A Travellerspoint blog

Going Indie in Indo

Right now I’m at the Hotel Mahara in Takengon, the largest town in the Gayo Highlands region of Nangroe Aceh Darussalam in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh (pronounced ah-CHAY), as many of you will recall, was devastated in the tsunami that struck the day after Christmas 2004. At the time, the region was mired in a 28-year armed conflict between the Indonesian military and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement). As tragic and harrowing as the tsunami was, it generated global attention to this region and resulted in a peace accord that gave Aceh a significant degree of political and economic autonomy.

The Gayo people, who are a distinct ethnic group with their own culture and language, for the most part did not identify with the GAM but unfortunately - as often is the case - got dragged into the war by both sides. Many ended up fleeing their villages and returned only after they were convinced that the peace accord would be enforced. They resumed farming, with many of them tending to their coffee plants that had fallen into neglect. The result has been high-quality coffee coming out of the Gayo Highlands, grown by small-scale farmers that have been organized into various cooperatives (some of which have received Fair Trade certification). It is because of these cooperatives that I came to Indonesia in the first place, as Atlas is now buying from three of them.

First, however, I had to go to Medan, the third-largest city in the entire country and the capital of North Sumatra Province. All of the exporters are based in Medan, which makes sense not only because of its size but also because the container port of Belawan is about 30 miles away. I had been forewarned that Medan is not the most attractive place, and sure enough it proved to be a fairly chaotic, crowded, and slightly worn-down city (though it has some shiny shopping centers that cater to the wealthy). The traffic alone is quite something: in the four days I spent there I didn’t see very many traffic lights, even at larger intersections, so cars, motorcycles, and becak (motorcycles with covered carts attached to them) just weave in and out. Everyone’s on the lookout for even the slightest seam yet accidents are relatively rare.

While planning this trip I discovered that the new J.W. Marriott, which opened just this year, was offering a special 21-day advance reservation rate at $60/night. Normally when I travel to coffee-producing countries I don’t stay at the nicest hotels, especially in larger cities. Part of this is because I think hotels generally are rip-offs, plus I know that a one-night stay can be the equivalent of a family of four’s food budget for an entire month…if not more. But I’m never one to pass up a good deal (if you’re reading this blog but don’t know that about me, then we must not be spending enough time together), so I opted for luxury. It wasn’t until I was in Malaysia that I remembered the bombing of the J.W. Marriott n Jakarta six or seven years ago. I suddenly had visions in my head of the hotel attacks in Mumbai last year and started wondering if I had made the wrong choice. Well, too late…I was sticking with the plan.

Having departed from the enormous and ultra-modern Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it was quite a contract to arrive at Polonia International Airport in Medan. The airport interior was fairly cramped, with more airport workers than passengers scurrying about or just standing still waiting for something or someone. I knew that I had to get a visa-on-arrival (VOA), and just navigating that process was slightly unnerving. First I had to pay $25 at one tiny office and then go right next door to an equally small office to get the visa – both were filled with smoke, though I have to say it wasn’t as offensive to me because the local cigarettes are laced with cloves. After passing through immigration and finding the baggage carousel, I was pounced upon by a short man in uniform who grabbed my bag from me and whisked me past customs. I had two boxes of smoked salmon that I had brought as gifts from Seattle, and I declared them on my customs form under “Animal products, food, plants, etc.” because the last thing I was going to do was get detained (I pictured myself stuck for hours in a smoky office or worse). I barely had enough time to hand the form to the official because the airport employee had bolted right past. We went outside to where the taxi drivers were crowded around the arrivals area, and I suddenly felt the strong need to separate myself from this man and any potentially dicey situation that could ensue. I took my bag from him and said I was waiting for someone. He asked for a tip. I said I didn’t have Indonesian rupiah. He said that was OK. I gave him $2. He seemed dissatisfied and asked for more. I refused and dismissed him with the wave of my hand.

You can imagine my relief when S., the head of the local office of an exporter, found me. We would be spending the next two days together, so I said that I was fine on my own for the rest of the evening once we arrived at the hotel. After gorging myself in Malaysia I needed to work off some stored fat, so I spent a good hour at the hotel gym – the sophistication of which I had never seen in any hotel in the U.S. or otherwise. I also signed up for three days of Internet service in my room and cursed the Marriott Corporation for gouging guests like me. The cost for those three days turned out to be about as much as a one-night stay at the discounted rate. I was aghast but realized I didn’t have any other options for staying connected.

