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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Apr 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

The Dreamer

The sound of jungle insects reverberated through the dense, humid night air. A slow loris crept along an overhead electrical wire strung between a tall wooden pole and a cinderblock structure where a woman cooked rice and noodles for the few people who lived around these parts. The loris stopped midway across the wire to give us a wide-eyed stare, and then continued on his way, grabbed a low hanging branch, and disappeared into the jungle.

Anda selalu makan yang sama!” I had seen Hairi’s face turn serious just before he yelled the string of incomprehensible gibberish. He raised his hand and brought it down toward his son.

Setiap kali, hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” Hairi’s hand landed softly on his son’s head, and then gently ruffled his hair. His serious face turned soft and he let out a laugh. Hairi’s wife, Nora, grinned widely from beneath her headscarf.

“My son,” he said, “he always order the same thing. Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger!” He laughed, and his son smiled at us from beneath his mop of messed up hair. A dab of ketchup stuck to the corner of his mouth.

A couple of days prior, while heading up Malaysia’s East coast, I had studied a Google Map of the area to find a place to camp. In the low quality image I could make out a peninsula with what appeared to be a white beach. We decided to aim in the general direction of the peninsula and see if we could somehow drive there.

When we neared the supposed beach spot, we turned off of the main highway and started driving on small roads toward the ocean. Several times we came to dead ends, and several times I hopped out to ask for directions from non-English speaking shop keepers.

“Beach?” I would ask, to which they would confusedly say, “Beats? Beats! Beats?” and bobble their heads around. I took this as a positive sign, and continued driving. Eventually we found our way onto the peninsula and onto a rough dirt road that wound into the jungle. When we finally emerged from the dark undergrowth, we were on a white sandy beach in a hidden bay.

In the shade of a palm tree, a man sanded the side of a rundown fiberglass boat.

“I am Hairi,” he said, “this is my home.” He pointed to a behemoth of a canvas tent in a meadow at the edge of the jungle.  Behind the tent, the meadow curved up into steep embankments covered in tightly packed vines and trunks and leaves.  In front of his tent the dense foliage opened up to reveal a white sand beach with an unimpeded view of several small islands.

We positioned Nacho parallel to the beach so that out of our sliding door we would have a commanding view of the beach and the islands. The setting was beautiful, and as we settled in for the evening we saw a flashlight approaching our door.

“You eat dinner?” It was Hairi. “My family go to town, you come with us?” We jumped into his dilapidated car, squeezing into the backseat with his boys. From their CD player, Alvin and the Chipmunks’ rendition of “You Had a Bad Day” filled the car. Nora habitually smiled while their kids stared at us in silence. A rare cool breeze brushed my face through the open window as we wound through the jungle.

At the cinderblock restaurant we chose a table outside, and then a teenage girl came out and set a smoldering egg carton in the grass beside our table. “The smoke keep the mosquitoes away. But we’re also trying to get our hands on the best ultrasonic mosquito repeller, for its the talk of the town, ” Hairi explained with a smile. He mimicked killing a mosquito on his arm by slapping it, and then he laughed. The smoke swirled around, Nora smiled, and the boys stared at us. Sheena asked Hairi how they were able to sleep when it was so hot and humid. “We open all windows in tent. ” he said.

That night while we slept in Nacho I drifted in and out of sleep. Suddenly my eyes snapped open and I gasped for air. It felt as though I were being waterboarded in some secret CIA prison camp. I rolled over and pressed my face against the window screen, gasping for a breath of fresh air. It never came, and I dizzily rolled onto my back, breathing belabored, hot breaths of thick water vapor. The mattress and my pillow were soaked with sweat. I laid on my back for what seemed like an eternity, our small oscillating fan pushing the watery air over our bodies. I hoped I would adapt quickly to the heat and humidity.

The next evening, over another meal of ramen noodles and rice at the cinder block restaurant, Hairi talked about life in the jungle and about Muslim traditions. I told him that I was jealous of the way Muslims got to wear comfortable silk pajamas to the mosque on Fridays.

“If I wear my pajamas in public, people just think I’m lost or homeless,” I said.

