May 2013

Asia, Blog


Plankton Warp Speed Overdrive

Gonzalo was from Argentina. You could tell he was going to be really awesome just by looking at him; something about the way he carried himself. When we found out he was from Argentina, it only solidified what we already knew: that he was a really awesome guy.

“So, where are you from,” we asked him as soon as he sat down next to us in the white tour van.

“Argentina,” he replied in a Latino accent, sounding just like The Most Interesting Man in the World. “A town called Mendoza.”

I knew he was awesome, Sheena and I collectively thought.

For the next fifteen minutes, all the way from Krabi town to Ao Nang, we all excitedly reminisced about Argentina: empanadas, Christina de Kirchner and her downward spiraling economy, parrillas, blood sausage, dirty money, banditos, wine, and wide open spaces. By the time the van dropped the three of us off in a dirt lot near the ocean, we’d made ourselves more than a little hungry. From a dirty little shack in the parking lot we purchased some Cup o’ Noodles, extra spicy, and ate them while longing for thick cuts of steak washed down with smooth Mendoza wine.

After close to an hour a man told us to walk down a dirt track, which lead to a skinny pier jutting into the Andaman sea. A small wooden boat with a car motor affixed to the back awaited our arrival, and then shakily transported us to a waiting tour boat moored in the bay for the sunset snorkeling tour.

Once aboard the boat we were joined by a dozen or more other tourists all ready to get their snorkel on. Being that we were to be cruising around and in between several of Southern Thailand’s limestone islands, we quickly bolted to the open-air upper deck to secure ourselves the best seats in the house: a few plastic lawn chairs situated at the front of the boat. And then we waited for the hoards of other passengers to crowd in behind us, but it never happened. For some inexplicable reason, every last one of them decided to pack themselves together in the belowdecks like sardines where they could safely observe the world class scenery and towering limestone cliffs from between the fiberglass pillars supporting the viewing deck above. The very same viewing deck where we three morons sat all by ourselves.

The boat rumbled to life, and slipped away northward along the coastline. Soon, we approached a group of islands jutting straight out of the water like teeth. The boat cut between them while we stared in awe. Soon, we came to rest off the shore of two islands connected by a shallow sandy finger. A rickety boat sputtered toward our vessel to ferry passengers to the islands. Gonzalo looked off of the side.

“Do you think the water is deep enough to jump in?” he asked.

It was hard to tell; several coral heads dotted the sandy bottom, and the small waves messed with our depth perception. “Only one way to find out,” I said.

Before we knew it, he had flung himself over the edge and had disappeared into the water below. “It’s all right!” he yelled as he came to the surface.

I swung my legs over the railing and leapt. Sheena, less danger-seeking, walked down the stairs and lowered herself into the water like a lady. Just then, a skinny, spotty English kid with bad posture I’d noticed earlier appeared above the rail. I hadn’t spoken to him, but my first impression was that he was one of those defiant British youths who would whisper insults about you under his breath using his incomprehensible English slang, but wouldn’t say them to your face. Maybe on a bad day even blow up your car.

“Wow, it’s really fah down theh. Is the wootah ceauld?” he asked. I assured him that in fact the water was really quite warm. It felt like a big bathtub.

“No, it con’t be! It’s prubbly ceauld! It’s seau ceauld, you must be jeauking!”

And with that the spotty English kid plugged his nose, closed his eyes, and fell awkwardly through the air and into the lukewarm water below.

While the rickety boat loaded the other passengers to take them ashore, Sheena, Gonzalo and I decided to swim instead. It didn’t look all very far, but after what seemed like an eternity we became fatigued. The water became shallow and the bottom became littered with dead coral and sea urchins, whose poisonous spines came uncomfortably close to our tiredly kicking feet.

Just before succumbing to fatigue and drowning, we reached the shore. The next forty five minutes would be an amusing study in anthropology; amid all of the available sandy spots in the Andaman Sea, dozens of us ended up on one skinny sand bar, sitting in knee deep hot water wearing rubber masks and snorkels, surrounded by dead coral and leafy detritus floating about in the water. It was what the hip kids might call a snorkeling fail. We happily boarded the rickety boat and left the island.

