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…

Still to come: fish spa, Cinderella’s stepsisters, etc.

April 24, 2009

I have to be running away again, playing tourist, but I have a couple more posts that I’ve set to post in the next few days. So stay tuned for other mis-adventures, such as the fish spa experience, Cinderalla’s Chinese step-sisters at breakfast today, etc…

Otherwise, I doubt I’ll have any time to post, and we’ll be running away to go to an offshore island next, so I don’t think we’ll have internet access. So in the meantime, I wish you cool, comfortable weather, safe tap water, and delicious food, since I’m having so much of the latter and none of the former! ha ha.

Sampai junpa lagi See you later!

Getting Fat and Heatstroke in Kuala Lumpur, Part One

April 24, 2009

Hi! Or I should say, “Selamat petang!” (Good afternoon!” It’s 3:36 here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aka “KL.” Where to begin?

Let’s see, first a quick summary of the trip over. Thank the gods for earplugs, since for most of the 8-hour flight to Narita, Japan, there were two or three screeching brats on the flight, the type that squeals in mock terror at the top of their ear-splitting vocal range. Nobody even seemed to notice. I was busy reading two paperbacks and a magazine.

Then I rushed through the Narita airport to catch my 7-hour flight to Singapore. I fell asleep after a forgettable meal of…see, I’ve already forgotten it, but I am SURE it had iceberg lettuce in it! I slept for several hours, despite the almost constant announcements by the flight crew saying, “The seatbelt sign has been turned on.” There was enough turbulence to make it like a Disneyland ride.

On flights like that, I’m happier to be asleep; otherwise, I keep worrying we’ll plummet out of control and crash into the frigid Pacific Ocean below, where I’ll bob and choke on ocean waves, clinging to the life vest which I may or may not have retrieved from under the seat in front of me, where it took up valuable legroom, being afraid to kick and hoping like heck that a shark will not come up from the black depths and take a chunk out of my abundant legs, just like in the movie Jaws, which I never should have gone to see with my cousin back in the 70’s…

Where was I? Oh yah. Then I slept on the floor of gorgeous Changi Airport in Singapore, after checking my email for free at one of their stations…yet another reason to love Singapore! But I was too worried I’d oversleep and miss my final flight, so I spent most of the 6-1/2 hour layover reading another book, walking, and eating some leftover sunflower-oatmeal rolls from my chocolate dinner party (see my previous posts for details and mouth-watering pictures…wish I had a leftover piece of cake right now) and rehydrated hummus, mixed with lukewarm tap water from the bathroom. Fortunately, because I’ve been to Singapore before, I know the tap water is safe, so I ate in perfect confidence.

Then I sat in a sleepless but exhausted, groggy state for the one-hour flight to KL airport, where it took me much longer than necessary to get my bag, because I couldn’t figure out how to read which baggage claim carousel was mine, and I waited at two different ones for nothing.

The guy in charge of the tour I’ll be joining met me at the airport. Then, because a room was not yet available at the hotel, he kindly took me on a walk around the block in the heat, which was “cool” for here. That was very helpful, since I got lost even while he was showing me the way! But I kept asking to get my bearings, and he pointed out to turn left at the KFC and right at the 7-11 to get back.

I have mixed feelings about seeing all these companies in other countries, since on the one hand, it brings a welcome sense of familiarity in places where otherwise I can feel overwhelmed with a foreign culture. On the other hand, it’s not always a part of my culture that I’d like to see represented. Fast food spreading all over the world is not a sign of progress, at least in my eyes.

He helped me get to a money-changing place that had a good rate, then I went to a nearby vegetarian hawker center to eat. A hawker center is a small shop space full of different hawkers, or individual food cart vendors. In many parts of Asia, like Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, there are hawkers with moveable carts who usually set up shop at meal times or pull them around the city, stopping here and there to sell.

This one, the Blue Boy Vegetarian Center, is exclusively vegetarian, so despite the signs advertising things like prawn curry, I could eat anything without worrying about landing in the hospital after unknowingly consuming some kind of seafood and having an allergic reaction.

There wasn’t much to choose from at that hour, after breakfast but before lunch, so I chose what they had available. The young woman brought me plate with a pile of white rice in the middle, two types of orange-red curries, and condiments of peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and fried bean threads.

Vegetarian Nasi Lemak, rice with curries, and Ais Limau, limeade

Vegetarian Nasi Lemak, rice with curries, and Ais Limau, limeade

(I’ll have to add photos later, because not only do I not know how to do that here, this place is so dark, it seems more like an illegal gambling hall than an internet place, and I can’t see anything other than the silouettes of other people using their computers, and my blinding screen.)

When I asked her what it was called, she giggled and replied, Nasi Lemak. It’s a Malaysian nonya dish, which is a culture created from the marriage of Chinese to Malaysians. They took ingredients and methods from both cuisines and formed a fusion which stands out on its own.

One of the red pastes had a sweet flavor like sloppy joes, until the heat slapped the back of my throat, and I recognized it as sambal, a fiery condiment paste made by grinding chile peppers. The other was a coconut milk-based curry. On first bite, I could detect the kaffir lime leaf, adding a pleasant lime fragrance, with chunks of potato and a fake meat that alternated in consistency between dog food and remarkably chewy and reminiscent of roast pork or kalua pig, without the smoky flavor.

The final condiment was some kind of sauteed green. As soon as I put it in my mouth, I recognized it as sweet potato leaves. I suppose one is supposed to mix all ingredients together, since the blend of flavors and the crispiness and crunch of the cucumber, fried bean threads, and peanuts offsets the gloppiness and heat of the curry.

The ais limau is like a fresh lemon or limeade, made with sugar, water, ice, and tiny citrus fruits resembling mostly still-green calamondin (calamansi in Filipino.) When they make it, they squeeze the limau, then throw them in the glass. I wasn’t sure if you’re supposed to eat them (but then again, since when do I do things the way you’re “supposed to,” anyway?) So I ate one, which was sweet-sour, with a bitter rind, like any other citrus fruit.

I asked one of the other women if people eat the limau, and she replied, “No, no,” and frowned. They probably spend slow times in the afternoon exchanging stories about the dumb things the foreigners do and ask. Oh well.