He told us about Mecca, and how every Muslim dreams of making a pilgrimage there. “Have you ever been to Mecca?” I asked.

“I haven’t been. Not yet,” he said, emphasizing the word yet, and then smiled broadly. “This my dream, so I will go one day. My dreams are coming true.”

“One day,” he said, “I was working on the beach. I see big yacht out near island, so I say, ‘okay, I go see.’ So I borrow small boat and I row. I row a long time, and I get to yacht. The man on yacht come out, and he from Scotland. He sail boat here, all way from Scotland!” His eyes glistened in the dim light from the restaurant’s bare light bulb.

“The man tell me to come onto boat, so I do,” he continued. “We talk, and I ask him how he able to come here on boat when it so far away. And he tell me, ‘Hairi, if you want to be like me, you can be like me.’ He tell me, ‘make a list of 100 dreams. Everybody have dreams, and if you write them down on a list, your dreams come true. And after your 100 dreams come true, you write a new list of 100 more dreams.'”

It seemed a little superstitious to me, but I listened on skeptically.

“So I go home and I think about what the Scottish man say. I say okay, I find a pencil and a paper, and I write down my dreams. One, two, three, four – I write down 100 dreams. I hang up my dreams by my bed, and I start to look at it every day.” Hairi paused, placed his hand on his knee, and lowered his head. He stared at us and continued, slowly.

“You know what happen?” he said. “I see that list every day and I start thinking about my dreams. This list make me think, to remember. My first dream is I want to have own boat. But we don’t have much money, so I go and I find old boat with hole in it. Owner don’t know how to fix boat, so I learn how to make fiberglass repair, and I fix boat! Now I have boat!”

He was visibly excited by this, and I suppose there was something exciting in this key he’d discovered. By thinking often about his goals he could more readily realize them with fewer resources when opportunities presented themselves. But it seemed like a small victory. Hairi continued.

“Next, I have dream of being a diver. But to become diver, it cost 3,000 Ringgit! I don’t have 3,000 Ringgit, so I look for other way. I find resort that have diving school, so I decide I try to get job there. I think, if I can work at resort, maybe I can learn to dive. I work hard, and they hire me to wash dishes. So I work, and I ask how I can learn to dive. They say for workers at resort they have dive class for 25 Ringgit. So I take class. I become diver, and resort hire me to bring clients diving!”

By now Hairi was beaming, and Nora smiled proudly at her husband for being so resourceful.

“Next, I have dream to swim with whale shark,” he said. He hummed the tune to Jaws, smiled, and continued. “So one day after we dive with our clients, we taking the boat back to resort and we see big whale sharks! So big! We all jump in water and we swim with them. I touch them, I touch the big sharks with my hand!” He mimicked the touch as though he were stroking a beautiful woman’s hair.

“My big dream,” Hairi continued, “was to touch a battleship. Since I was a boy in school I like these battleships. But battleship is in Hawaii! How do I do it?” By now, Hairi’s eyebrows were raised, as though there was no possible way.

“So,” Hairi said, “I ask at resort, and I find out Star Cruise Lines hiring workers for the cruise ships. I ask for job, and they hire me to clean up on ship. My ship go from Kuala Lumpur to Manila in the Phillipines and back. One day in Manila, there a Star Lines ship that go to Hawaii, so I find someone who work on that ship, and I ask if he want to trade with me. He say yes! So I take ship that goes to Hawaii! When the ship get to Maui, they tell us, ‘Okay, you have two days before ship leave. You can go explore.’ So I get off ship, and I go to harbor where battleship is.” Hairi slowed down as if savoring every word. “I walk to battleship, and I go to the side. I place my hand on it, like this.” He placed his left hand on his right elbow, and pretended to touch the ship with his right hand. He touched the imaginary ship for a long time, as if reliving the moment.

“See? My dreams are coming true. I touch a battleship.” He ended his story and sat there  with a big grin on his face next to his son, who had long since finished his hamburger. Nora looked at him admiringly, as if he had just saved his entire family from a burning bus. And Sheena and I looked at him admiringly too.

