Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Langkawi: Ode To A Waterfall

-Robert Frost

Lunch by the beach, by the ocean shore.
Full of laksa and fruit juice, but still wanting more.

Ready to venture inland and find
A fresh, clear waterfall, best of its kind.

My trip to Malaysia won't be complete
Till I visit a waterfall and refresh my feet.

Tropical Langkawi is lush and green
Waterfalls here are easily seen.

So off we four went, brave and bold
Determined to swim in a waterfall cold.

Deep in the jungle, our target we spied
But what's this? It seems that our waterfall's dried

Up in a drought. Its flow is a trickle.
If we tried to dive in, we'd be in a pickle.

No swimming for us. My friends gave up hope
Hiked back to the car to end this sick joke.

But I was content to linger a while.
This tiny fall still brought me a smile.

The rocks under water were cool and smooth
I waded on top of them without my shoes.

And while this waterfall may not have been the best
It was sufficient to put my splashy dreams to rest.

I'm glad for my visit. I'm happiest of all
To say that I've seen a Malaysian waterfall.

* * * * *

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

Langkawi: Four New Friends

“All for one and one for all.” 

After almost two months of exploring city life in Kuala Lumpur, I was ready for an outdoor adventure. An invitation came to me from a far-flung Facebook frind with whom I had lost touch. When Nana heard I was here in Malaysia, she quickly and efficiently planned a visit to take me, along with her roommate and her boyfriend, to her home state of Kedah, and more specifically, to Langkawi.

I'll be honest; I was a little hesitant to accept the offer. I would not only be taking a chance by committing myself to a three-day holiday with three perfect strangers, but I would be six hours away from my host's safety net and the comfort of my known friends.

However, three facts prompted me to take a leap of faith:

Fact #1: Langkawi is a group of islands off the northwest corner of Malaysia. Unlike all the other beaches on the west coast of this country, these jewels are located in the Indian Ocean rather than the Melaka Straits. That means their waters are pure turquoise blue and their beaches are soft golden sand, like the most stereotypically beautiful island paradise you could ever imagine.

Fact: #2:  My favorite outdoor activities in the world are swimming, boating, playing in the ocean, and snow skiing. Although severely lacking in alpine sports, Langkawi promised to offer me plenty of fun.

Fact #3:: Due to time constraints,  Nana suggested that I take a quick flight up to Langkawi rather than make the bus trip with her. Now I love a good road trip, by bus or by car, but if there is anything more exciting that hopping on a plane all by myself to start a weekend jaunt on the other side of the world, please let me know what that might be.

So that is how I found myself on a Saturday morning Malaysia Airlines flight to Langkawi, with my swimsuit and towel packed at the top of my bag, ready to join three new friends on a mysterious adventure.

^ Colorful seat covers added to my party mood.

^ Flying north up the western coast of Malaysia, I saw this thin silver sliver and knew immediately what it was. Bridge to Penang!

^ Gorgeous islands of Langkawi, I love you already!

^ Forget about securing tray tables and stowing my personal items. I just want to leap out the window of my descending aircraft and play on that golden beach.

The fifty-minute flight north was perfect. I ate two bags of salted peanuts, saw the bridge to Penang from the air, and shared gasps of delight with my eleven-year-old red-headed seatmate as the islands of Langkawi came into sight.

He was a Hollander, currently living in India, traveling to Langkawi with his parents and younger sister for a weekend holiday. The jet skis zooming around the islands brought him to the edge of his seat; when our plane passed over a huge go-kart track, I thought he might faint. I asked him if he was as excited as I was, and he said, "YES!" with a delightfully crooked smile.

* * * * *

After a few logistical hiccups, I met my new companions. They all seemed very nice; maybe a little shy, but that's to be expected with an American in the group. We quietly made our way toward our first event which was island hopping. We headed down to the waterfront, shepherded ourselves into a low, flat, wooden boat with a big outboard motor and a blue plastic canopy, and zoomed out across the choppy water.