On Wednesday I visited the exporter’s office and met the rest of the staff as well as the head of one of the cooperatives from which Atlas was already buying FTO (Fair Trade/Organic) Sumatra. It didn’t seem all that hot when I first got there, but soon I was sweltering in the heat and humidity with the back of my shirt completely drenched. Ugh. I gave Atlas t-shirts and Obama ’08 bumper stickers to S., his co-worker, and the cooperative leader. It’s customary for roasters in the U.S. specialty coffee industry to bring t-shirts, baseball caps, etc. when they travel to “origin” and meet producers and exporters, and on numerous occasions I had packed my bag with multiple items of Alterra Wear. Knowing that Indonesians practically claim Obama as a native son, I knew the bumper stickers would be a big hit. And they were.

For lunch S. and the cooperative leader took me to one of the best Padang restaurants in town. Padang is a city on the western side of Sumatra but its spicy, chili-laden cuisine is famous all over Indonesia. The way in which the food is served is also distinct: the restaurant or food stall will cook a number of dishes and place the plates and bowls in a window for everyone to see. When the diners sit down at a table, the server brings the dishes over – the bill is calculated based on how many dishes were eaten. Those that were untouched do not get added. I swear, there were at least twelve or thirteen plates on our table, some of which were stacked on top of others. It was crazy. Since this was a nicer restaurant, everything seemed to be hygienic. I never figured out what happens with the food that is not eaten, though. Does it get served to another table? Either way, the food was excellent. I didn’t get to even half of the dishes because of my slow eating habits…very unfortunate.

After lunch we went to the cooperative’s mill where the parchment shell is taken off before final drying and manual sorting. The tasks were split along gender lines. The males, almost all of whom seemed to be in their late teens, spread the beans on the cement patio with wooden rake-like tools, while the women were seated at low tables doing the sorting. It’s apparently common knowledge all over the coffee-producing world that women are more meticulous and therefore better at picking out defective and misshapen beans. Only at PRODECOOP in northern Nicaragua have I seen a man engaging in manual sorting.

The next day (Thursday) S. and I paid a courtesy call at the office of another exporter. The main purpose was to meet someone with whom I had exchanged countless e-mails and then engaged in Skype chats. He’s an advisor to another Fair Trade Certified cooperative in the Gayo Highlands and was extremely - bordering excessively - eager to sell to Atlas. The problem was that the cooperative does not have organic certification, so I unfortunately had to shift in another direction. Since I was in Medan, however, I felt like I should still meet A. just to put a face with a name and all of the Skype chats that popped up at 11pm Pacific Time, always with the same intro: “Hello Al. How are you?”

After we fulfilled that obligation, S. took me to a restaurant nearby that specializes in Javanese cuisine. The food is sweeter and less spicy than Padang food, and I did notice a difference. The restaurant itself was quite something – most of it was open-air, covered by a very high wooden ceiling/roof built in a traditional architectural style with sweeping eaves that ended in points. Gamelan music played in the background, which I immediately noticed since my younger sister referred to it as “ka-TANG ka-TANG” back when she was an undergrad music major (the University of Wisconsin has a gamelan orchestra). Now we use the term for most world music.

S. and I ended up getting into a fascinating conversation about all sorts of political topics, mostly relating to Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and U.S. foreign policy with all of its hypocrisies. I already had been telling him about how specialty coffee has become intertwined in certain countries with U.S. policies, such as the anti-narcotic efforts in Colombia that have funded the USAID project administered by ACDI/VOCA. We talked about what USAID is doing in Rwanda with the PEARL & SPREAD projects, and how the U.S. still bears collective guilt for not intervening in the 1994 genocide. I told him about Atlas’ relationship with indigenous Ixil producers in Guatemala who suffered terribly during the civil war. Having spontaneous discussions like this one really make me appreciate working in specialty coffee, because I get to interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, religions, etc. Far from being an expert on these topics, I did try to explain to S. why the U.S. has backed Israel all these years, why we support regimes in certain Middle Eastern countries and then preach to the rest of the world about democracy and human rights. Finally putting my SFS degree to use, I think!

Yet another marathon post, and I’ve only covered 48 hours in Medan. More to come!