Here was a man with very little resources, who lived in a tent in the jungle, yet he had obtained his own boat, he became a scuba diver, he swam with whale sharks, and he traveled across the ocean to another country to see an icon that he’d only read about in books.

Hairi is the man.

That night, Sheena and I  decided that we needed to at least make an honest effort to drive through China, even though it was financially out of our reach, and thus had not been included in our original trip plans.

The next morning, Nora invited us over to the tent for a breakfast of traditional Malaysian pancakes with sprinkled sugar, and a plastic pitcher of black coffee. We all gathered around the outdoor wooden table and dug into the delicious food as the sounds of birds and insects echoed around the meadow. A dog bolted out of the jungle, followed closely by an angry monkey. Hairi yelled at the monkey and Sheena and I laughed.

“Wait here,” Hairi said, and then disappeared into his tent. He emerged carrying a comfortable-looking Malaysian shirt, or baju melayu, and a traditional plaid wraparound sarong. He smiled and handed them to me. “These are for you. So you can dress comfortably on Fridays like Muslims!” He asked me to stand, and then showed me how to wrap it.

He turned and went back into his tent. He emerged a minute later with a rose-print dress and blouse, and handed them to Sheena.

“Nora made these by hand. We want you to have them,” he said, and then handed them to Sheena. We had been humbled. We made a quick assessment of things we could offer them, and decided on a fresh jar of dulce de leche from Argentina.

For a moment I wondered what would happen if we changed our plan and drove Hairi to Mecca. It would be the ultimate gift, the realization of his wildest dreams, and an amazing experience. It would have really been something. But I have no doubt he’ll make it there one way or another.

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Apr 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Apprentice

“I think team Apec was totally corny. The way that the girl flung her arms around-”

“Cut! Can we roll that again? Listen, the team’s name is ‘Apex’, not ‘Apec’,” the director said.

“Oh, okay, sorry about that. Apex? Got it.”


“I think team Apex was totally corny. The way that the girl, like, flung her arms around and said that she was going on her honeymoon was really over the top. I definitely preferred team Maverick.” Yeah! Nailed it!

Sheena and I stood in the wet parking lot of Studio 16 in Kuala Lumpur.  The camera was trained on us as we stood in front of Lavern’s hippie bus, painted like something out of a psychedelic acid trip.  Somehow, after a little more than a week in the city, we had landed on an episode of the Malaysian version of The Apprentice.

The day had started off normally enough. I had parked Nacho in the driveway of the house where we were staying, and put on my VW surgeon’s gloves. During our last few weeks in Argentina our water purification system had sprung a leak somewhere under the floor. I had made the floor hinged so that almost the entire water system could be easily accessed, but there was one section under the rear seat where it was inaccessible. The leak, of course, sprung under the rear seat.

I started by removing the seat, and then went to work enlarging the opening in the false floor where the heater poked through. This would allow me to access the leak and get Nacho fixed right up, and would put an end to the water pouring out under our floor. Around midday we got a message from our new friend Teng Tsen.

“You’re going on TV tonight. Start driving to the IKEA, and someone will meet you on the freeway to show you where to go. There will be lots of Volkswagen people there, so bring Nacho. Dress business smart.”

I looked at Nacho. The rear seat was missing, the heater was balanced on its side, and the battery and inverter were delicately stacked on top of one another to power the Dremel tool, which was sitting next to a half-cut hole in the floor. Tools, wires, tubing, and tape were all stacked on the counters, and the various cabinets and storage boxes were all open and disheveled. Nacho wasn’t going anywhere.

With Nacho down for the count, Sheena and I put on our only clean clothes.

“Hey Sheena, what does business smart mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think these sandals are business smart?”

“Uh, probably not. Maybe you should wear your running shoes.”

Once we were business smart in our jeans and semi-clean, slightly wrinkled shirts and tennis shoes, we loaded up with our friends Seb and Soizic into Lavern’s hippie bus and lurched and sputtered onto the freeway.

Sure enough, near the IKEA Stephen waited for us on the side of the freeway, and then pulled out in front of us to lead the way to Studio 16. When we arrived the parking lot was full of old Volkswagen Beetles. We parked and were led to some tents where the cast and crew were eating Indian food. We settled in, filled our plates, and sat around looking business smart. Just then it began to rain, and soon it became a downpour.

