Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Good Time

Welcome to Kota Bharu! Yes, on my very first weekend back In Malaysia, I was presented with an unexpected opportunity to travel through space and time to this Kelantanese never-never land, tucked up in the far reaches of the Malaysian countryside. 

And what a weekend it was.  Unplanned in every sense of the world, I found myself in a fascinating array of places and situations. 

After flying in to the local airport through a pounding thunderstorm, my first hours on the ground were spent cruising through neighborhoods with my host's eldest sister, Linda, and her family, as we picked up assorted relatives here and delivered them there. Many of the passing faces were familiar and it was great fun to watch their ordinary expressions shift in surprise as they gradually made out my pale face in the back of the dark car. Most people did not know that the American would be in town. 

I spent a pleasant night at Linda's house where I shared a bedroom and some sweet if simple conversation with her darling eleven-year-old daughter. The next morning, after watching mother help daughter into her prettiest dress and headscarf, we headed to off to a housewarming party. 

The party was held at the brand new home of my host's second-eldest sister, Yantie, and her family. I volunteered for kitchen duty and soon found myself sitting on the floor in my fancy baju kurung, preparing limes for the drinks, slicing desserts into servings, and chit-chatting with the other women. I love it when I fit in. 

By mid-afternoon, I was ready to move. Off I went, all by myself, to my hotel room in central Kota Bharu where I got myself settled, put out some texts to nearby friends, and sat down to wait. I had no idea what might happen next. 

The answer came soon enough. My friend, Juwe, resolved a handful of transportation problems and soon showed up on my doorstep to take me out and around the city. We walked for several hours, taking breaks to eat, enjoy the scenery, take photos, and eat some more. 

While I love the vibrant colors and gritty vibe of the streets of KB, I especially enjoyed my up-close-and-personal visit with the muddy Kelantan River. 

The next day, I spent time with my other friend named Juwe, who lives in KL and happened to be back in his hometown for a wedding. Interestingly, the two Juwes are best friends from childhood and it was an unexpected treat for me to spend time with the two of them together. 

As afternoon drifted into evening, the second Juwe and I rejoined his wife and children, who I've met before, as well as his mother, two brothers, one sister-in-law, three nephews and one darling niece. I enjoyed a long conversation with one brother about local tourist sites, and looked at a billion of his photos. During dinner, I totally hit it off with the sister-in-law who is a math teacher, just like me, and a beautiful speaker of English. The food, as usual, was to die for. 

By Sunday morning, all that was left to do was meet up with my host's big family for a nice nasi breakfast, and then begin the long journey back to the real world in faraway KL. 

Thanks for the memories, KB. I never know what to expect from you but you always show me a good time. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Friends Forever

The first time I stood beneath these behemoths, the twin Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, I was a newcomer to this side of the planet. Awestruck and culture-shocked, I was entirely dependent on my Malaysian host and entourage to keep me safe. 

Such a noob. 

Over the course of that first visit, I found myself in the shadow of the towers countless times. I got familiar with the nearby mall and park: I learned to navigate public transportation so I could come and go independently, I became quite comfortable bouncing here and there around the city by myself, using the Petronas icons as my Ground Zero and North Star. 

So on the third day is my second visit to Malaysia, when I found myself reunited with the skyscrapers, the circumstances and emotions were interestingly reversed. 

I came by myself, comfortable to spend an afternoon here while my host was occupied. 

I experienced a rush of fond memories and happy hours spent here in the past. 

I was confident and certain that I could handle myself here in the heart of bustling KL. 

I felt very much at home. 

So, Petronas Towers, you are no longer intimidating symbols of a foreign land to me. You are securely woven into the fabric my life's story, and i know we will be friends forever.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Nik's Food Stall

After finishing up a traditionally hearty and filling Kelantanese breakfast of nasi (rice) and spicy chicken, my host cheerfully announced, "you're going to eat Kelantanese twice today. We're going to Nik's stall for lunch."

Well, my stomach groaned and said, "Are you insane?!" but the rest of me got excited right away. Nothing beats eating delicious Malaysian food cooked by my talented friends, so happily I followed along in pursuit of my next great meal 

^ Nik Hafiz, one of the famous Nik brothers whose parents gave them all the same first name, was just setting up his stall for the day as we rolled in. He quickly built an impressive cooking fire and got to work in the chicken. 

^ His sweet and pregnant wife set up most everything else. When I arrived, I found her sitting in the truck with the engine on and the AC blasting as she sliced cucumbers in the back seat. That's luxurious living for a hard-working stall owner. 

^ Kelantanese pots of delicious mystery. I never know exactly what's inside but I can count on enjoying it. 

^ After the initial rush of excitement, we sat down for the long, hard task of waiting for our lunch to cook. Four-year-old Aleesya and I entertained ourselves by making pictures with bits of dried leaves. 

^ And my host carefully monitored the social networks for any signs of disturbance in the Force. 

Eventually our plates were filled and we ate with abandon. The chicken was moist and flavorful; the rice comforting, the spices packed plenty of pow. Even if my protesting stomach was still full of breakfast, this was a meal to savor.

 ^ And the sweet black stay kitty who was presented with the leftovers heartily agreed.

Moving On To Malaysia

My little feeties on the ground in Saigon, Vietnam, where I changed planes for Malaysia.  Polka dot rocks? Yes, please. 

On Momday, June 2, after exactly two enjoyable weeks in Danang, Vietnam, I tossed most of my belongings into a suitcase, left a hunk of coral and a handful of tropical shells in my third-born's care, and boarded a plane for Kuala  Lumpur.   

I mean, as long as I'm in the Southeast Asian neighborhood of my Malaysians, it would be rude not to drop by, right? 