Once aboard the boat we continued our trajectory up the coast. The captain’s assistant excitedly pointed out “Chicken Rock”. You guessed it, a big rock that looked like a chicken’s head. And at this, I began to ponder the things in nature that people tend to consider interesting. On the scary bus ride to Machu Picchu, a drive that took us through canyons and Andean mountain passes, our driver pointed to the bits that tour guides have come to consider interesting. Namely, several rocks that look like Virgin Maries, eagles, and faces. In the limestone caves of Thailand, we followed tour guides through mazes of enormous stalactites and stalagmites, stopping only to point out the ones that look like crocodiles, heads, elephants, and Buddhas. Apparently to some people nature is only interesting if it looks like something besides what it is. I scoffed at Chicken Rock. It didn’t even look like a chicken anyway.

Finally we reached the rice and beans of the sunset snorkeling tour: the sunset beach barbeque. We disembarked on a small island and made our way to the table on the beach where tin foil-wrapped fish and a pot of rice awaited. The barbecue had apparently happened at a different place and time, but we were here to reap the rewards. We took a couple of big plates of cold fish and rice, Sheena put her sarong on the sand, and the three of us enjoyed the scenery as the sun plunged to the horizon next to a picturesque limestone island jutting out of the sea. Dare I say the island looked just like Cher? Or maybe like a Greek Chariot?

Once the sun had plunged beyond the horizon and our cold fish and rice had been devoured, it was time to head back. We boarded the boat and began weaving back through the islands from whence we came. But the crew had one more surprise.

“Okay everybody, listen to me,” the captain’s assistant announced. “Now it very dark. In fifteen minute we go snorkeling with phosphorescent plankton. Yes, that right, you swim with plankton. Fifteen minute,” and with that she retired to her seat. This was going to be great! I remembered reading about our friends Pat and Ali during their around the world sailing trip. They had described swimming with the phosphorescent plankton and had said that it was like swimming through stars.

The boat approached a limestone wall undercut by millennia of lapping waves, and the captain dropped the anchor. Several of us donned our snorkels and masks and made our way to the back of the boat. We all stood there, peering into the pitch black ocean, waiting for someone to go first. Just then, something appeared in the water.

“What the hell is that?” someone asked. There appeared to be two rather large plastic shopping bags swimming around right where we were supposed to be experiencing the phosphorescent plankton. The captain quickly put his foot into the water and kicked one of them, trying to move it away. It was at this point that I realized that he was attempting to move two seriously large jellyfish aside so that we could frolic in the water. Jellyfish. In the water. Suddenly, seeing phosphorescent plankton wasn’t on the menu any more.

The captain, satisfied that he had rid the water of the deadly floating human-killers, turned back toward us and smiled. “You can see phosphorescent plankton,” he said, timidly.

Hell no I’m not, I thought. Just then, the spotty English boy stepped onto the swimming platform and jumped in. What the!? That little twerp?

He put his head down and slowly wriggled toward the cliff wall. We all stared at him, waiting for his body to convulse and then sink to the bottom in a state of jellyfish shock, but instead he raised his head and spoke.

“Wow, yeah. Thehs loads of ’em. When ah swing my ahm ’round, the wootah lights up wiv all ‘ease bright buggahs.” I couldn’t believe it. This guy? The spotty English boy? Whereas a couple of hours ago he seemed like such a pansy, but now he was swimming through a proper jellyfish farm, waving his arm about like Luke Skywalker’s glowing sword.

Damnation, I thought. If he can do it, I simply must!

I took a quick survey of the immediate area around the boat and saw no jellyfish, so I leapt. It was a simple leap, but it felt as if I were jumping to my death. The warm water enveloped me and I immediately got the heebie jeebies. But the spotty English boy was in the water too, so I had to play it cool. I put my head down and began paddling toward the cliff wall. I didn’t have to go far before I was lost in a trance.

I stared down into the black abyss below me, unable to see a damn thing. The thought of all of the creatures that must be surrounding me, and the untold depth of the ocean below me scared the bejeezus out of me. But when I swiped my arm through the water in front of me, the whole place lit up like a fireworks show! I became entranced, swiping the water left and right, and as I did, stars were born right before my very eyes, whirling in eddies around my hands in 3D. The harder I swiped, the more intense the plankton lit up. It was like I was flying through stars at warp speed. I all but forgot about the deadly jellyfish closing in on me, and about the scary sea creatures below me, and the untold depths that divers would have to dive to retrieve me after I was finally caught by the jellyfish. This was captivating.

