Thursday, March 28, 2013

Seeking Shelter

The other day, I walked home from the train station.

I know...that doesn't sound very interesting. But let me add that this is a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I've just figured out how to navigate around this major city via public transportation, all by myself. I feel highly accomplished and incredibly independent.

Anyway. As I exited the station in my neighborhood after a long day's adventures, I was swept along in a stream of commuters, past busy food stalls and out onto a street full of taxis, motorbikes, and cars. Enjoying my place in all this hustle bustle, I casually looked up. And then I noticed that the dark clouds of late afternoon were gathering overhead. Uh oh.

Sure enough, as I stepped out from the covered walkway, a few gentle raindrops assured me that a storm was quite possibly in the making. As I crossed over to the first and longest block of my four-block journey, I heard the distant rumble of thunder.

Well, no worries. Growing up in thunderstorm country, I learned that it's a simple matter to count the number of seconds between the lightning and accompanying thunder; as long as you can get to more than five, you're safe. Once the count gets to five, it's time to start taking the storm seriously, and at three, you need to be indoors.

My storm was registering at about a seven, so I wasn't alarmed. The rain was refreshing after the long hot day, so I tucked my phone into a plastic bag with some postcards I'd bought, and happily strolled on.

Within maybe ten steps, my mood changed. In a matter of seconds, my count had dropped to five. I moved my walking speed into overdrive, and began to wonder if I could make the ten-minute walk home before the storm unleaded its fury.

By the end of that long first block, I had my answer: no way. My count had dropped to three, the sidewalks were ominously empty, and I began to look desperately for shelter.

A bolt of lightning split the sky overhead as I realized my only option: one short block away was the neighborhood mosque. I crossed the deserted street at a full sprint, and headed into the mosque parking lot, my mind spinning with confusing thoughts.

Because here's the thing. Islam is a religion of kindness and peace, and my Muslim friends love and accept me just as much as I do them. But the simple truth is that mosques don't always take kindly to uninvited non-Muslim guests. And as a rain-drenched mat salleh in shorts and a tank top, I didn't want to push my luck. But I needed protection and somehow, this mosque was going to give it to me.

The solution to my problem revealed itself immediately. The roof line of the building was wide, and the pavement underneath was dry. My eyes found a niche where two walls met at a right angle, and I ran to this little protected space as my storm count fell to zero.

I huddled there for a heart-pounding half hour, as the tropical thunderstorm raged without mercy, directly overhead. At first, I was pretty darn scared, and I'm not ashamed to say that I prayed pitifully for protection.

But as I pressed myself against those yellow cinder block walls, feeling their strength behind me, I realized that God had already answered my prayer. The One True God, father of Muslims and Christians alike, had offered the mighty fortress of his Islamic place of worship to a soggy Christian seeking shelter from a storm.

And that comforting thought made me feel very safe indeed.

* * * * *

To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Seafood Heaven

To cap off another lovely weekend in Melaka, I went out with my host's big family for a seafood dinner.

That's all I knew, going into it.

But once we arrived, I learned in quick succession a series of interesting facts.

1. This restaurant was sitting on the side of the sea. Well, the Straits of Malacca, to be exact. Imagine my surprise when I walked onto the dining space and glanced out past the rows of tables and chairs. I was expecting to see maybe a parking lot or a few palm trees, but found that vast lovely water instead. I felt like I was dreaming.

* * * * *

2, At the far end of the dining area was a small tropical wood, complete with a boardwalk, perfect for taking a pre-dinner stroll. And when one of my companions suggested we do just that, I was thrilled. However, upon taking maybe five steps out onto the path, we realized that the trees were alive with wild monkeys. Hungry wild monkeys. The type who aggressively beg for food. So we beat a hasty retreat back to our table and enjoyed our little patch of jungle from a safe distance.

* * * * *

3. In order to eat at this place, we had to catch our own fish. Or at least choose the ones we wanted to eat from big icy tables heaped with a dizzying array of fresh-caught seafood. It turns out that my host has quite an eye for selecting proteins, and with the help of his fisheries-major brother-in-law, they filled our shopping baskets with squid, prawns, grouper, crab, sting ray, and who knows what else. I had never seem, let alone considered eating, most of those beasts, and my brain could barely keep up with all the options presented and choices that were being so quickly made. In a word, I was speechless.

