From the old to the new
06.07.2009 - 06.07.2009
Having nearly wilted in the heat on Saturday, I wised up and decided to do some final sightseeing in the relatively cooler hours of the morning. After waking up yesterday at about 6am (damn jetlag!), I went down to the breakfast courtyard at 7:30. The buffet spread was even better, the highlights being nasi lemak and bubur, Nasi lemak is one of the most common dishes/snacks in Malaysia: rice cooked in coconut milk and served with peanuts and deep-fried ikan bilis (tiny anchovies). There was a dish of stir-fried kangkong as another accompaniment...the water convolvulus again! Bubur is a rice porridge, and this version had chunks of white-fleshed fish in it with chopped green onions and deep-friend shallot slices on the side. Surprisingly I limited myself to only one serving of nasi lemak but helped myself to a second (small) bowl of burbur.
It was already warm when I hit the street. I crossed the river, walked around the Stadhuys, and wandered down a street lined with small museums: an architecture museum, an Islamic museum, and even a museum of human beauty (really!). My first destination was the Porta do Santiago, the ruins of the original Portuguese fort A' Famosa that the Dutch later took over and the English almost completely dismantled. The small part that's left is still impressive and made me realize how old Melaka truly is. Right behind that is Bukit ("hill" in Malay) St. Paul, at the top of which are the ruins of St. Paul's Church - again, built by the original Portuguese colonists. This was one of the first Christian churches in all of Asia and was regularly visited by the Jesuit pioneer St. Francis Xavier, who was buried there for nine months before his body was moved to Goa, India, where it still lies to this day, As a product of eight years of Jesuit education, even a lapsed/recovering Catholic like me could appreciate the significance of standing in the ruins where St. Francis Xavier had presided over Mass.
I walked back to Chinatown without any specific plan in mind other than to take some pictures. It's hard to describe the side streets and back alleyways - there's a certain faded charm that just hangs over the entire neighborhood. Many of the houses and buildings are not in great shape and there often is an unpleasant smell wafting in the air, but I still get a sense of traveling back in time to the 40s or 50s. Some of the structures have been renovated, and those that are open to the public (like antique shops with hefty price tags) give you a glimpse of what the interiors once looked like. Many of these houses were once occupied by wealthy families who had made their fortune in rubber, tin, or some other resource, and they spared no expense in decorating (including adorning the facades with glazed tiles imported from southern China). You don't see this kind of stuff anywhere in China, as the style and design were unique to this area.
I walked down one street and passed the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia that to this day serves the Chitty community (Chitty are the Indian version of the Baba-Nonya, i.e., early Indian settlers who intermarried with the Malays but kept their culture). One block down was the oldest mosque in Malaysia, and on the next block was a Chinese temple. I think I probably could have walked into the mosque if I had wanted to, but I decided against it and went to the temple. Mind you, it was still a completely foreign place to me. My parents converted to Christianity when they were college students in Taiwan (they didn't meet until both of them were in the U.S.), and when they did they shed all of the traditional Chinese religion in which they had grown up. So I know virtually nothing about the different deities and what they represent, nor do I have any idea what to do inside of a temple. Since I look like everyone else, though, I could blend in without drawing much attention to myself.
The temple had different altars, presumably for the different gods. Some of them had little tablets bearing photos of the deceased, which is consistent with the practice of ancestor worship. In front of each altar are urns where worshipers placed sticks of burning incense. Some were kneeling on cushions, bowing several times, saying prayers, etc. A couple of people were doing their own fortune-telling. One old man was shaking a wooden container filled with thin wooden sticks (each one bearing characters that represented something unknown to me) until one of the sticks would pop up. A younger woman had two pieces of polished wood (that would form the ying-yang symbol when placed together) that she was shaking and then throwing on the ground - the fortune would be determined by the specific position of the two pieces. I stood to the side and just watched everyone rushing to and fro, knowing that my own grandparents and ancestors had done these same rituals but feeling fairly disconnected from the whole scene.
Something of note that I observed was a middle-aged Indian couple who had jumped right into the otherwise exclusively Chinese fray. The man and woman were together for a bit, but then he took off for another part of the temple so I just watched the woman. She wasn't wearing a sari or anything but had a nose stud as well as a tikka (the red dot) in between her eyes, which made me conclude that she was Hindu. But she knew exactly what she was doing with the incense sticks, the bowing, etc. I watched her for a while - she was wearing a turquoise blue polo shirt and was easy to track - and wondered to myself why she was there.
By this point it was getting pretty hot even though it was only 10:30am. I walked back in the direction of the hotel and stayed on the shaded side of the street (good alliteration there!), deciding along the way to hit the Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum. By the time I got there, there were about ten people waiting outside just to get it. I hung around a bit, and when the gate opened only six or so of them were allowed inside. The museum is located in a renovated shophouse and has multiple rooms decorated in the style of wealthy Peranakans back in the day. It looked very ornate from the outside (the front door was open so I at least could peer inside) but it wasn't worth waiting. My time in Melaka was coming to an end soon and I still hadn't eaten any nonya laksa yet. Once again, food trumps everything else.
On a basic level, laksa is a bowl of noodles in a rich broth with various vegetables and often some type of protein (fried chunks of tofu, fried sardines, etc.). The actual flavor depends on the location and style. In Penang, assam (sour) laksa made with tamarind paste is very common, while in Melaka most people use coconut milk which gives the broth a thicker consistency. I reverted to the Lonely Planet recommendations and went on a mini-scavenger hunt just trying to find a restaurant called Donald & Lilly's. It took me about 20 minutes, but I finally spotted the back stairwell just off a side street and walked in. The front dining area looked like it had been a living room or back porch, and I was lucky to score the only empty table. I ordered a bowl of laksa and was in instant heaven - so much that I slowed my chewing just to prolong the sensory experience. For dessert I got a small bowl of cendol, this one seemingly more authentic than the "cendol ice breeze" that I had at the cafe twice. Sure enough, this one had gula melaka (a syrup made from palm sugar) drizzled on top of the crushed ice. The bill for this culinary pleasure was RM4.50, or $1.32 at 3.4 ringgit to the dollar. Now you know why I love Malaysia.