Sheena, obviously finding me irresistible in the way I was waving my arms around like a schoolboy, lowered herself into the water like a lady and joined me in my Star Wars warp speed fantasy world. Together we floundered like disoriented Klingons, breathing belabored breaths through our snorkels like Darth Vader, until we sensed that the others were becoming bored back on the boat.

After fifteen minutes or so the spotty English boy headed back, and Sheena and I returned to the boat to reclaim our seats next to Gonzalo.

“Así,” Gonzalo said, “cómo fue?”

Vale la pena,” was all I could come up with. Worth it. And at that we motored southward.

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May 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Revenge of the Monkeys

“It’s all about trust. And when it comes to monkeys, I have none. — Anthony Bourdain

This is a good quote to live by. I should have learned my lesson a few weeks ago. Brad and I had just awoken and were strolling down a sleepy street in Cherating when we saw kitten sized baby monkeys swinging in the trees and pulling each other’s tails. I wanted to squeeze their little cheeks and rock them in my arms, and so we began to cross the street. I had forgotten that most mammal species are very protective over their young. Needless to say, we didn’t make it very far. Like a bat out of hell a massive monkey came flying out of the canopy, charging at us and screaming hysterically. We attempted to sprint away with lightning speed, yet without our morning coffee, it was more like a slow motion nightmare. When we were no longer deemed a threat, we slowed down and enjoyed a good laugh, dumbstruck by our own naiveté.

Now we found ourselves on the island of Penang, also known as the “Pearl of the Orient”. It is a place with significant location, and in the 17th century it served as a key entry point to the Strait of Malacca for Chinese, Indian, Arabian and European ships. Only becoming independent in the 1950s, it was a British colony for hundreds of years, and today it is a place which exemplifies multi-ethnicity: colonial buildings from the English territorial days, Chinese neighborhoods, Indian migrant workers, traditional Malay culture; this island had it all. There are other things that make this destination fascinating but I’ll get to that later.

Our quick jaunt in Penang began after a crossing of the Strait of Malacca via a 13 kilometer bridge. Once on the island, we had access to a landscape of jungle, waterfalls, fruit and spice orchards, fishing villages and beaches. As soon as we crossed the bridge, we veered in the opposite direction of the island’s main city, Georgetown. The maddening traffic and chaos of the city dissipated with each curve of the road and soon we were rolling through dense jungle hills and small one street villages. We explored random dirt roads and searched for a camp-worthy beach. We followed the main road for over an hour and then finally it ended. We were left wondering what to do next. Miraculously, through the trees we noticed the most picture perfect quiet beach inlet. Colorful fishing boats were scattered about and one massive tree canopied the inlet. We squeezed under and had just enough room to pop the top. We slept the night away next to a happy pack of lounging street dogs.

The next day we continued our drive, sheltered by the jungle canopy, and stopping next to a heaping pile of drained coconut husks and a strip of roadside vendors. Snacks of banana chips and the like were for sale, in addition to coconut oil for cooking and deliciously fragrant packs of local spices; cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg seeds, pepper and clove.

On our way back to the car, Brad led me to a large cage where a family of four monkeys resided. The parents sat in the center, bored and uninterested in us. They faced each other and picked through the others fur, removing bugs and anything else that looked out of place. The babies catapulted off the cage walls, full of energy, rambunctious and completely out of control. I kneeled forward, touching one of the babies’ hands. It reached out and wrapped its little hand around my index finger. I stared at its sharp but delicate little finger nails and imagined it was a human baby.

Suddenly my thoughts of this monkey, which had morphed into thoughts of human babies, and then specifically my future babies, came to an end. I felt myself being yanked forward, like my hair was being sucked into the fan of ten hair dryers. My head faced the ground and I couldn’t see what was going on, yet I could hear the scream of an alarmingly angry monkey. The crazed mother tightened her grip on my hair. I tried to display submissiveness by allowing my body to go limp while leaning forward to reduce the tension. Brad, seeing that I was one swipe away from having monkey nails in my face pulled me away in one quick motion. The mother had won. In her hand she proudly displayed a fistful of my hair.