Posted by alsandiego 07:54 Archived in Indonesia Tagged business_travel Comments (0)

Two Days of Not Being a Tourist...Sorry, Traveler

Even Al Sandiego needs a break sometimes

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!

Posted by alsandiego 15:46 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Off to the Big City

From the old to the new

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.

Posted by alsandiego 22:49 Archived in Malaysia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Birthday Feast

Did I really eat four meals in one day?

sunny 93 °F

On Saturday I celebrated a birthday. Not mine or that of anyone I actually know or have ever met. Yesterday was a federal holiday here in Malaysia to mark the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who is essentially Malaysia's king. This country is a constitutional monarchy, though not in the same sense as in the UK, Spain, Japan, etc. Rather, the king is elected by a council of other sultans representing Malaysia's nine peninsular states (the two states on the island of Borneo - Sarawak and Sabah - are left out of this arrangement), with each state taking a turn every five years. The current Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Mizan Zainal Abidin, is the sultan of the state of Terengganu in the northeastern corner of the peninsula. Although his actual birthday is January 22nd, but the first Saturday in June has been designated as the king's birthday.

There's no better way to celebrate a birthday in Malaysia than to eat, so I started my day having breakfast at the hotel. I remember reading the reviews of the Hotel Puri on Trip Advisor when I was planning this trip, and some previous guests had commented that the breakfast was not up to snuff. The hotel management must have been paying attention, because the buffet spread was larger than what I had been expecting. Nothing spectacular but certainly enough to get me started for the day. I mentioned before that this hotel has several large courtyards with trees, flowers, plants, etc. The one that serves as the breakfast room also has a fountain stocked with koi, which never cease to fascinate me with their random color patterns.

At 11am I got a call from the front desk saying that Gavin had arrived, so I went downstairs to meet him. He had brought his friend Sean, and Sean brought his girlfriend May. Sean and Gavin went to a private college together in Kuala Lumpur (not the same as a university in Malaysia but still post-secondary) and speak Cantonese to each other even though both are completely proficient in a host of other languages. Sean and May use Mandarin, though, so he would be jabbering about something to Gavin in Cantonese and then turn his head and switch to Mandarin with May without missing a beat. Then he would say something to me in English. Mind you, these guys also speak Malay and probably one other language that I'm missing. It's really impressive and watching them made me feel linguistically inadequate. My Mandarin is functional, but I still mix up certain tones and therefore will use it only when I really need to.

Our first destination was to try the Melaka specialty: chicken rice ball. It's not as exotic or bizarre as it may sound. The immigrants to this part of Southeast Asia who came from the Chinese island of Hainan brought with them a dish called Hainanese chicken rice. It's pretty much a boiled free-range chicken served with white rice made with the stock from the chicken - it always is served with a chili sauce on the side. Perhaps it's because I've never had a really good example of this dish or didn't grow up eating it, but it just doesn't speak to me (no me llama la atencion, para los que entiendan esta frase). Here in Melaka, the custom is to form small balls with the rice, about halfway between a golf ball and a tennis ball in size. The ones that we were served yesterday didn't meet the standards of my companions, and sure enough, I could tell that there was something not quite right. I think the rice balls were on the older side because they had a certain texture that frequent rice eaters can detect.

From there we crossed the Sungai (River) Melaka, first passing another chicken rice ball restaurant with a line snaking out the door. Hmm, guess we went to the wrong place. We wandered down the riverbank for a bit and came to a big wooden galleon ship that had been turned into a museum. Melaka is full of little museums, many of which allude to the glorious history of this city that for many years was the most important trading post in Southeast Asia. We decided to pay the RM3 entrance fee (about 90 U.S. cents) and board the ship, which was already very crowded. As it turned out, the ship was built sometime in the 80s as a reproduction - even so, for that price I didn't think it was a complete waste of time or money.

The heat had started to kick in by this point, so we headed to that cafe I had visited the previous evening to get something to drink. I ordered the cendol ice breeze again and sucked it down. This particular cafe serves coffees that represent the styles found in all of Malaysia's 13 states, but unfortunately none of them appealed to me in the least bit. A common practice is to roast what are already low-grade robusta beans with sugar, salt, and even margarine, the result being a sticky, black mess that sounds disgusting. I was slightly curious to try one of these variations but decided against it. One of the offerings - I forget which state it represented - actually has wheat added during the roasting process. Not appealing.