While we ate, sheltered under the tents, we were brought up to speed. For this episode of The Apprentice, two teams had created marketing campaigns to promote the new Volkswagen Beetle. We would be in the audience, and would watch the teams present their commercials to some executives from Volkswagen, including a guy named Simon who apparently designed the new Beetle.

The production assistant poked her head out of the studio door and told us to get ready. We would walk into the studio in single file while the cameras rolled, and then we would sit down. My television debut! Should I strut, or maybe do more of a saunter? Should I smile? No, smiling doesn’t look very bad-ass. I would look straight ahead, dead-eyed like a catwalk fashion model. Yeah, that would look awesome. Oh man, this was going to be great! I’m going on TV! I’m going on TV!

Just then the awning above me reached its water-holding capacity and buckled, sending several gallons of rain water directly on top of me. Everyone stopped and looked at me. I felt like Carrie after the bucket of pig’s blood ruined her prom glory. My eyes looked left, twitched to the right, and then left again. My face still held a relic of a grin on it from when I was thinking about how awesome I would look when I walked in like a catwalk fashion model, but the grin had turned into a strained grimace. My matted hair stuck to my forehead and my business smart shirt clung to my back like a bag of pudding.

“Umm, I think it’ll dry in time,” someone whispered.

“All right everyone, enter on THREE…TWO…ONE…” The production assistant poked her head out the door, and then disappeared. The first person walked in, then the second and third, and then I was standing in front of the door. I looked around to see who wanted to go next, but everyone looked back at me expectantly. I clasped the door handle in my clammy, wet hand and pulled it open. My waterlogged business smart tennis shoes carried me down the aisle while I stared blankly ahead like some kind of emotionless, rat-like catwalk fashion model. I went to the front row, swiveled, and splashed down into a chair.

“Pssst! Pssst!” It was the production assistant. “You can’t sit there. That’s where the client sits!” she whispered.

Oh damn. The proverbial catwalk fashion model has twisted her proverbial ankle and proverbially fallen off of the catwalk into the crowd. I slowly stood up, looking as cool and business smart as possible, and sauntered back into the second row where Sheena sat patiently waiting for me to stop making an ass of myself.

The two competing teams took turns standing in front of first a new yellow Beetle, and then a new black Beetle, performing their commercials. After about an hour the teams had finished performing, we had finished our requisite audience shots, and it was time to leave. Everyone stood up and started filing out the doors when the production assistant pulled Sheena and me aside.

“Would you stay behind so we can shoot some additional material with you?” she asked.

“Of course,” we said. Aha! I must have nailed the dead-eyed catwalk fashion model impersonation after all! My TV debut was going great!

Back in the parking lot, the director asked us to stand in front of Lavern’s bus and tell him what we thought about each team’s performance. After explaining how corny we thought Team Apex was, the director had one more request.

“Okay, okay. Now we want you to look into the camera and say ‘You qualify, Beetle up!’ can you do that?” We were supposed to point at the camera with both fingers when we said “you qualify”, and then transition to two thumbs up when we said “Beetle up.” And all this after I had just gotten done reprimanding Team Apex for being corny.

“All right…ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!” we echoed.

“CUT! You were pointing while she was doing the thumbs up. Can we roll it again? Pointing first, then thumbs. ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!” we repeated.

“Wait, wait, I messed up again,” Sheena cried. “I pointed, but my thumbs were up at the same time like little guns. Let’s do it again.”

“Okay, two…one…ACTION!”

“You qualify, Beetle up!”

The last time everything went perfectly. We were in synch like a well-tuned boyband, our fingers pointed in harmony to the rolling camera, and then deftly transitioned to the thumbs-up position to the backdrop of our cheesy smiling faces. Our TV debut. Let’s just hope that the footage is lost in a building fire and never sees the light of day.