I was humiliated. As I peered back at the monkeys, head burning, I watched as my hair was distributed amongst the four. They twisted it between their fingers, studied it closely, wrapped their tongues around it, and then ate it.

By lunchtime we had looped around the island, ending in Georgetown, Penang’s main city. And here was the reason why we really came to Penang: Season 8 Episode 8 of No Reservations; my all time favorite travel documentary visited here just one year prior. It was a surefire guarantee that really good food waited nearby.

The essence of the show is this: famous New York chef turned author turned television host travels to wild and foreign places, sampling local cuisine and seeing local culture. It is action packed with food erotica; unfamiliar faces, steam billowing from the hawker stands, alleyways with twisted jumbles of lights hanging from above, heaping piles of pork, and lots of bowls of chili and sauce. I freaking love it.

When we lived in Flagstaff, we often watched these shows at night. They were a source of entertainment, but also of inspiration, pushing us forward, keeping us focused on our goals. We wanted to go to these places too.

I was curious what Anthony Bourdain, host of the show thought of the place. Here’s a quote:

“I feel inexorably attached to Malaysia for many reasons, but one of them is that I got there early in my career as a traveler, wasn’t really ready for it, and was changed by the place. It seduced and overwhelmed me at the same time. The smells and colors and flavors—the look and sound of the place, the at times impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures—it f***ed me all up”.

And another:

“Lots of people, lots of food, lots of cats. The cats are a good sign.”

I too have been left with an overwhelming excitement from Malaysia. The joy of first experiences – Malaysia being my first encounter with Asia – is that every sensation is intensified. Everything is more exciting and more intriguing. You feel like you are never going to get used to it and never shake the butterflies in your stomach. It is a wonderful feeling.

Georgetown didn’t disappoint. We spent most of the afternoon in the Chinese neighborhoods filled with antiques, electronics, keys repair shops, and quiet alleyways where the locals sat on their patios. We searched for interesting murals and were rewarded with a few glimpses of Ernest Zacharevic’s street artwork emblazoned on alley walls, which interestingly incorporated physical objects in his scenes as well.

Our highlight in Georgetown occurred on Chulai Steet at the Sky Hotel. On the street corner, a handsomely smiling Asian man worked behind his stand organizing and cutting strips of pork. After we chose between our two options of pork or duck we sat down in the open air dining area which consumed the ground floor of the building. An older man stood in the back washing dishes while his wife took drink orders. This place, like so many others, comprised a teamed up drink and a food vendor working the same clientele, yet requesting separate payments; seemingly unconventional yet incredibly efficient from a timeliness standpoint. All at once, our drinks came from the back of the building and our food came from the front: two plates of white rice, topped with sautéed greens, and barbecued honey-sweetened pork, or char siew. The combination of hearty greens, simple rice and sticky, gooey, crispy yet juicy pork was unbelievably good. I’m not kidding, it stayed in my thoughts for days.

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May 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 23 Comments

Lost at Sea

With every wave that crashed over the bow, our small boat took on more water. The panic on our young captain’s face shattered any hope that we would make it out of this tropical depression without a miracle, and my brain wouldn’t stop humming the theme from Gilligan’s Island. I wonder how the brain can have a sense of humor when it knows that this will surely be the end. I knew it in my bones, the woman sloshing around in the saltwater at our feet knew it, and the two sobbing girls clinging to their belongings next to us knew it. But my brain kept humming along.

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship…

Sheena and I sat on the beach with our duffel bags and waited. We had been on Perhentian Island for three days of relaxation and white sand beaches, and it was time to get back to the mainland. By mid-afternoon we would be reunited with Nacho so that we could continue our northward trajectory up Malaysia’s East coast. Our instructions were to wait on the beach for a the eight person water taxi that would take us on a 45 minute jaunt back to the mainland.

When a small motorized canoe approached, Sheena and I climbed aboard, and were joined by a young couple from England. The canoe sputtered back to life, reversed, and then spun around to bring us toward the waiting water taxi.

The water taxi was wooden and rickety with a few plank bench seats and a makeshift awning to block the sun during the crossing to Kuala Besut. A small outboard motor hung from the back, and several rags, wires, tools, and a car battery littered the floor of the boat near the engine. The boat’s captain was a young Malaysian man in his early twenties, obnoxiously indifferent, and having a wisp of hair fashionably poking out from above his forehead like Billy Idol. He looked more like a DJ than a boat captain.