As I write this, I'm already almost two weeks into my four-week visit here in Malaysia. Yep, I'm having a hard time keeping up with everything that is going on. 

But so it goes here on the other side of the planet. Life is a fire hose of adventures, adjustments, and  acclimations, and I am busy trying to drink my fill. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Hoi An: City Of Light

After a long afternoon spent exploring the sunny streets and sparkling sands of Hoi An, our adventure was not over at sunset     

In fact, one might say that the party had just begun. 

Because when the sun goes down and the skies turn to shadow, the lights of Hoi An come alive. 

^ First to be noticed but hardest to capture are the delightfully abundant lanterns that decorate the city streets and buildings. Their effect is magical, and that's just plain fact. Photos don't do the scenes justice but these shots of lanterns displayed for sale help portray the general mood. 

^ The quiet waters of the Hoi An Ruver lend another dimension to the shining display. As we stopped at a cafe to share a slice each of coconut cake and chocolate cheesecake, our riverside view was intoxicating. As I sampled both deserts, I played with my camera and tried to decide which photographic effect I preferred. 

The verdict on both dilemmas?

It's all good. 

^  And as we wove our way through the narrow streets toward our motorbikes, we came across one more layer of lovely light. 

Two chubby-cheeked boys, probably six years old, dressed in traditional costumes, were eating bowls with chop sticks in front of these glowing luminaries.  

Now granted, the adorableness factor was carefully cultivated to separate us from our cash, and you know, it worked. We bought one of the candlelit luminaries and watched quietly as it traveled about five feet across the dark water and crashed into a fleet of other doomed luminaries. 

Far more satisfying was our long moonlit ride home. As the dark ocean breezes cooled me off, I reflected back on the day's sights and cherished my beautiful day in Hoi An, city of light. 


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hoi An: Golden Sand And Sky

After a happy afternoon spent exploring the yellow village of Hoi An, our little party of four jumped back on our motorbikes and headed to the local beach. Sharing the sands with seemingly half the population, of Vietnam, we ate a mind-blowing picnic of crispy Pringles and cold Dr Pepper, then wandered along the shore and snapped these golden photos. 

As the sun dropped toward the western horizon, I was hoping for a brilliant seaside sunset. 

 ^ But alas, this was the best that our vantage point could afford. 

So we gathered up our disappointment and our sandy shoes and drove our bikes back Into town.

Along the way, we crossed a narrow bridge over a channel of water and as I glanced to my right, my heart stopped beating. 

The sunset view was a golden glory. Desperately, I groped through my mind for a way to signal my companions ahead of me to stop for a photo. But I knew I was helpless to contact them and set my heart to be content with one last lingering gaze at the stunning scene. 

Imagine my surprise and delight when, at that very instant, I saw our leader, my daughter's boyfriend, make a quick merge, stopping his bike at the side of the bridge with plenty of room for the rest of us to join him.  

Our golden moment was captured in this sweet shot:

And this one, too. Thanks, Ky!

Hoi An: Yellow

Hoi An is a historic, picturesque and tourist-friendly town just a half hour south of Danang. It is also a gorgeous study in the color yellow. Feast your eyes. 

Banh Xeo: It's What's For Dinner

There is nothing I like better than to eat an authentic meal in the natural setting of another culture. 
And this Vietnamese feast of Banh Xeo - pronounced bon SAY-oh - is as legit as they come. I ate it on my first night In Danang and again after our trip to the Marble Mountains, and both experiences wre delicious and real. 
The first challenge is to find the place. The journey begins with the usual mind-boggling  series of twists and turns through the crowded streets of the city. Then we head down an alley.

Well, it starts out as a normal alley, by American standards. Wide enough for a car to traverse, with a little room to spare. But within a few dozen yards, this alley narrows, and then narrows again, until it seems that even my tiny motorbike will jam between its walls, hopelessly stuck forever. 

But of course, we somehow pass through and park our bikes...where? In the back corner of a minuscule kitchen. We step through a tiny doorway to find... a dining room.  A family dining room, jammed with small tables and chairs,  and on the wall, a painting of Jesus dressed up like a king. 

The first time we visit, in the late evening, the tables were hopelessy cluttered, the floor covered with litter and the whole room of questionable sanitary condition. The second time, when we arrive in mid-afternoon, the room was neat and clean. In any case, I survived both meals so there's that. 

As soon as we arrive, family members whisk bowls and plates to our table. Fresh greens, pickled mango, slices cucumbers, and a red sauce that smells of oeanuts, as shown above. 

Soon the warm components arrive. Wooden skewers of spicy pork sausage. And little yellow taco-shaped thingys. I later learn that these are egg crepes filled with cooked shrimp and veggies. 

We also receive a plate full of...thin sheets of paper. Or so it appears. These are actually the edible wrappers that form the foundation of the Banh Xeo deliciousness  I learn to build this yummy treat as follows:

Take two wrappers, and lay them in your hand so they assume the shape of a small and very thin tortilla. 

Lay one of the crepe thingys in the middle of the wrappers. 

Top the crepe with a sausage. Just lay it on there, skewer and all. Then grab the sausage with the hand that is holding this entire contraption and hold firm. Whith your free hand, grasp the skewer and wiggle it free. But don't throw it away. You pay for Banh Xeo by the empty skewer so it's important to keep an accurate count. 

Ok now relax your grip on the handful of food and sprinkle the top of your creation with any and all of the fresh trimmings. 

Now it's time to eat. Roll the wrapper to create a tidy and tiny burrito-like bundle, then dip it in the sauce before each bite  

Rest and repeat. 

I ate four without even trying.

Goodness, they are heavenly. 

So if you find yourself in Danang, Vietnam and hankering for a native treat, I recommend the Banh Xeo without reservation. 

I would take you there myself, if only I could remember the way.