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Mar 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

Hand to Mouth

Like all of the businesses on the block, the lights were out.  All of the shop owners had migrated out to the streets, conversing with others, watching the night continue on.  We eventually left the moonlight and entered a restaurant that was five shades darker inside than the sky was outside.  A wall of heat and humidity built up like a sauna.  I wasn’t sure how this whole eating Indian food business in the dark would play out.  To even say that I fare well with popcorn in a movie theater would be an overstatement.  Yet, I would attempt the task if it meant I could eat this food once again.  Even without electricity, the cooks were working over their portable gas stoves, mixing curries and flipping dough for chapati in the air like pizza boys.

Just a few days earlier we had entered this same restaurant. After sleeping off a few hours of jet leg, we wandered outside sleepy eyed, using our instincts to move us in the right direction.  We passed by the sari shops, a man at a fold out table selling Indian snack foods, and a convenience store with its entire store contents on display through the glass window; everything from coconut oil for the hair to skin whitening lotion for the face.  Inside the restaurant, every plastic seat was filled with Indian friends and families, talking while nonchalantly mixing their rice and curry on sheets of banana leaf with their fingertips.  Their fingers, covered in curry and rice moved like worms through their food, until eventually they would pinch a pile of rice with their fingertips, and then, using their thumb, push the food off of their fingers and into their mouths.

Our young South Indian server leaned over our laminate table and lit a long flimsy candle, tipping it until the wax dripped off the end.  His dark chocolate face glowed in the candlelight, unfazed by the beads of sweat which broke into streams down his face.  Quickly he stuck the candle’s bottom in the melted wax until it dried upright in place.  His second candle tested his patience, continuously falling over.  His eventual success left him with a permanent smile; his head broke out into a solitude dance of side to side head bobs.  Hypnotized by the head bob and infatuated with our present life, I felt butterflies rush through my body, disbelieving that we were actually in Asia.

As we sat in the candlelight, close to invisible, my confidence began to rise.  I thought maybe tonight I would attempt to eat with my hands as my utensils.  And then, bam!  The lights were back on and the air conditioning was pumping.  Our waiter rushed over, head bobbing in excitement at our fantastic luck.  The candles were blown out.  Until next time.

While we waited with anticipation for Nacho to arrive on the boat to Kuala Lumpur, we explored a city of sky scrapers, high rises and a highway system that cobwebbed through every nook and cranny.  Mixed in with all of the modernity were enormous mosques where calls of prayer echoed through the air, Taoist temples rested, Buddhist temples stood vibrant with their red Chinese lanterns, and Hindu temples, such as Sri Mahamariamman, were surrounded by flower sellers displaying their chunky necklaces of marigolds and chains of jasmine to tie in the hair.

Just on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves housed yet another impressive Hindu shrine. An enormous statue of Lord Subramaniam towered over the steps leading up to the cave’s entrance in a towering limestone outcropping.  Entertaining monkeys scurried about, jumping through the trees and racing up the walls of the steps.  While they were wild, they were also very used to people and what exotic foods we carried.  One monkey did a quick hand grab, stealing from a tourist a bottle of Gatorade.  As she watched, the monkey punctured the plastic with its teeth, sucking the remains of the orange liquid into its mouth.

During small talk with our Indian taxi driver on the way to the Thai embassy, our conversation moved towards cuisine.

“Eating food with your hands tastes different!!  The Indians and the Malays, we eat with our hands.”  Mimicking the motion of eating food, he pinched all of his fingers together in the air, “It tastes so much better!   The Chinese know how to do it too.  They are very smart using the chopsticks and their hands.  But a spoon,” he wiggled his pointing finger from side to side, “That is no good.  You must try with hands!”  And by this he meant with his right hand.  Indians never use their left hand for eating. It is strictly reserved for more unsanitary purposes.

To our great fortune we met a wonderful group of Malaysians through two separate but intermingling Kuala Lumpur Volkswagon clubs.  Die hard Volkswagon lovers.  Die hard food lovers willing to show us their favorite restaurants and answer all of my dumb questions.  One of the members, Vijay, offered to make briyani; a traditional Indian dish of heavily spiced rice, meat and vegetables; and a rich, creamy platter of butter chicken.  Kannan, who just so happens to be the fourth ranked mixologist in the world, made up a couple of gallons of sangria, and the stage was set. At our host’s house, I dug my fingers into my food.   I don’t know if the food tasted so good because I was eating with my hands or if the chef was just that unbelievably good, but it was beautifully delicious.