Once onboard, we put our bags on the floor and waited. We asked the driver a few questions, but found his command of our native tongue to be only slightly better than our command of his. Soon, another boat approached and two French girls came aboard, sitting down next to Sheena and me on the rearmost bench seat.

The captain fired up the engine and sped off toward Perhentian’s larger island, and as we approached a bay dotted with small hotels he killed the engine and we waited again. As we waited our boat slowly rotated in the water and I saw that the eastern sky was pitch black from the horizon to the heavens.

I got Sheena’s attention and motioned toward the approaching storm. “I sure hope we don’t get caught in the likes of that,” I said. The Englishman and his girlfriend overheard and looked up to see. The French girls were getting impatient.

“What are we waiting for!?” one of them scalded. The captain squinted and searched the beach with his eyes. “We wait,” he said. The girls hunched over and complained to one another in French.

The wall of black steadily approached, and then all at once our boat began to pitch and tilt as a blast of wind hit us from the East. The strength of the squall in front of the storm suggested that it was fast-moving and fierce. Within a minute big, heavy drops exploded into the ocean around us as though someone were pouring buckets of steel marbles from the clouds. With each drop, a small burst of sea water exploded into the air, which the wind carried across the surface of the water, giving the ocean the look of a blizzard blowing across a tundra. The awning on our boat did little to protect us from the sideways rain, and what water was collected on top of it drained into the boat.

“Let’s GO!” one of  the French girls screamed.

Just then, out of the rain came another motorized canoe carrying a man and a woman in their twenties. When they reached us, they rolled their soaked backpacks aboard and stepped onto our boat. They were a German couple, and I immediately took a liking to them. The French girls gave off an air of superficiality and self righteousness, while the English backpackers seemed standoffish and disinterested. But the Germans wore smiles despite being soaked to the bone. They greeted everyone, took their seats, and smiled at each other.

By now the black clouds had enveloped us, and the rain and wind had intensified.  We could no longer see either one of the islands, and the visibility had been reduced to a mere 20 meters.

“Okay, let’s GO!” the French girls shouted in unison. The boatman fired up the engine and sped off into the storm.

Sheena and I crouched down, hugged our legs and hid in the draft of the English couple to stay out of the wind and rain. As soon as we had moved beyond the protective shield of the islands, staying dry became impossible. The wind whipped the waves into sloshing six foot peaks, and the ocean peeled off in layers, drenching us.  I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes to block the continuous barrage of salt water.

A terrible feeling began to come over me like a heavy, wet blanket. I lifted my head and looked around. In all directions there was nothing but whipping water and towering waves, which seemed to be hitting us from all sides. Our boat was nothing more than a wooden shell with a couple of benches, and the wind and waves tossed it about like a toy. Driving into this storm had been a bad decision. I turned around to look at our captain for the first time.

The young boatman was crouching behind the wheel, soaked from head to toe, his Billy Idol hair long since flattened into a dark smear across the tight creases in his forehead. His face was a portrait of pure fear. He squinted and jerked his gaze around in all directions, trying to see into the dense wall of water that surrounded us. I had to look away.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. The boat rode sideways up a tall vertical face, and I had to press both hands against the side of the boat to keep myself from falling over the edge. I looked back at the boy captain and saw that he was starting to panic. He frantically looked around, wiping the salt water from his eyes with his trembling hand. His mouth was slightly agape, and the corners of his mouth were turned down.

The Englishman noticed that our engine speed was becoming erratic, and he turned around. The boat began to pulse and weave as the captain continued to lose his bearings.

“What’s he doing?” the Englishman barked, “Doesn’t he know where we’re going?”

By now everyone had stopped trying to protect themselves from the wind and rain, and we all stared expectantly at the captain.

“Excuse me,” the German man said in a stern, loud voice, “do you know the direction to land?” The boatman stopped searching the narrow ring of visibility around our boat and his wide eyes stared at the German. The look on his face was one of alarm. He helplessly shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He slowed the motor and began turning the boat in tight circles. He had panicked, and in doing so, we had become disoriented and could no longer remember in which direction we’d been traveling before.