If the heat and humidity weren't bad enough, the sun had emerged at this point and was beating down on us when we left the cafe. Ouch. I think I have a mild case of photophobia (or just a lot of common sense) because I don't like walking or sitting in direct sunlight. So we decided to take refuge in Gavin's car with the A/C blasting away and drove around the city, initially aimlessly but then in search of the Medan Portugis, the neighborhood that's home to the Portuguese descendants. It's a popular destination on weekends for the food, and none of the other three had ever been there. I played the role of navigator, which was kind of ridiculous since all I had was the map in the Lonely Planet book., Also, some of the major streets are one-way, which forced us to drive around in circles and down back streets. Finally we got on the road leading to the Medan Portugis and pulled into the main plaza-like area. Sure enough, there were some restaurants all clustered around an open-air shopping mall type of complex. It looked like most of the restaurants were closed, but one of them - Restoran da Lisboa - had a bunch of tables on the shaded patio where people were eating. We sat down and ordered a fish in a chili sauce, fried eggplant (not breaded), and "chicken debal" (debal means devil," though I think the spelling has evolved from the original Portuguese word). The chicken was just OK but I liked the fish and the eggplant a lot.

After we finished eating I wandered over to the gift shop near the entrance to the complex and found the owner at the back with her school-aged daughter. The woman (whose name was Sharon) looked Latina and definitely was not Asian. I asked her if she spoke Portuguese and we ended up having a ten-minute conversation, though the version she spoke was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Still, it was pretty cool to talk with a descendant of the original Portuguese colonists in their native language. She told me that Kristang is not taught in the schools, so it's up to the parents and grandparents to teach it to the children. I looked at the homework her daughter was doing and noticed that she was writing sentences in Bahasa Melayu. I bought a jar of mango chili sauce that she had made and canned herself...looking forward to trying it with rice.

As we were leaving the Medan Portugis, Gavin decided that I needed to try durian. If you've never heard of this tropical fruit that grows only in Southeast Asia, it's larger than a football and is covered with hard, pointy spikes that can do some serious damage. What makes durian famous, however, is its rather pungent smell, which has been compared to blue cheese, unwashed feet, and other unsavory odors. Most Westerners are completely turned off by durians, but it's got a huge cult following in this part of the world. Even so, airlines, hotels, etc. typically ban durians because of the rotten smell they emit. I tried one when I was in Beijing last August but it turned out to be unripe, so I don't really count that as my first durian eating experience. I have to say, once you get used to the smell it's actually kind of good - the creamy texture is nice too. I'm not anywhere close to going out and buying one myself (they sell them at Asian grocery stores in the U.S.) but I'd eat it again if one were put in front of me.

When we got back to the main part of town, Sean and May said they wanted to keep eating (with no prompting from me, I swear!). We drove to a very famous restaurant that serves satay celup, which apparently is a Melaka specialty in which you dip the skewers into a vat of bubbling sauce that cooks the raw meat. The line snaking out of this joint, Capitol Satay, was ridiculous so we decided to find a Nonya place instead. The Baba-Nonya culture started when the male immigrants from China intermarried with local Malays starting several hundred years ago. They adopted the Malay language but held on to many Chinese traditions, customs, and beliefs. The Babas were the men and the Nonyas were the women, and since the women did almost all of the cooking the food goes by that name. It's probably one of the first fusion cuisines in the world, and when my sisters and I were here in 2004 we had a great meal on New Year's Eve at a Nonya restaurant in Penang.

Lonely Planet recommended Bayonya which was in a busy commercial part of the city. It was packed but we were able to score a table, even though we had to sit on plastic stools due to a shortage of chairs. By this point I was fading pretty quickly and dozed off right at the table while we were waiting for the food to come. Shortly after I woke up, three dishes were placed in front of us: assam sotong, belacan kangkong, and ayam rendang. I think assam is the Malay word for tamarind, and sotong is squid or cuttlefish. Belacan, or shrimp paste, is an essential ingredient n Southeast Asian cooking, and often is sauteed with vegetables like kangkong (water convolvulus, or what we all "kong xin cai" in Mandarin). Yes, I know "convolvulus" sounds like it should have been uttered on a certain "Seinfeld" episode (remember Mulva?), but it is one of my favorite vegetables and one that I remember my dad cooking a lot when I was growing up. The last dish, ayam (chicken) rendang, was more familiar as I had eaten rendang on many occasions in the past though usually with beef. All three were quite good, but the squid took the cake - the sauce was a rich, deep brown (almost black) with a perfect level of tartness. I was close to spreading it over white rice but unfortunately had eaten all of the rice on my plate already. In more familiar company I would have eaten the sauce with a spoon or, at home in complete privacy, licked it right off the plate. It was that good.

