'm sure I'd never have discovered "Chad Potatoes." Of course I have no idea what they are (they look like plain ol' standard potatoes to me), but they're all mine!!

Next up for me, a return trip to Bali with friends. It's my ninth time to the tiny "island of the gods" since my inaugural trip there in June 2003, perhaps the catalyst for the tiny bit of wanderlust that brought me to live, if only for awhile, here on the Malaysian peninsula of Southeast Asia. Where else would I find such deranged flavors of Pringles?? In addition to these, I've also seen "grilled shrimp" and "seaweed." So it's not just pizzas they're messing up, it's good ol' American junk food, too. Is nothing sacred??

Shortly after the Bali trip, I'll be flying back home for two weeks to enjoy the spectacular Colorado autumn and to tend to my mother, who will be recovering from major surgery by that time. She'll be having a mass near her pancreas removed, so I'm not sure if that will help remedy her issues with staying balanced and upright, and it'll almost certainly not do anything to help her complete lack of proficiency with anything involving technology, but it'll be a good thing nonetheless. With any luck, she'll be in full recovery mode by then, and with even more luck, my baseball team will be in the playoffs and we can catch a game.

The journey continues ever onward... stay tuned!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Retiring the Tiara and a Return to FRIM

Oh, crappy little gray Proton Tiara, with your tiny little wheels, your sad excuse for an engine, and your single windshield wiper... you served me well. Everyone who's kept up with this blog has read about your exploits, and while there were a couple of pretty major incidents, the reality is, for a 3,000-ringgit car (less than US$1,000) you performed pretty admirably for nearly two years... fun to drive, easy to park, and only marginally humiliating to be seen in. I can't even really gauge how much driving I did in the Tiara because the speedometer didn't work all the time, so when it wasn't functioning, the odometer wasn't accumulating kilometers either. And there was an engine swap last year, too... but the car itself has a lot of mileage. (Yes, even though it's kilometers, it's still referred to as mileage, proving yet again that the metric system sucks.) The fuel gauge never worked either, so I just had to wait until the low fuel light came on, then I'd go put RM50 worth of gas (I just can't call it "petrol") in the tank and that would hold me for 2-3 weeks. So really, the only thing on the whole dash that worked reliably was the clock, and it was very accurate.

For the better part of three months, I shopped around somewhat casually for a car. I even looked at a used BMW 523i, and although it was very nice, it had no amenities at all! No automatic climate control, no power seats, no steering wheel controls, no power mirrors, no cruise control... honestly! What's the point of buying a luxury car with no luxuries!? I also considered the 2002-2004 Nissan Sentra and even looked at some local-made cars. In the end, though, I kept going back to the most-recent generation of the Kia Spectra (roughly 2001-2005, I think). Now, I have to say here that the whole "secondhand" oeuvre is viewed very differently in Malaysia than in the United States. Most Americans not only don't mind buying things used, they will actually brag about it when they get a good deal. In Malaysia, though, there's a bit of a stigma about buying anything used... like you're buying someone's castoffs (you are) or unwanted items (also correct). But hey, it's a different culture, and I'm fine with that. For my part, I have no issue whatsoever buying things secondhand. And with the recent release of Kia's newest model, the Forte, the Spectra—as a non-current model—took a major hit in market value. Good timing for me.

I've found that one of the best approaches to car shopping is to not actually need the car. That way, you can be choosier, more methodical, really take your time. I have bought a car before in a semi-desperate state and it wasn't pretty. So since I already had the trusty, if somewhat crappy, Tiara, I wasn't in a ferocious, need-frenzied hurry to buy anything else. For me, it meant about three months of fine-tuning what I wanted and looking at several cars before finding the right one. I knew I wanted the Kia Spectra, but it had to have the factory bodykit and spoiler—just looks like a totally different car without them. I also wanted full leather seats, black was my preferred choice for the car color, I had a specific preference for the wheel style, and after looking at a few cars, I mentally noted a few other minor things, too, like, "It would be nice if the gasket around the rear window wasn't completely rotted away like it was on those last two cars."