At that moment, 30 minutes into what was supposed to be a 45 minute water taxi ride, we realized that we were hopelessly lost at sea.

The German man, recognizing that this probably wouldn’t end well, stood up and began grabbing life vests from the netting beneath the bimini top and passed them around. “Does everyone who wants one have one?” He had to yell to be heard over the wind, the crashing waves, and the sputtering motor.

After donning our life vests, I took another look around the boat. To our right, the two French girls had their heads down and eyes closed, sobbing into their duffel bags. A barrage of waves crashed over the sides of our boat, and somehow the German girl ended up on the ground at our feet, sloshing around in the saltwater, crying inconsolably. I put my hand on the girl’s shoulder and held her against my leg for stability, and Sheena tried to convince her that everything would be okay.

“How can everything be okay,” she sobbed, “the captain is looking around like he doesn’t know where we are.” The way that she sobbed the words describing our situation made it all the worse. “I’m so scared. The storm is so strong, but our boat is so small!” She remained at our feet, hiding from the reality outside of our boat.

Another wave crested our bow, and the captain realized that we were beginning to sink. He abandoned the controls, and I looked back to see the sea level only a few inches below the rear edge of the boat.

He jumped back and crammed his hands into the water under the rear bench seat near the car battery. He produced a piece of garden hose attached to a small pump, and positioned the hose so that it would evacuate the water out of the boat. He fumbled with the pump’s bare wires and pressed one of them onto the negative battery terminal. When he pressed the other wire onto the positive terminal, his body jolted violently. He had been electrocuted, and he whipped his hand back and forth as if it were on fire as he pulled himself back to the wheel. I watched the end of the hose, but the pump never came to life.

As time went on, our situation continued to get more serious. The storm was becoming more intense, and the captain was becoming more and more erratic. Sheena and I had been looking for buoys and trying to find ways to help the captain, but everyone else seemed to be waiting for a miracle. Finally, Sheena had had enough.

“Hey!” She yelled, “The captain is lost, so we need to try to figure out where we are. There were buoys out here on the way out, so help us look for them!” The Englishman and the German started looking around, while the French girls continued sobbing. The German girl had long since gone hysterical, and remained pinned to my leg.

From the peak of each wave the boat repeatedly slid sideways down a ten foot wall of water before riding up the next wave. Without warning, the German man flung himself forward, onto the floor of the boat.

“Balance! Boat! Balance boat!” the captain wailed. When the German had moved, the boat’s balance had been disrupted and we began listing heavily to one side. “Just wait!” The German yelled. A minute later he pulled himself back onto his seat and thrust his hand into the air. “Look what I find! I remember this! Is a compass!” he hollered. From the boat emerged a collective cheer, and he passed it to the captain.

The captain looked at the device, turning it over in his hand while trying to keep the boat upright. He held it close to his eye, but it was becoming clear that he had never used a compass before. As a water taxi driver, his navigation had been all visual. He handed it back to the German and told him to point him in the direction of 245 degrees.

As the minutes ticked by and the daylight continued to wane, we began to wonder whether the first hour of our trip had been spent driving toward or away from shore. We continued to scour the area around our boat for clues. Finally, at the two hour mark, we found one.

“Are those pillars?” Sheena yelled, excitedly. We all looked but could see nothing. “Look! Over there! I see some pillars in the water!”

The captain steered left, and soon we saw a fisherman’s net draped between several steel poles. We weren’t out of the woods, but at least we were somewhere near civilization! Our spirits started to lift, and after a few more minutes of motoring, it came.

“LAND! I see land!” It was the Englishman, and he could hardly contain himself. He bounced around and spun in his seat. “Woooooo! Do you see it!?”

From the fog a faint outline of limestone hills began to emerge. We had done it! Even if we capsized now, I reasoned, we could probably swim to shore. We continued motoring, and as the shore came into view about a quarter of a mile away, there was no sign of our port in either direction. The captain steered northward, but soon we crossed into a shipping lane. It was the shipping lane entering Kota Baru; we had drifted over twenty miles off course, and were nearly in Thailand.

