Goodbye, KL

April 29, 2009

After more delicious food, including lots of mock meats (we had delicious “goose” and fish, complete with nori for the skin), we said goodbye to KL and took a long-distance bus for 6 hours to Mersing, an ocean-side town on the eastern coast of Malaysia.

But this was no long-distance bus ride like any other I’ve taken before. Velour seats, reclining, with full legroom, air conditioning, clean gigantic picture windows, and no smoking! Can you tell I’m loving Malaysia?

The people have been helpful and kind, and it’s quite easy to get around even if you don’t speak any Malaysian, since many of the residents don’t, either. There are three main ethnic groups–Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Most people speak English as well as one or more other languages. In fact, science and math are now taught in schools in English! This is a forward-thinking country in so many ways.

As part of our tour group, our guide hands out laminated cards to help us learn the language. Not so much helpful for me, since I know most of it so far, save for a few words that are different than Indonesian, but the others are enjoying the challenge of learning a new language and trying it out, and I’m helping them with my crazy mnemonics whenever possible.

For example, the Indonesian word for “delicious” is enak. Here they don’t use it so much, although you will find people who understand it, since there is about 20% of the labor force from other countries these days, including many from Indonesia. However, the more commonly used term is sedap.

So my mnemonic to help remember it is, “Shut up, it’s so delicious, shut up, leave me alone, I want to eat it, it’s so delicious.” “Shut up” sounds very similar to sedap, since the “e” isn’t really pronounced.

Another one I was helping another group member learn tonight at dinner is “Good Morning,” which is Selamat Pagi in Malaysian and Indonesian. I told them that if they could remember that selamat means peaceful, and that it is the first half of any greeting, such as good afternoon, goodbye, and welcome, they could remember it by thinking that the opposite of peaceful would be to slam a door. Slam it. Slam-at, pronounced with the “a”s like say “aaaah.”

Then to remember pagi, think that in the morning, you feel tired, you feel like you’re in a fog, you are foggy, you’re in a bog, you’re boggy, boggy, poggy…pagi, which is how it’s pronounced.

My travelmate said, “Well, YOU might wake up in a fog, but I wake up perky and cheerful…so tomorrow morning, I’ll have to think, ‘Alina is waking up in a fog, foggy, boggy…Selamat pagi.” I said, “Yes, you’d be absolutely right, and you’d get the words right, too!”

So while we are off snorkeling with sharks over the next three days, I want you all to practice those two vocabulary items, okay? There will be a test when I get back. ha ha.

Tomorrow we get on a boat for 2 hours and go to Tioman Island, and island 30 miles off the coast, where will we stay in cabanas on the sliver of beach. The rest of the island is jungle, so we will alternate between snorkeling off the balconies and jungle trekking, with leeches smacking their lips, awaiting our tasty foreign blood. Should be fun!

We’ve already been warned to lock our windows and doors when we leave our room, not so much to prevent humans from stealing our things, but to prevent the monkeys from doing so! They will break into your bags looking for food, or worse, get scared and drag it off into the jungle, then leave it there!

We saw some lightning tonight as we headed to dinner, so I’m praying if it storms, it will be over before tomorrow. The idea of being on a boat in a storm, getting tossed around out at sea, with people throwing up all around me, makes for a great story and wonderful adventure, but it’s not a whole lot of fun. If you’ve known me for a while, you’ve already read about adventures like those. Thanks, but this time I’d love a peaceful trip!

Okay, I’ll get back to you in about four days or so. Stay tuned for more fun, and to see if the rubber boots I’ve been hauling will keep the leeches at bay…

Cinderella’s Stepsisters at Breakfast

April 28, 2009

Once again I went to a local vegetarian eatery, Blue Boy Vegetarian Center, to try a different dish. This morning I had “curry laksa,” a bowl of noodles in a spicy coconut milk-based broth.

Hot and spicy curry laksa, with a box of tissues for the runny nose to follow

Hot and spicy curry laksa, with a box of tissues for the runny nose to follow

Toppings included bean sprouts, faux fishcake, char siu, fried tofu, and something resembling an omelette, made from yuba, sheets of soybean milk, like the skin that forms on top of pudding.

Condiments included stacked yuba sheets and vegetarian char siu

Condiments included stacked yuba sheets and vegetarian char siu

While I was eating, a stout Chinese woman in a black t-shirt and leggings walked in and loudly said something to me, looking at my food. “Curry laksa,” I responded, trying to remember what it was called.

She asked me something else which I didn’t understand. As I sat there silently, thinking, what was that word? Don’t I know that word?, she exhaled, “Aaah,” and walked away saying something else, which was probably, “She doesn’t understand.”

She went to inspect the food, then ordered the young women who were cooking. The stalls in this hawker center face outward, so as they cook, their backs are to the customers, seated in the center section. Customers can go right up to where the food is and take things. In fact, I have seen someone grab another piece of stuffed fried tofu, or another ladle of soup on their noodles.