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Mar 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

Malaysian Invasion

It’s early afternoon and the sun is high overhead, heating the humid air into a sauna that speckles our shirts with perspiration. Vines climb from the ground into the canopy of a tree, out across the limbs, and then dangle in the air above our heads.  We sit on a bench and watch people go by.  A Chinese couple passes, followed by several young Muslim women.  Their silk head scarves shade their faces from the hot sun while their smooth gait is tapped out on the sidewalk by their petite sandals.  They float smoothly along in their elegant silk gowns in such a way as to seem impervious to gravity.

The French say that by presenting ourselves artfully, our presence may add beauty to the world.  I can only imagine that they came to this conclusion after watching Muslim women walk.

The loudspeakers atop the mosque’s minarets crackle to life, and then a voice like a singing cello begins its steady, melodic rendition of the call to prayer.  The voice rings out over the city, a cappella, in an enchanting echo reminding Muslims that it’s time to find a peaceful place to face Mecca and pray.  We sit back and let the sound saturate us.  It reminds us that we’re far from home; that we’re in the Islamic world now.  We’re in Kuala Lumpur.

We amble along the sidewalk, shriveling in the heat, gulping the saturated air as though it’s liquid water.  Between two buildings a Hindu temple appears, adorned with hundreds of ornate statues of mystic blue gods.  From within the temple the rapidly shifting notes of a shehnai fill the street and the ground reverberates with the thud of a hand drum.  We kick off our sandals and walk inside to see where the music is coming from, and are met by a scene of pure jubilation.  Under the central pavilion men and women are dressed to the nines.  Musicians seated on the floor belt out wild instrumentals while flower petals are thrown and little girls in saris run through the canopy of cheerful adults.  It feels like a Bollywood dance scene will break out at any moment.

We have walked into a traditional Indian wedding!

The bride and groom are dressed in elaborate getups with headdresses, necklaces, jewels, and vibrant makeup.  In between trips around the shrine they are showered with flower petals and wafted with candle smoke, all the while surrounded by smiling family and friends.  We strike up a conversation with an older woman named Raji, who gives us the inside scoop about the bride and groom.  She seems to be the cheeriest person I’ve met in the last few weeks.  Everyone is like this.  The little girls run around in their saris handing out party favors to the guests.  Outside of the pavilion more guests eat curry and rice with their fingers, smiling in the sun.

Aristotle said that happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.  I can only imagine that he came to this conclusion after attending an Indian wedding.

In the late afternoon, Sheena and I hop on the metro.  As soon as Teng Tsen heard that we were in town, he called his Volkswagen club together for a proper welcome party.

“All right, we’ll see you at Sri Petaling station at 6:15. We’ll be the goofy looking Americans,” I’d written.

“I’m the good looking Malaysian…look out for the VW kombi!”

We emerge from the station to find Teng Tsen waiting for us in his sweet 1974 air-cooled VW kombi.  We load up and roll out with the windows down, a cool breeze filling the van.  We take a quick detour into a residential neighborhood where Seb and Soizic tag along in their 1966 split window VW bus.  Somehow, through the miracle of Asian chaos and coincidence, we meet up with the other members of the club in traffic on a busy freeway, and then slither as one big VW snake to a roadside food stand.

Over bowls of Yong Tau Foo we swap stories tell lies about our VW-related challenges and triumphs.  All the while, Sheena and I have to keep pinching ourselves.  Are we really in Asia?  Were we really just in South America?  It already seems like a lifetime ago, and Nacho hasn’t even arrived on the ship from Buenos Aires yet.

We load up again, this time in Seb’s van, and head out for cold drinks.  In a parking lot we crowd around tables in folding chairs where we’re joined by more VW clubbers, and throw back several glasses of ice cold tropical juice.  The parking lot is packed with Beetles and kombis, and our table is equally packed with fun-loving Volkswagen people.  Try as we might, nobody will let us pay for anything.  “When you’re in our country, it’s our treat!” they say.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.  I can only imagine that she came to this conclusion after driving in a Volkswagen.

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