* * * * *

4. Back to the table we went to wait while our feast was prepared. Not surprisingly, an impromptu photo shoot materialized. With the irresistible lure of the omnipresent camera phones, pre-meal group shots are commonplace here in Malaysia, just like at home. But what made this session so special is that I have seen dozens of this family's restaurant shots, and it is still an honor and a thrill for me to find myself posing among them. Quick, pinch me. Is this really happening?

* * * * *

5. Finally, the platters began to arrive and I honestly have no words to describe the variety, beauty and downright deliciousness of this food. I couldn't even gather enough of my wits to take pictures; the ones I've posted here were taken by others. And once I started eating, I simply couldn't stop. Each bite was more tender, juicy, flavorful and soul-satisfying that the last, and I'm afraid I ate much more than I should have. I also drank four glasses of guava juice. No regrets.

Someday, I will get to heaven, and I have no doubts that feasts just like that one will await me. This amazing seafood meal was most certainly a foretaste of the feast to come.

Special photo credit to Xeera, who always keeps her camera at the ready.

* * * * *

To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Melaka/Malacca: A Family Affair

Twenty-four hours after my first trip to the historic Malaysian state of Melaka/Malacca, I went back for more. This time, I was in the fine company of my host and his family, visiting the beautiful country home of his father-in-law for the weekend. After a relaxing Friday night and a Saturday morning full of food, we set off to the city of Melaka,to see the sights once again.

Like any good remix, this second trip took the best parts of the original and stirred them up with some new and surprising twists and turns. This time, in addition to climbing the hill to St. Paul's Church, looking down the barrels of the cannons at A Formosa, and enjoying the city lights at night, we hiked down the souvenir-packed streets of Jonker Walk,and ate dessert in the most crowded Chinese restaurant imaginable.

Oh, and we did it all with a three-year-old companion, too. That will keep any event interesting.

Archtectural detail in classic Melakan style.
As we looked at this old home in the city, my hosts told me a true story. The matriach of their family owned a beautifully crafted traditional Malay home. But in her old age, the government confiscated her land to build an expressway ramp. She was forced out and her gorgeous old home was razed. It's very sad that her home is gone, but I'm glad we saw this house, with so many similar details, so that I can imagine what her place must have been like.
Posing near historic stuff. 
Cannons always make a photo better. So do bored little girls.
I found this giant red heart-shaped leaf and shared with my little friend when she was having an unhappy moment in her stroller.
The lovely Xeera and I hiked up the hill to visit the old church and take several billion photos. 
I have a penchant for old brick walls. And I love the geometry of this ancient place - triangles, circles and squares. The clean shapes lend a modern feel  and I love that juxtaposition.
My feet, Xeera's feet, on the ancient stones.
Love those thick walls. They keep out the invaders' cannonballs like nobody's business.
A door within a doorway.
A look out the window to the city beyond. I tried to imagine how this view might have looked back in the day when the jungle crept right up the hillside, but honestly, it was more than my mind's eye could create.
Jonker Walk is a street in Melaka that is often turned into a rowdy marketplace. Selling all manner of trinkets, clothing, souvenirs and food, one could wander here for hours, as long as they weren't inadvertently trampled. 
We ducked into a Chinese restaurant for a bite to eat. This is cendol, a sweet icy treat. Mine is the one on the right, without the durian topping. 
A serious fan of cendol.
Happy to be eating.
The view from my seat. 
When we ventured back out to the street after our meal, the sun had set and Jonker Walk was alive with night lights. 
I wonder if someone lives up here. Maybe this is their bedroom window, and they look down on Jonker Walk every night before they fall asleep. 
More windows, more potential bedrooms, more possibly sleepless residents. 
Almost back to the car, we had one last sight to see. Goodnight, Melaka/Malacca!

* * * * *

To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Human Nature

After a few weeks of Malaysian city life, I was definitely feeling ready to get in touch with nature, jungle style.

Enter Hammie, avid outdoorsman and tour guide extraordinaire.

He took me to Putrajaya, administrative capital city of Malaysia, where we visited a lakeside park and then a botanical garden.