The woman sat at a table about 15 feet away from me. After she had finished eating, she leaned back in her chair, Buddha belly protruding, took a swig from her bottle of water, then stared at me as I ate, with her eyes wide apart on her flabby face. A woman who must have been her sister, since she shared the same fish-like face, and a man, ate with her, saying nothing. The woman barked orders to the young cook across the room.

Two minutes later, she and her sister stood next to the cook, who was dwarfed in comparison to their bulk, while she talked to her in chopped orders, breathing over her shoulder. She poked at the package of hamburger buns. From the back, the bulges of her cheeks were visible past her short ponytail, which stuck out behind her head, adding to her balloon fish-like appearance.

Her sister went to the car to wait. She turned to watch me eat and pursed her plump lips in response to me pursing mine in a fake smile. The cook had walked away, so she left to bark at her some more. I couldn’t understand anything she was saying, nor could I even tell what language they were speaking. It was likely Malasian with a Chinese accent, because I’ve noticed that Indians will say things in Malaysian with an Indian accent, and I’ve recognized a few Malaysian words spoken by Chinese with a Chinese accent. As if understanding people were not difficult enough already! Then she took her take-out meal and they drove away.

I certainly wouldn’t like to be one of the cooks here. Not only do you have Cinderella’s stepsisters barking at you, but you also have to work with the customers literally in your face and your food. No like, lah!

I’m starting to talk like a Malay, lah!

April 27, 2009

One of the things you hear a lot both here and in Singapore is a fluency with several languages. Specifically, English, Indian languages, Chinese languages, and Malaysian/Indonesian, which are basically the same language save for a few different words and phrases.

Singapore actually has four languages that all signs are posted in, and here, like there, many people can speak two or more of the languages, which makes perfect sense, given that they are surrounded by them constantly.

But a favorite expression is the word lah! which is added at the end of sentences. For example, a teenager said to his brother at the monorail station, “Coming, lah!” as it approached. And a group of women conversed with each other and a man, in a mixture of Chinese, Malaysian, and English, at the next table. They seemed to be co-workers in an office or something, but one said to the other, “You always order the same thing, lah!”

I must be hearing it a lot around me, because yesterday when I went to pay for my internet time, I couldn’t find my wallet. The place has all the windows covered, and the only light is one dim bulb on the wall above the front desk, and the brightly lit faces of the computer users. I put my bag on the desk and began fishing around, then said, “Too dark, lah!

The Fish Spa Experience

April 27, 2009

I had first heard about fish spas from a massage therapist colleague who had the treatment in China and sat in the water with the fish. Since then, I’ve also discovered snakes are used in a spa in Israel, with a long waiting list of clients. When I heard there was a fish spa here in KL, I wanted to try it.

Fortunately, when I got lost the other night looking for a place to eat, I found the fish spa. I told the young guy working there that I’d come back after I ate, but when I went back to look for it, I couldn’t find it.

If you haven’t experienced an enormous shopping complex experience in Asia, you won’t understand why. This isn’t just Ala Moana or Pearlridge we’re talking about. This is two buildings, each about 7 floors of shops smashed in side-to-side, with alleys branching out in all directions, a veritable warren of consumer potential.

And the trend in Asia is to put all the same stuff in the same place, so you’ll have seventeen shops all selling pots, pans, and dishes in one place. Then all the shoe stores will be in another place, etc. But this time it was completely mixed up, fish spas next to craft stores, next to money changers, next to toys, next to shoes, next to juice blending shops, next to hairstylists.

So I asked a young Indian security guard slumped over a chest-high desk on the landing atop the escalator at whatever floor I arrived at. “Where is the fish spa?” I asked. He frowned. “huh?”

I couldn’t decide if I should stick to English or try Malaysian, since not everyone here speaks it, I discovered. At any rate, he said something in some language that I didn’t understand, save for the word “information.” So I kept wandering.

I found a cleaning woman and asked her in Malaysian. The fact that I know the words for “the place where fish eat feet” is a miracle in and of itself! But she totally knew exactly where I was talking about. After all, the cleaners know the whole place inside-out. A Malaysian woman with her head covered, sitting on the floor, apparently waiting for someone, hadn’t heard of it, so the cleaning woman was explaining it to her.

She showed me the way (it was just downstairs.) Inside, there was a wooden platform in the center, surrounded by a moat where the fish lived. I was taken to rinse my feet off, then directed to sit in the corner closest to the entrance. I was the only one there.

As soon as I put my feet in the water, they charged like a school of piranha attacking dinner. Thank goodness they have no teeth. It was quite ticklish until I got used to it; eventually, it felt like minute pinpricks, kind of like how when your foot falls asleep and there is that painful feeling when it is coming back awake, except there was no pain.

The dark shapes on the left are the fish tasting my feet.

The dark shapes on the left are the fish tasting my feet.

It was mesmerizing after a while, watching the fish. In the background they had one of those soothing spa-like CDs going, with fake birdsong, strings, and piano.