Gavin and his two friends dropped me off near my hotel - I was stuffed and could barely waddle up the stairs to my room. I lay down for what was supposed to be ten or so minutes, after which I was going to get up and meander to the next street for the Jonker's Walk weekend night market (Jonker's Walk is the touristy name for Jalan Hang Jebat, the main thoroughfare in the Chinatown area of Melaka). I crashed hard on the comfortable king bed with the A/C droning above me.

Posted by alsandiego 06:44 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food Comments (0)

Why I Love Malaysia

It IS 'Truly Asia"!

semi-overcast 77 °F

You may have seen the magazine ads from the Malaysia Tourism Board with the tagline "Malaysia...Truly Asia!" As I described in my previous posting, the ethnic makeup in this part of the world is really something. Unfortunately the communities have not always gotten along - sorry, Rodney King - in the country's history, but you can't escape the fact that this is not a mono-culture (is that even a word?). Yes, Singapore has the same diversity but for one, it's a tiny country (more like a city-state) and it's also more of a melting pot. I'd call Malaysia a patchwork more than a melting pot because the various communities tend to stick to themselves.

Back to my bus journey from Singapore to Melaka. Crossing the border was an interesting experience: you have to get off the bus not once but twice, first to pass through Singapore immigration and then Malaysian immigration once you've gone over the bridge into the city of Johor Bahru. At each checkpoint the bus driver pulls up and lets everyone off - afterward he comes around and picks up the passengers again. The ride was uneventful - the Lonely Planet book said that the state of Johor is covered with palm plantations, and it was right. That's all I saw...fields and fields of palm trees that are tapped for their oil. I suppose it's prettier than looking at the cultivation of most agricultural commodities, but apparently there's been rampant deforestation in Malaysia due to the palms.

I spent part of the bus trip relearning the numbers in Malay as well as some basic phrases. I've been in this country for less than 24 hours and already I'm wondering if there's any point, since pretty much everyone (at least here in Melaka) speaks some modicum of English. Also, their English - however limited - is inevitably going to be much better than my Malay, So I already have started defaulting to English and peppering it with random Malay words, mostly to amuse myself and break the ice. Actually this is good practice for me, because Bahasa Indonesia is based on Bahasa Melayu - about as close as British and American English are to each other - and English is not as common in Indonesia from what I understand. When I go to the Gayo Highlands coffee-producing region in northern Sumatra next week, most of the people I meet will have learned Bahasa Indonesia as a second language.

I arrived at the bus station in Melaka, found a bus line for the two-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday (again, using Chinese to buy my ticket). A nice taxi driver then took me to the Hotel Puri in the Chinatown section of the old city. It looks a lot like the Chinatown in George Town, Penang, but is more touristy with narrower streets. The architecture is pretty stunning, though: all of these two-story "shophouses" with sloping, tiled roofs and Chinese characters posted on the facades and doorways., The lobby of the Hotel Puri is spectacular (check out www.hotelpuri.com if you want to see for yourself) and there are a couple of verdant gardens in the back with swallows that fly around (they actually harvest the swallows' nests - made from their saliva, mind you - and sell them for bird's nest soup, which is a Chinese delicacy). The only drawback is that there is no elevator, and my room happens to be on the third floor (fourth floor in the U.S.). Normally I like taking the stairs, but it's really humid here so any form of exercise, however simple, is going to render you into a dripping pool of sweat.