Honestly, I had no idea what we were doing. No one tells me these things in Malaysia. I just go along and see what happens next. Usually, it works out to be fun.

At our first stop, we hiked along a paved trail, past a group of menacing monkey thugs, up and over the spine of an island until we came to a glorious fresh water lake.

Oh, wait. No one told me to bring a swimsuit. I was so sad to think I would be missing out.

I explained my predicament to my new Muslim friends.

"Swim in your clothes," they told me. Then they giggled.

Well. They were wearing lightweight long-sleeved shirts and thin warm-up pants, a typical swimming outfit for their culture. But I was wearing jean shorts and a white tank top. Surely they couldn't expect me to swim in that?

"Your clothes will dry in the boat." They giggled some more, clearly amused at my naivete.

As I stood on the dock, my mind reeling at the idea of swimming in such an unsuitable outfit, I noticed that 99% of the people in the water were wearing regular clothes. The only people I saw wearing official swimsuits were white tourists.

Without another thought, I jumped in.

^ A glorious inland island lake. I felt exactly like I was in a dream.

^ Wet jean shorts. Ugh. But the heavenly swim was worth every minute of chafing discomfort.

^ Hiking back up and over to our waiting chariots. Hi, Izzah!

^ Oh hay, Arman and Nana, watch out for the killer monkeys.

^ The last few precious steps in the shade.

^ Our boats and the fearless captains awaited us in the harbour. 

^ Back out to the sea for more adventures!

After a glorious hour of gliding around the cool waters of the jungle, we trudged our drippy selves back over to the ocean side, and took in the scenery while waiting for our boat driver to reappear. Without warning, I was attacked by a mob of four tiny, brown, highly excited women. Cameras popped out of everyone's bag, and suddenly a major photo session was in progress.

Oh, it's so funny to be a white person in southeast Asia.

^ This photo is not okay. 

^ Hiding in the shadows of a very large rock.

^ The horizon line looks so much like my homeland's breathtaking San Juan Islands.

^ Entering the eagle-feeding zone.

Back in our boat, we zoomed in and out among the one hundred islands of Langkawi - they say that when the tides are high, there are only ninety-nine - until we headed to the back of a particular inlet. The driver cut the engine and we glided to a stop, and I realized we were surrounded by eagles feeding nearby.

Oh. I'd heard of this. These were not American bald eagles, but lovely nonetheless. I loved being out on the water in silence, noiselessly floating and drifting in the current.

Our third and final stop was my favorite. More swimming, but this time in the ocean on a proper beach. And while we were still surrounded by the green hill-covered trees, to one side was a beautiful view of the wide open ocean.

^ Soft golden sands of a beach on the Indian Ocean. Awesome.

^ Crystal clear waters that were as warm as a bath.

^ The boats waited patiently for us to take a nice long swim, but I wanted to stay forever.

Eventually we loaded back into our boats, and made our way back to the starting point of our island-hopping journey. My little band of companions, Nana, Izzah, Arman, and I had bonded together, and we climbed up to the pier with a new camaraderie and easy comfort between us.

I love when that happens.

^ Yo, Nana's got a full bottle of water. I'm sticking with her.

^ More happy island-hoppers returning to land.

^ Stairs from the water to the pier.

^ Proof that I was here. Just in case I later think that I dreamed the whole afternoon. 

^ The man-made scenery from the pier was interesting, but hard to compare with what I had just seen.

^ My post-island hopping self, ready for more Langkawi fun with my four new friends.

* * * * *

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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Outing With Pjoe And Amy

Last Friday, I met a girlfriend for lunch.

We shopped for a bit, then met up with her husband, also a friend of mine, for dinner and a sporting event.

Sounds like a perfectly ordinary, all-American social event, doesn't it? With slight variations, I've played out that scenario dozens of times in my life.

But this was the first time I've ever done it in Malaysia. And the entire outing, from our McDonalds midday meal to our post-game photo shoot, was simultaneously comfortingly familiar and completely surreal. I loved every confusing, interesting, perplexing and happy minute of my outing with Pjoe and Amy.