Realizing where we were, the captain began to panic again. He was overdue in Kuala Besut, and had a lot of distance to cover before nightfall. He flipped the boat around and began a high speed blast southward along the coast, parallel to the tall, rough waves. Our boat repeatedly became airborne, crashing down in the trough of each wave. Now that our captain had regained his confidence and was trying to save face, we seemed to be in even greater danger than before.

“Excuse me!” the German yelled, “I think I speak for everyone when I say that we want you to drive to shore right now. We will find a road and we will hitchhike! Please, take us to the shore!” But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Dropping a load of soaked and frightened passengers off on a remote beach so that they could hitchhike to the port was a surefire way to get himself fired, so he stayed the course. We blasted South, taking warm blasts of tropical sea water to the face with each crashing wave.

Finally, just as evening had settled in on Malaysia’s east coast, we gained sight of the sea wall at Kuala Besut.  The German girl, still sobbing, fell into her boyfriend’s arms and began apologizing. She turned to us and explained, still sobbing. “Coming here was my birthday gift to him. I’m so sorry.” The two of them hugged a while longer, and then he held his compass over his head like a gold medal. “Best five Euro I ever spent!” he cheered.

When we finally, at long last, passed through the opening in the port’s wave break, the boat stopped rocking. The captain slowed the engine, the German girl reclaimed her seat, and the French girls stared blankly ahead. Everything would work out, but somewhere deep inside of my sick brain, I wished I could have seen where this whole Gilligan’s Island thing would have gone.

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May 2013

Asia, Blog


One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish…what the #*@!?

After a stifling day, young people loitered on the cement wall alongside the coast enjoying the sea breeze and eating take away from the bustling outdoor market just a parking lot away. Down below, a mess of boulders formed a wave break.  Cats pounced between the rocks, unhindered by their strangely peculiar tails;  some were stumps, others crooked, and a few with ends like a lollipop.  I voiced my sad feelings about these cats a week earlier, happy to hear from a local that it was simply a “special Asian genetic defect”.

Past the boulders, the tide was way out, exposing a wasteland of inaccessible coast; puddles of water and sticky ankle deep mud.  Two Muslim tween-aged girls sat at the rocks edge, singing along to the streaming music on their phone. One girl casually passed a rock in her hands, finally tossing it in the mud.  They exploded in a fit of giggles as mud speckled their faces and silky hijabs.  We laughed along while our gazes shifted ahead.

“Look at the fish flopping in the mud!” Brad said.

It was truly horrible.  This rather ugly fish, grey like the mud was so far from the water that there was no chance it would survive its own stupidity.  Like staring into a Magic Eye painting, I was locked in a hypnotic spell, feeling saddened by this creature’s fate.  When my focus finally broke, I noticed I was actually staring out in a landscape of literally hundreds of fish flopping in the mud.  How could it be that they all seemingly failed their natural instinct to follow the shifting waters back out to the sea?

And then I noticed something even more surprising and unbelievable; using their pectoral fins, these fish were actually walking!  I had never heard, let alone seen anything like it.

I learned later after an obsessive internet search that this fish, the mudskipper, actually resisted being pulled back out to sea; hiding in seaweed and tidal pools until the coast was clear.  At this point, their double life began.  They are active creatures on land; walking in a series of skips (hence the name), feeding in the mud, interacting with others, defending their territory, and catapulting their muscular bodies up in the air.  Much like a reptile, this amphibious creature breathes outside of water by expanding and retaining an air bubble in their enlarged gill chambers.  It was really a sight to see.

Eventually the sky darkened and we were forced to leave our rocky outpost.  We wandered down the coast to the glowing canopy of a evening food market.

What did we expect to eat at this food market?  This in itself is the most exciting part about Malaysia: you never really know.  Depending on our location, options vary greatly based on the mix of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia.  You may go to a market one day and find that it fully caters to the Chinese community, or head down another street and find it is halal food: acceptable for Muslim consumption, or perhaps entirely mamuk (also halal), a cuisine that has resulted from the intermarriage of migrating Indian Muslims and Malay women.