At around 4:45pm I left the hotel intent on finding something good to eat. The Lonely Planet book (they actually came out with a special edition just for Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang) recommended an Indian restaurant that offers a ten-dish vegetarian thali on Friday afternoons, and since it happened to be Friday afternoon I headed in that direction. After finding what I thought was Selvam on Jalan Temenggong (jalan means "street"), I walked in - the place was sparsely decorated, with metal tables and chairs, a TV mounted in a corner, and an open kitchen area in the back. There were about six or seven Tamil men sitting at various tables, glued to the TV that was broadcasting a show in Tamil. I strode in like I knew what I was doing, sat down, and ordered a thali and an unsweetened iced tea ("teh o ais kosong," or "tea without-milk ice zero"...the "zero" referring to no sugar). The proprietor first spread a large, freshly rinsed banana leaf in front of me and then started ladling out various dishes. Everything looked good, but for some reason I starting wondering if I was in the right place. Then he asked if I wanted chicken or mutton curry. Hmm, what happened to the all-veggie feast? I explained that I had come for the vegetarian thali and that it had been recommended. He smiled and pointed to a different restaurant down the street - he even offered to show it to me, presumably allowing me to get up from my seat, leave the food that had been served to me (I hadn't touched it yet), and walk out the door., I felt bad and said that I would stay. So after he was done covering the banana leaf with various dishes, I proceeded to dig in with my right hand (not an easy task for a southpaw like me!). This practice entailed scooping up some of the rice and then grabbing a bit from one of the piles before shoveling the whole thing into my mouth.

At first I was a bit concerned that none of the dishes was at the very least warm - the rice itself was slightly below room temperature - but I threw caution to the wind and continued feasting. The flavors were spectacular. Everything was nicely seasoned, with a couple of dishes on the spicy side without being searingly hot. The mushroom dish in the upper left hand corner of the banana leaf was amazing...I couldn't stop eating it. After clearing my plate....err, leaf...I sat back, wiped my turmeric-stained right hand, and watched the table next to me. Two older Chinese men had come in, one wearing an orange uniform of some sort and the other with the same uniform shirt in a clear plastic bag. They ordered dosai, the South Indian crepe-like pancakes served with different sauces and dips. Later two younger Malay men wearing the orange uniform shirt walked in and sat down with them. They all chatted with the proprietor in what I'm guessing was Malay. When I came to Malaysia the first time I remember finding the ethnic diversity very interesting, but I don't recall ever seeing people from different groups interact with each other - especially outside the business/commercial context. So it was interesting to watch this scene unfold.

The rest of my evening was spent at a museum built inside the Stadhuys, the original colonial administration building constructed by the Veereinische Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India Company) in the mid-1600s soon after Malacca was captured from the Portuguese. The museum's exhibits seemed to be cobbled together somewhat randomly: several life-sized displays depicting the Dutch governor's office, a Malay wedding ceremony (including the matrimonial bed), an Indian used bookstore, and a Chinese satay house. Upstairs were various galleries with paintings and dioramas showing different stages of Malacca's/Melaka's history. Every single exhibit had a plaque in both Malay and English with more details than you possibly could want to know. I didn't have the patience to read all of them, plus it was still uncomfortably hot in spite of the sun having gone down.

I ended my night at a touristy cafe/restaurant not far from my hotel - again, a Lonely Planet recommendation (sorry, I'm a slave to LP!). I ordered a cendol ice breeze, which was their take on a local dessert specialty that looks frightening. The weird part is the thin green blobs that look like worms or insect larvae but are actually mung bean noodles. There also are red beans mixed in for texture and color. The base of the dessert is coconut milk, and this place blended it with ice to make a smoothie-like beverage. It was actually pretty tasty, though the texture of the noodles was slightly odd.

OK, I think I'm done blogging for now. It's 8am already and I need to start planning what I'm going to eat today. At 11am I'm meeting with Gavin Sia, whose family has a coffee roastery in the town of Muar about 45 minutes south of Melaka. Gavin participated in the three-day Diedrich advanced roasting workshop that Atlas hosts every September right before Coffee Fest/Seattle, so I reconnected with him through Facebook and told him that I would be coming to Malaysia. He's meeting me in Sumatra next week and we'll travel together to the Gayo Highlands. Today, however, I'm going to see if he wants to go to the Medan Portugis, the part of Melaka that is home to the descendants of the Portuguese colonists. It's a dying community, but those who still are here cling to their traditions, their Catholic faith, and a hybrid language called Kristang that follows Malay grammar but uses archaic Portuguese words. Fascinating stuff. Apparently they have a distinct cuisine as well that I am curious to sample. Devil curry, anyone?

Posted by alsandiego 16:07 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food Comments (1)

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