I'm a fan of any kind of outdoor place that has trails and pathways winding to and fro, interlaced with stairways and bridges, terraces and boardwalks. I love that sense of changing textures under my feet, and the excitement of wondering what I will discover around the next bend.

That is exactly what I found at the botanical garden, along with about forty billion plants, palm trees galore,  and a giant sundial. It was a fabulous place for an adventure and I would go back in a heartbeat.

But best of all was to be outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air, enjoying the early morning sights and smells of the tropics. Thank you, Ham, for satisfying my need for nature!

After a morning of natural beauty, I braced myself to return to the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur at noon. But I was treated to this lovely reflection of tree and sky in a glass building, and felt not so far from nature after all.

Kama Zaid Is A Pussycat

{Pussycat: a person or thing not at all threatening, despite a gruff exterior. }

* * * * * 

I'm often asked if my Malaysian friends turned out to be who I thought they would be.

We all met online, of course. Years ago. And now we are meeting face to face, and living our lives together.

My answer is a resounding, "Yes!" There may be plenty of catfishing going on out there in the World Wide Web, but not among my friends. They are all exactly as I expected them to be.

Well. With one notable exception.

Kama Zaid.

See, for all these years, Kama has led me to believe that he"s a big tough guy. Oi! bands, ska music, football and fist fights; that's what he likes to talk about. He works in an oil refinery, eats like a horse, and sports some outrageous scars from the many motorcycle accidents he has survived.

And now that I've met him in real life, I can say that all those things are true. He didn't lie.

But there is something about Kama that he never told me, and I'll be honest- knowing this new fact completely changes my opinion of him.

Ready for the secret?

Kama Zaid loves kitties.

Oh sure, he now admits to me that he feeds a few strays. But he insists that they are not HIS cats. Really, he says, it's no big deal.

Yeah, right.

The truth is that Kama not only feeds a family of six cats, but he also gives them the run of his house. And he gets all the way down on the floor, that big, bulky, supposedly unsentimental giant of a man, and he pets the kitties. And plays with them. And smiles at them in a way that totally reveals his tender, cat-loving heart.

It's really cute.

And while I'm a little bit mad at him for hiding this part of himself from me, I've decided to forgive him.

Because I'm a little bit of a pussycat, too. Just like Kama Zaid.

* * * * * 

More stories about a giant hamster named Kama Zaid, coming right up:

More Melaka/Malacca

* * * * *

To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


It should come as no surprise that my camera roll is jam-packed with photos of delicious Malaysian food. Here are a few of the tasty meals I've enjoyed in the past three weeks.

But what is odd is that I did not capture a photo of my favorite meal so far. So I will describe it with words instead.

The night before last, I went with my wonderful host and another special friend to Kampung Baru on the spur of the moment to eat a late supper at one a.m. Why so late? Because one a.m. is the time when the restaurant begins to serve a special meal called Nasi Dagang.

Hmm. I need to explain three things:

1. Kampung Baru is a traditional, old-fashioned Malay village that sits in the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur, literally in the shadows of the postmodern Petronas Towers. Despite many offers to buy the land, the village authorities refuse to sell out to the city, and so this scrappy, colorful little neighborhood lives on. Of all the places I've seen in Malaysia so far, Kampung Baru might be my favorite.

2. Nast Dagang was one of the first Malaysian foods I ever heard of, and I've been dying to try it for a long time. I attempted to make it at home, but my American adaptation lacked several key local ingredients and definitely fell short. Ever since I arrived here, I've been looking forward to tasting the real deal.

3. As many of my American friends and family can attest, I love spontaneous late-night adventures, especially when food is involved. I have been known to cross state lines for an early breakfast, and once I drove over 600 miles/1000 km in the middle of the night to Redding, California simply to eat a hamburger, and then drive back home. And the less planning, the better. So when my Malaysian friends cooked up this last-minute plan for a food-related outing, they totally hit my sweet spot.

* * * * *

Back to my Nasi Dagang adventure. The evening quickly became a perfect storm of spontaneous late-night fun with dear friends at a fascinating locale, and a great big plate full of yummy food.

