Al Sandiego Returns to Duty
06.03.2009 - 06.05.2009 77 °F
My good friend Monica told me last year that successful bloggers post at least once every couple of days, otherwise their readers start to lose interest and eventually forget that the blog even exists. Although I considered posting about some domestic trips I've taken earlier this year (including first visits to Louisiana, Las Vegas, and even Pittsburgh), I've decided to stay true to the original intent of this blog and restrict it to my international trips. In the two or so weeks prior to my departure from Seattle, more than a few people asked if I would start blogging again. So fear not, dear readers...Al Sandiego is back a long hibernation.
It's about 6am right now in Melaka (formerly known as "Malacca"), Malaysia, a historic city on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula about two hours southwest from Kuala Lumpur, the capital. I could write several posts about this place and all of its past glory, but first I need to explain how I got here and why. About six months ago I started corresponding with a leader of a Fair Trade Certified cooperative of coffee producers in the Gayo Highlands of northern Sumatra. He was very persistent in wanting to sell coffee to Atlas, however they didn't have organic certification yet and therefore were offering only conventional Fair Trade. In February I was connected to the exporter for another Fair Trade cooperative that already had been certified organic, which led to series of purchases on behalf of one of our roaster clients. Even before that happened, my boss approved a trip to Indonesia so I could meet these and other cooperatives that are based in the same area.
I didn't have to look at a map to know that Sumatra is just across the Straits of Malacca from, well, Melaka. When my two sisters and I came to Malaysia in December 2004 (we were flying from Shanghai when the tsunami struck, which is a whole other story), we visited Kuala Lumpur, the island of Langkawi near the Thai border, and the historic city of George Town on the island of Penang. We didn't make it to Melaka, however, because it requires a bit of effort to get here. There are no scheduled flights - not even domestic - to the city's airport and the nearest train station is about 40 minutes away. So one has to arrive by land, which is easy enough with all of the luxury coach buses (much nicer than Greyhound, I must say) and well-maintained roads. Even so, one needs at least two days to do this city some level of justice. Aside from the fascinating history, the food in Melaka is world-renowned due largely to the fusion between Chinese and Malay cuisines that evolved over several hundred years. Throw in some European influences (mainly Portuguese) with a dash of South Indian (primarily Tamil Nadu) spices and you've got yourself an amazing food scene that begs to be explored. And I, of course, am just the man to do it.
So my long journey from Seattle started on Wednesday mid-afternoon with a Northwest flight from Sea-Tac to Tokyo Narita. Quite pleasant, actually, aside from the bland chicken breast that I got as part of my non-lactose meal...the only advantage is that special meals get served before the regular ones. The window seat next to my aisle one was empty, so I could spread out and not worry about getting into anyone's "bidness" (as my former boss Ward used to say). I watched four movies, a few of which I had been wanting to see. I found it ironic that the flight attendants passed out ice cream sandwiches halfway through the flight, given my attempt to be lactose-free on board. As I was not about to pass up the forbidden fruit, I popped two Lactaid pills and downed the whole thing...more like crunched through it.
A two-hour layover in Narita, through which I had not traveled since my last trip to Taiwan as a sullen 14-year-old (that was in 1988) bitter at his mom's experiment in total linguistic immersion. Narita is not as sparkly and shiny as Incheon (Seoul) or the mammoth airports in Beijing and Shanghai: low ceilings, earth-toned carpet instead of well-scrubbed floors, and not much in the way of shops or restaurants. Maybe I just was in the wrong terminal or something. What I did notice was the proliferation of surgical masks that people were wearing - I had heard that the Japanese put these on when they're sick, but I suspected that many of these mask-wearers were protecting themselves from the H1N1 flu virus. The guy sitting behind me on the SEA-NRT flight was wearing one as well, and he was far from being Japanese (red hair and pasty white skin). Anyway, some of you may be surprised that I didn't have my own mask NOR was I interested in wearing one. Joe Biden had it all wrong - the air circulation on airplanes these days is pretty efficient. One side note from my layover in Narita: I started writing a blog post and thought I had saved it, but it didn't show up when I logged in just now. Oh well...sayonara.
Another empty seat next to mine on the Tokyo-Singapore flight, and this time a better-seasoned chicken breast in the non-lactose meal (thanks to the on-the-ground caterers at Narita!). We landed at Changi Airport just before 1am local time, about 23 hours after the shuttle van picked me up at my apartment in Seattle. Changi consistently gets ranked as the best airport in the world, so I was very eager to see it. Even in my semi-dazed state, I was very impressed and will do more exploring the next two times I pass through it on this trip. I got my bag, exchanged some greenbacks for Singapore dollars and some Malaysian ringgit, and found my way to the Crowne Plaza attached to another terminal. Wow, crazy modern hotel. The bathroom had glass walls on both sides, which were covered by a painted orchid motif but otherwise very visible to anyone standing in the room.
I slept for about six hours, checked out, and took the MRT train from the airport to the Lavender station. Singapore has a similar ethnic mix as Malaysia but with different proportions. Most of the residents are ethnic Chinese, with large Malay and Indian communities - plus a ton of Westerners who live/work there like my friends whom I'll visit at the tail end of this trip. English is the lingua franca, but all of the signs are also in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Just listening to the other passengers on the crowded East-West green line of the MRT was fascinating. Sometimes I couldn't tell they were speaking in English (or "Singlish," as the local version is called) unless I listened very closely. What's even more interesting is that all of the Chinese people use Mandarin even if their mother tongue is one of the many other dialects: Cantonese, Teochew (Chaozhou in Mandarin), Hokkien (Fujianese), or Hakka. I ended up using my 2nd-grade Mandarin with the taxi driver as well as the guy at the bus company ticket office. It seems to be something that Chinese Singaporeans just do - if the person with whom you're speaking looks Chinese, just default to Mandarin unless you know he or she speaks your dialect.
My bus to Melaka departed from the Golden Mile Complex, this dilapidated shopping mall that probably was built in the 60s or 70s and already missed its chance for an extreme makeover (Singapore edition!). What I was surprised to discover is that it's the hangout for the immigrant Thai community. On the outside all of the signs are in English and Chinese. On the inside, the signs are mostly in Thai with some English. Everyone in the mall is Thai, All of the restaurants are Thai. I paused to look at the meat counter of a small grocery, trying to identify the more mysterious-looking organs, and was greeted with a "Sawat di kha!" I was too embarrassed to answer with "Sawat di khrap" because my tones would have been way off. Thai has even more tones than Chinese!
As they say, when in Rome...so my very first meal of this trip was not Chinese, Malay, or even Indian. It was Thai, and let me tell you it was damn good. My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a specific place that I quickly found: the Nong Khai Food & Beer Garden. Not an actual beer garden, at least in the Bavarian sense of the word (how I miss the Seehaus and Chinesischer Turm in Munich!) but rather a two-room restaurant brightly painted in orange and yellow. The woman behind the counter was surrounded by all these fresh ingredients, and after I told her in a mix of English and Mandarin what I wanted, she proceeded to gather a bunch of things and start pounding them in in a mortar.l Thwack thwack thwack. I sat at a table musing how random this whole scene was, eating Thai food in a run-down shopping mall in Singapore. Thwack thwack thwack. Then the tom sum (green papaya salad) arrived, followed shortly by the grilled half-chicken with chili sauce. Mmm. The salad was ridiculously good, so much so that I contemplated lifting the plate to my mouth to suck down the sauce.
This post is getting pretty long, so I'll end here and start another one. Thanks for reading!