I had mixed feelings about “exploiting” animals this way, so I asked if they feed them. Yes, they do…Chinese cucumber. Another older man explained to me and pointed to some long white things rubber-banded to a stick in the water. I had thought they were those rubber insoles sold in the drugstores to put in your shoes. Turns out that was their food, and they had eaten most of the fruit, leaving only a boat-like shell.

I thought these were shoe insoles until I learned they are the Chinese cucumbers used as fish food.

I thought these were shoe insoles until I learned they are the Chinese cucumbers used as fish food.

I enjoyed watching them, and they reminded me of fish that suck on the edges of fish tanks, except they were sucking on my skin. They fully covered my feet and legs as high as they could reach.

fish on foot

Afterwards my feet felt smoother, but it was no substitute for a good pumice stone. I know one thing must be true: my feet taste better than Chinese cucumber.

Getting Fat and Heatstroke in Kuala Lumpur, Part Two

April 26, 2009

Today I went to the Orchid Garden, which wasn’t too terribly spectacular, save for a foot-long brown skink that I spotted slithering away. Later I saw a smaller one and was able to get a few pictures as it crawled through the grass, munching on insects. There was an area with water lilies, where three red dragonflies cavorted with a yellow one, while a smaller blue one flitted around.

Afterwards I did something I typically do when I travel…walk somewhere, get lost, stop to ask people for directions, look at my map, can’t figure it out, end up somewhere else, change my plans, and swear at my neverending difficulty with a sense of direction. Even with the map in front of me, some of the roads marked, AND tall landmarks (like towers visible from blocks away) to navigate with, I still couldn’t figure it out.

I was rationing the water I had left in my bottle and could tell I was dangerously close to heatstroke, my head feeling like it was burning and my arms and legs feeling sunburnt. Fortunately, a large fountain bubbled in front of City Hall, so I scooped up some water and doused my head with it, thinking all the while that it was a good way to get myself arrested, so I hoped nobody in a position to do so would be looking out the window just then.

As I sat trying to make sense of my map, a Muslim woman with a covered head and umbrella (yah, yah, I brought mine but forgot to put it in my bag when I left this morning, lah!) stopped and began talking to me in Malaysian. All I could understand was buku, book, and since her feet stopped in front of me, and she was still talking, I looked up to answer her.

I asked how to get to Chinatown, which she didn’t seem to understand. “The place with the Chinese people,” I said.

She asked me something which I thought was, “Are you Chinese?”

“No, I’m Japanese,” I answered. I often get asked if I’m Chinese while I travel. She said something that seemed to be insisting I was Chinese. “I’m half white and half Japanese,” I explained. My mother is Japanese, my father is white.

“Ah,” she said, seeming satisfied, displaying a mouth with most of her upper teeth missing.

“Are you a mother,” she asked. It’s common here and in Indonesia and Japan to be asked if you are married or have children. Unlike in our culture, these questions are not considered prying at all. In fact, in Indonesia (and maybe here also), your given first name changes when you have your first child. In other words, instead of Alina, if I had a son, my name would then become Ibu Percy, or “Mother of Percy” (or whatever the name of my first child was.) If my firstborn dies, my name changes to the mother of my second child.

The old woman asked if I went to Chinese school, since she still didn’t seem to understand I wasn’t Chinese. So I asked her again how to get to Petaling Street, the center of Chinatown. She gave me directions, opposite to the way I was planning to go, of course. I left, so she wouldn’t keep asking about my non-existent Chinese background.

To make a long story short, I spent the next 20 minutes walking back and forth on the same street, trying to cross at the same busy intersections without being hit by the aggressive motorbike drivers, always being mindful and alert to not put myself in a position to become a victim of a bag snatching, which is a common crime here. They drive by on motorbikes, with their passenger behind them, who grabs your bag as you walk distracted on the sidewalk.

In fact, it’s easy to be distracted, because there are uneven sidewalks, gaping holes with missing or wrong-sized grates, puddles of slimy liquid, beggars and the like in many places, so if you don’t stare at the ground while walking, you may end up regretting it. The sidewalks here curved edges, which are easy to put your foot down and slide off, like a skateboard sliding down one of those trick ramps. I hope I don’t experience that when it rains.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon an Indian vegetarian restaurant, so I went in, feeling more like a piece of naan on the side of the tandoor oven than a person at that point, after being in the sun for so long. I ordered a set lunch meal, which was a tray topped with a banana leaf, on which were placed small silver bowls, each containing a different food, plus three tiny roasted chiles, a savory doughnut, a chapati flatbread, and a deep-fried flatbread.

I’m not sure if burnt is one of the flavors in Indian food, along with sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory or umami, but several of the dishes contained a definite burnt flavor. One of them was a soupy yellowish liquid with bits of black and one charred chile pepper in it.

I’ll have to post later about the dishes themselves, since the photos add so much. But I especially enjoyed a fake fried thing in sauce, which reminded me exactly of the breading around Chinese sweet-sour shrimp pineapple, even including the red color, without the shrimp and the pineapple, of course. I found it had some cauliflower in it, but otherwise, I have no idea how they made it taste so good. There’s a whole world of delicious food out there…


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