Which just happens to be my idea of the perfect way to spend an evening, no matter which side of the planet I'm on.

And now you know why I didn't take a pic of my meal; I was having too much fun!

My first teh tarik, or steamed tea. Sweet, frothy, and yummy.

My first plate of roti canai, taken for breakfast on my first morning in Malaysia. The simple flat bread is served with a curry sauce for dipping, or as I've learned, for spreading on top of the bread with a spoon. Simple, satisfying and delicious.

Several choices of ayam and sauces, served mamak style at Las Pelitas. Merey Fitz chose my dinner for me this time.

A shocking heap of dessert called ABC. From the top down, it's chocolate ice cream, fruit-flavored shaved ice, bits of fruit, sweet red beans and rice, and a thick syrup. The locals like to stir it all together into a sweet soup, but I like to eat it in layers.

My first nasi lemak, served to me by Muahaha and Pija. It's rice, of course, with spicy seasonings and a hard-boiled egg. A super popular breakfast.

My first taste of budu. A fermented fish sauce favored by the Kelantanese, it was lighter, more delicate taste than I expected. I rather liked it.

Another Kelate specialty, nasi kerabu. Easy to pick this dish out because of the distinctive blue rice. Like pretty much every other dish in Malaysia, the different ingredients are meant to be ripped into small pieces and mixed together before eating. I especially liked the crunchy bits of raw vegetable.

Fresh fish on ice in the grocery store.

My first go with Kelantanese desserts: pumpkin served with a sweet, heavy syrup, a sweet corn porridge, and several sweet and sticky combinations of banana, coconut, pandan, and rice. Did I say sweet three times? Yes, I did. Those Kelantanese chefs always go long on the sugar

Rambutan, a fresh fruit, served to me by the one and only Baby Boy. He knew I would be missing my fresh fruits from home, and he was exactly right. 

Squid on the left, sea bass in the middle, local vegetables on the right. Prepared for me by Baby Boy, and delicious beyond words,

Rolled and roasted chicken, served to me in a KL restaurant by my amazing host, Jurie. Interestingly, this restaurant was the scene of one of my favorite photos of my friends taking a meal together; I've always dreamed of eating here. But since the restaurant has been recently remodeled, I didn't even recognize my surroundings until the meal was over. 

The aftermath of a devastatingly delicious seafood meal taken with the irrepressible Kama Zaid. The fried squid was to die for.

Fresh, chilled cocomut milk, taken straight from the shell, tasted delicious after a long uphill hike to Batu Caves with Lokhman

Handmade potato chips, eaten by me in mass quantities at the home of Ears and Bahiyah. So fresh and good!

A lovely breakfast treat of orange juice and chocolate walnut bread, bought specially for me by the lovely Xeera. She knows exactly what I'm craving.

A tomyam feast at Uptown Shah Alam with Muahaha, Pija and Baby Ramona. I was especially fond of that fish...a mackerel, I do believe.

A common appetizer provided at Malaysian restaurants, this is fish paste wrapped in a corn husk-like leaf, and roasted over an open fire. Strange texture but a rich flavor.

Fresh homegrown limes and a red onion in the kitchen of my host's mother-in-law. 

Stir fried soy bits and long beans. 

A local favorite and specialty of my host's mother-in-law, these are basically homemade potato chips. Poor Xeera slaved over a hot stove for literally hours so I could feast on these morsels and I sure appreciate it.

Dried squid, about to be cut into bite size pieces and soaked overnight for the morning's nasi lemak. 

A cool and creamy ice cream-like dessert taken at Jonker Walk in Melaka. I opted for the durian-free version.

After a long weekend of hard eating, this cheese naan is just what I needed to calm my overstimulated stomach. And a Coke, please.

Tasty pastries from a bakery near the train station. Some Malaysian baked goods look just like their American counterparts; others, like the ones stuffed with hot dogs, are surprisingly different.

I'll be honest. I've loved almost every single dish I have tried here in Malaysia, and I'm very much enjoying the adventure of new foods. But every now and then, I need to make a run to 7 Eleven for some Cokes and potato chips. I've also developed a craving for Tripicana Twisters - a super pulpy orange juice - and a local sports drink called 100 Plus. .