^ A McChicken in Malaysia tastes exactly like a McChicken in the US of A. But Malaysians can eat their sandwiches with curly fries?! So not fair.

^ After lunch, Amy invited me up to her office to while away the last few hours of her work day. This is the view from her floor's conference room, where she suggested I take a nap. Brilliant woman, Amy.

^ And when I woke up around five p.m., the view was even more spectacular.

^ On our way downstairs, we changed into our team gear. Gomo Kelate Gomo!

^ After a train ride to Shah Alam and a rendezvous with Pjoe, we had a fabulous pre-game meal. 

^ Pinch me, I'm dreaming. Look at all those Happy Warrior fans!

^ I've seen countless photos of my friends inside this stadium and it's soooo surreal to be here myself!

^ Sunflower seeds are a staple stadium snack. Just like at home. 

^ Amy wears Toms.

^ The match is not going well, and their body language speaks in universal phrases.

^ Football matches are a family affair.

^ Love the way this young'un is angling for a comfortable spot.

^ And this little gamer has just zoned out. 

^ Alas, the final score isn't what we hoped for.

^ But we made the best of things with a post-game photo shoot.

^ Standing on orange seats with my girl, Amy. A perfect ending to our day.

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

For more stories about stadium sports, check out:

Malaysian Sunshine

I'm having a wonderful time here in Malaysia. Everywhere I turn, there is an interesting adventure or a plate of delicious food held out to me. I'm welcomed everywhere I go. My friends are kind, generous, thoughtful hosts, and I'm thankful to them beyond words.

But every now and then, an odd thing happens. Maybe it's due to Islamic self-restraint, Malay shyness, or the intimidating presence of a pale American, but sometimes I am treated with what feels to me like a cool indifference. Now and then, I find myself feeling left out, overlooked, maybe even downright ignored.

To tell the truth, sometimes it really hurts my feelings.

However, I have an antidote to these painful situations.

Her name is Aleesya.

The daughter of my primary host, three-year-old Aleesya loves me with abandon. When she returns home from an outing without me, I hear the front door crash open and her forceful little voice calling out to me: "Auntie Diane!!" That always makes me smile.

And Aleesya beams with delight when she finds me. Grabbing my hand, she pulls me wherever she wants me to go, communicating with facial expressions and gestures when our shared vocabulary of English and Malay words runs dry. We eat, we play, we draw, we bathe her, we talk, we laugh, we sing endless songs together. I enjoy Aleesya's company immensely, and judging by the hugs, snuggles, smiles, and hand-holding she bestows upon me, I'd say the feeling is mutual.

I know that all my Malaysian friends, young and old, old and new, love me in their own way. And when their behavior is confusing or hurtful to me, I'm learning to look past the present circumstances and write it off as a cross-cultural hiccup.

But still, I'm grateful for my little friend Aleesya, who pours our her affection for me like the warm, golden Malaysian sunshine. I don't know what I'd do without her.

^ Budding young architect shows off her chops.

^ Shampoo hairstyles. This is my signature up-do.

^ Underwear tudung. Very chic.

^ I love this (blurry) picture of Aleeysa's chubby little hand making pink dots for all she's worth. But even better, I love the reflection of her face, focused in concentration, captured in the white board.

^ At Aleeysa's request, I drew a pair of father-daughter portraits. Without comment, she grabbed another marker and gave them both red beards. Then she laughed at her own hilarious cleverness, and attacked them with an eraser, while I hurried to capture her artistry. 

^ Another indoor playground session, This time, Aleesya instructed me to help her line up these oversize blocks, then she delighted in hopping along the ridge, whooping like a cowgirl at a rodeo.

^ Of all our playtimes, giving Aleesya her baths might be my favorite. Not only do we enjoy pouring, dumping and splashing water every which way in her waterproof Malaysian bathroom, but that cool, refreshing water always puts Aleesya in a fabulously sunny mood. 

* * * * *

For more stories about my favorite Malaysian playmate, Aleesya, read these:

Day One
Malaysian Memories: Part Two

* * * * *

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