I returned to the hotel to take a shower and pack before catching a taxi to the bus station, Melaka Sentral. I got there about an hour ahead of time (the hotel and the taxi driver they had contracted both strongly suggested that I leave earlier due to traffic...on a Sunday?) so I had a rare moment to sit and read one of the two issues of The Atlantic that I had brought with me. The two-hour bus trip to Kuala Lumpur's Puduraya station was uneventful. The passengers who sat in front of me were a younger, hip-looking African couple that was mixing English with what sounded like Kiswahili but probably wasn't. At one point the man reclined his seat so far back that it was pretty much in my lap, so I rebuked him with a sharply-toned "Excuse me!"
As we approached downtown KL I could see the twin Petronas towers poking through the haze of the late afternoon sun. During the first trip to Malaysia my sisters and I stood uy wnderneath them and took a host of pictures, so it was almost a familiar sight to me even though they've lost their standing as the tallest edifice in the world. Some passengers who didn't have any luggage in the bowels of the bus started asking the driver to let them off at unscheduled stops, but I didn't have that option. Lonely Planet had made Puduraya out to be a chaotic, hot den of iniquity with pickpockets roaming freely. I steeled myself for the unpleasant experience of dragging my bag around and pushing my way through the masses with the faux determined look on my face that I know where I'm going when in truth I really don't. It normally works, or at least reduces the risk that touts, scam artists, and the like will approach me offering rides, personal tour guides, etc.
We ended up getting stuck in a mini traffic jam right before we pulled into the access road to Puduraya, so the driver suddenly signaled that everyone should get off the bus ASAP. I suppose this was a blessing in disguise, as I wouldn't have to deal with the bus station at all, but as I pulled my bag out of the storage compartment I realized that I would have to find a taxi. Fortunately I saw a bunch of them waiting across a busy street, and for added protection I sided up to a Malay family that was attempting the same crossing. KL's taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging, and knowing this already I was hell-bent on not becoming another victim. So I approached an older driver who looked Chinese to me and started the conversation in Mandarin. He quoted me RM20 for the trip to the Masjid Jamek LRT station, which I knew was way too much, so I shot back with RM6. No dice...rather, he laughed at me and gesticulated to the driver standing next to him (also Chinese) that I was trying to pull a fast one on him. So with heavy bag in tow I moved down the street to another driver. He quoted me RM15, and by that point I already had given up and was resigned to being taken for a ride, both figuratively and literally. I was tried of carrying my bag in the dusty street with exhaust fumes swirling around me. Then I saw that he wasn't driving a clearly-marked taxi but rather a regular car. I stopped in my tracks and pointed at an official taxi parked behind his car, and he yelled out "i yang!" ("the same" in Mandarin). I knew I was being paranoid since this guy was about as old as the first one and definitely not a visible threat, but I've heard enough horror stories from various countries to not want to get into a taxi that's not marked as such.
Finally I got the attention of yet another driver who also asked for RM15 to Masjid Jamek ("masjid" means mosque), and I wearily accepted. The lesson I learned is that as much as you try, sometimes you just can't win - especially when you're saddled with a bag that inhibits your willingness to haggle until you're blue in the face. The ride to the LRT station was less than one mile, and when the driver pulled up to the curb I threw out a "hen gui!" (very expensive) in a good-natured tone. As expected, he launched into a full explanation of why he was fleecing me...blah blah blah. I've heard it all. My next mission was to get on the LRT train heading to Petaling Jaya, the satellite city where my friend Eugene lives. KL's public transit system seems very extensive and modern, however the lines are run by different companies and the stations designated as transfer points sometimes are split into different sections that make transferring more difficult. I had a bit of trouble finding the Kelana Jaya line and once again was cursing myself for using luggage that didn't have wheels, especially in a tropical climate. By the time I got to the ticket machine I was a dripping mess. Ugh.
Fortunately the A/C inside the trains was on full blast, so I enjoyed the ride out to Taman Bahagia, the second-to-last stop. I noticed quite a few Westerners in the train car, and they all looked like they lived in KL - most were wearing flip-flops and did not have the dazed look of tourists who weren't prepared for the heat and humidity. I got to my destination and waited for about ten minutes before Eugene showed up. We originally met in DC in 2002 through my friend Jenn (whom I have called "Felise" since we were Peace Corps trainees in Bolivia), as they both were working at the World Wildlife Fund (where I spent a year in between grad school and Peace Corps). I had been in town for the National Peace Corps Association conference but ended up bagging most of the events in favor of hanging out with my PC friends. Jenn, Eugene, and I stayed up all night to watch the England-Brazil World Cup match at some diner in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. When I was planning the trip to Malaysia in late 2004, Jenn suggested that I look him up as he had just moved back to KL. He and a friend of his picked up my sisters and me at our hotel, shuttled us around town, and took us out to dinner - an incredible host. We had lost touch shortly after that visit, but I got his e-mail address from Jenn a couple of months ago and successfully tracked him down.
I'm going to end this post now because it's ridicurously long (Seinfeld to Donna Changstein: "Did you just say 'ridicurous'? You know, you're not Chinese."). I will consolidate my time in Petaling Jaya, or PJ, into one separate post. If you've managed to stay awake until now, you are truly a dedicated follower of my rambling, over-detailed posts and therefore should be commended. So I commend you, dear reader.