Our options seemed to be endless.  However most days we sought out the mamuk restaurants, and mostly consumed roti chanai and teh tarik; which are also two of the best known examples of mamuk cuisine.  Clearly Indian in flavors and technique, yet only found in Malaysia, the roti chanai (meaning “knead” in malay) is a flaky flatbread made by continuously kneading, folding, oiling, tossing and finally cooking the dough on a griddle.  Stretchy and flaky, it is served on a tholi, a circular metal tray, with a few sides of spicy chutney and perhaps lentils.  Our favorite variation was roti pisang, made by folding bananas in the center of the dough and cooking; reminiscent of a banana pancake.  While Brad loved the roti chanai, I opted for thosai, a bread made from a mixture of rice flour and black gram dhal, left to ferment overnight and then cooked on the griddle.  As for teh tarek, (literally, pulled tea) it is made with condensed milk (here’s the Southeast Asia influence) and is poured back and forth between two containers; the higher the “pull”, the thicker the froth.  It is an artist process, worth ordering the teh tarek if only to watch it being made.

Equally popular establishments are kopitiams, traditional Malaysian Chinese coffee shops serving a variety of local coffee brews and Chinese cuisine.  They range from upscale cafes to a small stand within a market place popping out sweet coffee drinks and juices.  We visited the most well-known chain, Hailam Kopitiam one morning, started by the Goh family and popular in colonial times by the British and Negri Sembilan royalty.   We ordered an iced coffee made with espresso, sweetened condensed milk and a traditional breakfast of soft boiled eggs and charcoal grilled toast served with butter and green kaya (jam made from coconut milk and eggs).  Hailam doesn’t just offer breakfast food, it is open all day and on another occasion I ordered tauhu goring, fried tofu served with a peanut sauce and bean sprouts.

As for our go-to Malay food, it was the nasi (rice) dishes.  Malay food is not Malay food without a healthy portion of noodles or rice.  Ordering food without them is like ordering a sandwich without the bread.  Seemingly boring, yet the combination of ingredients, flavors, and techniques make these dishes worth ordering time and time again.  One hot afternoon I stopped by a small cart and pointed to an egg.  It was all I wanted, yet before I could blink an eye, the vendor had made nasi lemak,  twirling a piece of parchment paper into a cone shape, filling it with rice, fried peanuts, dried anchovies, a cucumber slice, a dollop of sambal (spicy paste), and a hardboiled egg on top.  Like a lid, he folded the parchment down over the top.  It was genius.  Other nasi varieties we discovered through random finger pointing was nasi paprik and nasi USA.

Some dishes we were only able to find once.  These are the ones we savor over and over in our minds, appreciating their uniqueness and the luck in finding them.  One particular experience was our encounter with lychee kang, ordered for us by no one other than the dreamer, Hairi.    It was a drink meant to “cool the entire body”, and it was served in an oversized plastic cocktail glass; sugared water and crushed ice, which swam with fruit cocktail, lychee (a deliciously local translucent-white fleshy fruit) and peanuts.  It was so strangely good; a perfect mix of soft and crunchy, sweet and salty.

Another such experience was in Melaka, a beautiful city with a mix of intertwining cultures, heavy in Chinese and Dutch history and a former British territory.  In the evening we were befriended by a local who directed us to a row of Chinese vendor stalls alongside the river, in search of popiah.  In a game of hot and cold, we bounced between the various stalls until we found the infamous popiah, a raw spring roll, wrapped in paper thin crepe and filled with a green mix of jicama, bean sprouts, French beans, carrots, prawns and chopped peanuts, lettuce, and egg.

To drive through Malaysia is to blaze a trail from one great market stall meal to another. After sitting and watching the Muslim girls splash themselves with mud, observing the cats as they searched for lizards among boulder piles, and watching nature’s anomalous walking fish chasing each other across mud flats, it was time to discover yet another night market in search of dinner. So, at this particular market, what did we enjoy?  We relished in one of Malaysia’s most famous contributions to the culinary world: satay; pieces of meat skewered on wooden sticks and barbecued over a charcoal fire, then brushed with a mixture of oil, honey, and spices.  It was served alongside a spicy peanut dip, cucumber slices, and tightly packed cubes of sticky rice.  From the communal tea kettle, we washed our sticky fingers and continued on. We finished off the evening with more sampling:  pink fluffy muffins and apam balik; a crispy omelet style pancake oozing with crushed peanuts and chocolate.

When our bellies were full, we strolled along the waterfront toward Nacho, said good night to the cats and to the walking fish. We would need our rest, because tomorrow there are more stops to be discovered on Malaysia’s food trail.

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