So one fine day (except not really, more on that soon), I drove out to Klang, about 30 minutes west of KL, very near the west coast, to look at a 2002 Kia Spectra. And just as I was driving up to the car dealership, it started pouring. So much for the fine day part. Rainy weather for car shopping is not ideal, but is certainly part of the package deal for living here. Indeed, this was now three times out of four where rain had marked my car shopping ventures. The one remaining time, on a sojourn to Kajang, also 30 minutes away, it was so scorching hot, I would have welcomed the rain, truly. Anyway, so fortunately, this dealer in Klang had a massive covered parking area, so they just drove the car under there, and in the midst of the storm, I checked it all out. It not only ticked all of my "required" boxes, it hit the "preferred" ones, too. Low mileage. Single owner—an older Malay woman (this is key here, because young male drivers in Malaysia are complete lunatics behind the wheel more often than not). Extremely good condition, inside and out. New black metallic paint. New GoodYear Eagle tires. Even had the factory-original Kia-branded floormats. Everything worked except the remote fuel door release, which would only be an issue if I ever needed to put fuel in the car, so the dealer went on ahead and fixed that. So kind. I gave them a small deposit, then went back the following week to re-inspect the car and take it on a proper test drive. Marvelous, so we negotiated a final price, a mere RM17,500 (scandalously cheap in a land where a new Honda Civic costs over RM100K), and they said it would be ready by the next week. (Cars here have to be inspected upon ownership transfer, and they wanted to detail it, get the insurance policy written, etc.)

Fast forward to the following week. I had planned on taking the train to Klang on Saturday to pick up the car and drive it home. The idea was that I would take cash to the bank here and get a cashier's check for the balance due on the car. However, due to my foreign-ness, the bank was unwilling to do this for me. (I've actually since learned that they're unwilling to do pretty much anything you would normally expect a bank to do, but that's a different rant. Curse you, CIMB bank!) So the dealer said that they could deliver the car to me on Friday instead, at my offices at Midvalley and we could just deposit the cash directly into the dealer's account (at a different bank). Cool. So that's how we worked it out, and on June 18th, I took delivery of my non-Tiara. My beloved neighborhood mechanics inspected it and couldn't believe it was a secondhand car at all.

So far, the Spectra has proven to be a good car, although I will say that I generally hate parking it when it involves backing up. Reversing is hard in the Spectra because it has poor rearward visibility and a fairly lame turn radius (i.e., you can't make super tight turns). Coupled with its larger size relative to the scrappy, crappy little Tiara, and it's made for some interesting parking moments. Nothing traumatic, though. I have to confess that, though the Spectra is unquestionably nicer to drive, the Tiara was more fun: it's small, nimble, stick-shift manual transmission, and since it was such a dismal piece of rubbish, I didn't really care about it being dirty or questionably parked. With the Kia, though—yikes. It's gorgeous, black, and shiny. Totally different kettle of fish with this one... now, it's no expensive, fancy car, but it definitely looks better when it's clean and shiny. With the Tiara, clean or dirty, it honestly didn't matter.

And that's the new car story. I now have four cars scattered across the world, which is a bit ridiculous, really. So I plan to sell the Tiara, and likely one of my vehicles back in the States, too, since it seems apparent that I'll be hanging out in Malaysia for a bit longer, at least. Feel free to enlarge that last pic of the car (or any of them). Not bad for an eight-year old used Kia, eh? I've since had the windows lightly tinted, which makes it all look even better. I also have a guy who comes to my condo's carpark and washes cars now taking care of mine. He does a great job, the car stays clean (always a challenge for a black car), and it's only RM40 per month for three car washes per week. Hard to complain about that price.

So right around the same time I was homing in on a car to buy, one of my friends came up from Singapore and visited, so we took a half day and spent it at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia ("FRIM") and did some jungle trekking and, naturally, the canopy walk. It was every bit as enjoyable as the last time, maybe even more so because we didn't get pathetically lost in the jungle afterwards like my friends and I did last time. I didn't get attacked by a rogue leech like the last time, either. Not getting lost or eaten by leeches are always signs that you're having a pretty good day, I think.

Not much to show here since the jungle still looks roughly the same, but it really is always so cool to be on that suspended rope bridge up so high, looking down on the canopy and several levels of rainforest. It's never that hot at FRIM because of the cover of the jungle, but it's absolutely humid. Even walking through the jungle, nothing terribly strenuous, takes a lot out of you with the weather the way it is. So we got most of our trekking done before 1 p.m., finished up with the canopy walk by around 2 p.m., then headed off for a late lunch. FRIM is definitely a great way to spend a day in KL... highly recommended.

Coming soon, a recap of a really unique work-related event in Singapore plus some reflections on two years of life in Malaysia (as of September 5th). Also on the radar, I really want to go over to the east coast since I've not been there yet. I am planning to do a weekend getaway to Cherating Beach, which is supposed to be quite nice, about a three-hour drive from KL. And there's another trip to Bali coming up in about a week and a half. I'll be meeting friends from two other countries there this time, so although it won't be a long holiday (four days only), it should still be a good time, truly my first real break from work since I started in January.