Even Al Sandiego needs a break sometimes
06.07.2009 - 06.09.2009
The two days I spent in Petaling Jaya with Eugene were a far cry from the previous two days in Melaka, the only common thread being my never-ending pursuit of great Malaysian food. On Sunday evening, Eugene took me over to the home of his friends Fabian & Becky. Fabian is an old elementary/middle/high school friend who now lives in Singapore and is a pilot for the famed Singapore Airlines ("SQ"). Becky, his wife, is a Singapore native and used to work as a flight attendant for SQ (a veritable "Singapore Girl"!), which is how they met - they own a house in PJ that they rent out to his brother and his wife. The night before I arrived, another school friend of theirs whom they call Ong (his last name) had gotten married, so the old posse was meeting up to hang out, eat the leftovers from the wedding dinner, and drink.
There already were four or five guys from this group (they all had gone to a public school funded by the Malaysian government but run by the La Salle Brothers, with instruction in Malay) at the house when we showed up, and in the course of that night another five or six appeared. They're all a year or two older than I am, and I was amazed at how they've managed to stay connected through the years - many of them went to college (sorry, "university" in these parts) overseas, mostly in the UK, and a few still live outside of Malaysia. All very friendly and welcoming, and I ended up having a great night, fueled by Fabian's constant refilling of my glass with Johnnie Walker Black Label. Just listening to them banter was a gargantuan task. They speak in English but pepper it with Malay and Hokkien words (maybe some Cantonese as well...who knows!), so even though I was catching pretty much all of the conversation I would get thrown off by an expression or phrase that was completely foreign to me. One of the things I kept hearing was "lah" at the end of a sentence or exclamation, so I had to ask Eugene what it meant. He relayed my confusion to the group, which elicited an outburst of laughter: "lah" doesn't have an exact translation but rather gives emphasis to a statement. The joke is that foreigners never know when to use it and always end up tacking it on in the wrong places.
Normally I don't care much for whiskey (ask my Peace Corps friend Jason, aka Diego), but this stuff was going down smoothly and just kept coming. Liquor is insanely expensive in Malaysia but Fabian picks up bottles at duty-free stores in airports, so they're always well-stocked. We were there until 3am, and prior to that I had been unable to stay awake past 9pm. I crashed by the time we got back to Eugene's place and slept in the following morning. Since Eugene is in between jobs right now, he didn't have to rush off to work and leave me to entertain myself. We hung out in his living room with our laptops, watching the French Open final that he had taped (he's a huge sports nut and will stay up to watch live broadcasts of games and matches being played multiple time zones away).
At around 3pm we finally left the house and went to a curry restaurant so I could get some roti canai. Most of you probably have had roti before at an Indian restaurant, but it's an institution in Malaysia - the Malays and the Chinese have latched on to it, so you can find it all over the place. It's served with different dipping sauces, so you tear off pieces of the flaky bread and mop up the sauce of your choice. Frickin' good stuff. I love it and could eat it every single day. Eugene has been a vegetarian for seven or eight years and now is transitioning to being a vegan, which is an admirable feat in this part of the world where eggs make frequent appearances in the food. Fortunately there is still a fair number of things he can eat, including some of the fried snacks that you find at Indian curry houses. He introduced me to the wonders of pisang goreng ("pisang" is banana and "goreng" means fried; it's dipped in a batter before going into the fryer, which creates a crunchy crust) and a round fritter made with yellow lentils.
After the feast we ventured over to the weekly pasan malam (night market) in that neighborhood. A flash storm had rolled in while we were at the curry house, but the rain had passed by the time we got to the market. All of the vendors had set up already and the shoppers were trolling the aisles, though the place apparently doesn't get full until later in the evening. I ended up buying a new transformer since the one I brought with me (I got it right before I left for Bolivia in 1998) had conked out and had become dead weight in my luggage. The unexpected thing about that purchase was the fact that Eugene had asked the shop owner (an elderly Chinese man) for the "best price" even though there was a price tag of RM55 on the box. The owner offered RM45 but then ended up charging us only RM43 in the end. Although I'm not bad at the art of bargaining, I find it exhausting and tedious. So when I see something with a price tag I figure it's a fixed price and not bargain-able...it's almost refreshing in a way. I didn't know you could still bargain for an item that has a marked price!
Back to Eugene's house to get ready for an outing to the Royal Selangor Club. One of the guys at the previous evening's party, Ruben, had invited everyone to a dinner at the club's Chinese restaurant to celebrate his engagement. He graciously invited me too, so I accepted since I had enjoyed hanging out with the group. The club appeared to be a bastion of KL's elite, though it didn't seem overly stuffy or pretentious to me. We had a nice dinner but it was not the raucous environment from the previous evening, which I think was what everyone was hoping to avoid (Ruben and another guy, Rodney, somehow had managed to go to work that day). We left the club by 10pm and called it a night, so no rendezvous with Johnnie W.
I woke up at 7am the next morning (Tuesday) and spent a few hours on the laptop answering work e-mails and writing some of the previous post on this blog. Eugene and I squeezed in a quick lunch at another Indian curry house, though I opted for the bihun goreng ("bihun" is rice vermicelli, what we call "mi fen" in Mandarin) that Eugene said was supposed to be really good at this place. Sure enough, a savory ending to my culinary tour of Malaysia. We rushed to the Taman Bahagia station, and Eugene decided to ride with me to Sentral just to make sure I would find the KL Ekspres train to Kuala Lumpur Int'l Airport (better known as KLIA). If you fly Malaysia Airlines, you can check in at Sentral - they even take your checked luggage, put it on the train, and transfer it at the airport. Amazing concept. I was more than happy to dump off my bag! The Ekspres train is one of those high-speed affairs that zips along silently...much like the Heathrow Express in London. A 28-minute trip for RM35, but if you take the airport bus the trip lasts at least an hour.
KLIA is consistently ranked one of the best airports in the world, but I spent the brief 90 minutes I had there writing some last-minute postcards and then going to a different terminal just to mail them. I'll pass through again on the way from Medan to Singapore, so I'll still have some ringgit left to blow on some overpriced food souvenir.
To Eugene: thanks for inviting me to stay at your place after 4-1/2 years of zero contact and for introducing me to your friends. Great to see you again and good luck with the next phase of your career/life! To Fabian & Becky, Rodney & Elaine, Ruben & Rada, Simon, Ronald, Ong & Fennee, et al.: thanks for helping me escape the tourist path and get a real view of life in KL...err, PJ. Please look me up if any of you are ever in Seattle!