Friday, December 30, 2011

Chennai - Soaking Up the Atmosphere

This year we met Patrick Suzeau, an American choreographer who was on sabbatical in KL. He mentioned that he was coming to Chennai in December for an Indian dance festival. We checked Air Asia fares and decided "why not." So acting on Patrick's advice we explored music and dance in south Chennai. We listened to music at Chennai's Music Academy and went to dance performances at Kartik Fine Arts.
Saloon or Salon? Count on a hair cut
No alcohol in this hotel

Patrick's excellent advice started when he suggested the New Woodlands Hotel. A perfect choice - affordable, clean, and vibrant. The hotel and its courtyard are impossible to capture in photos; it is a 1950's hotel set in India. In addition to the "saloon" there is a "house of beauty" for "ladies only" and a shoe sign shop.

We started eating our meals at Krishna, the hotel's south India restaurant. We later switched to Vrandana, which included north Indian, Chinese, and Italian food. Both restaurants were at full capacity and humming at meal times.
Dec 24 - Hyderabad vegetables (recommended),

24 Dec - Vrindavan Special - ice cream, sauces, fruit pieces and nuts

A typical breakfast buffet with corn flakes at the end of the table
The beach is about 1 km from the hotel - walkable as long as one navigates the pavement carefully. We passed an HSBC, the "Life Style Mall," the state legislative building and evidence of abject poverty.
People live in  shacks along the banks (barely visible in this phot0)
And just a little further on (no long strips of High End Shops)

At the beach we turned left - if we had gone to the right we would have passed a densely populated area where many fishermen live and work.
The beginning of a long line of businesses (perpendicular to the water)

A different picture will emerge when I read that chaat originated
on Mumbai's beaches

Fishing boats and nets at the end of the day

We got around Chennai by walking or taking an auto rickshaw. Although each rickshaw had a meter, no one can remember when they were last used. Since rickshaws are so commonly used locals may be willing to give an estimate of a fair fare. Some drivers look as foreigners as money pits, so starting with a reasonable fare in mind is wise. Raju who worked outside New Woodlands gave us a reasonable rate and his phone number for follow up trips.

      A typical side street - note the uneven payment, interspersion of walkers and riders, lack of helmets

                                                            A universal invitation to park?

Walking requires alertness to avoid mishaps and to enjoy the vibrant city life.

                                                        One way to sell produce - such carts seems to sell only one
                                                        or two items
                                                       A more common way to sell produce

                                           "Pharmaceuticals Distributors" - See Doug's 27 Dec post on Indian drugs

After Googling Atomic Donuts - I regretted that we stopped
at taking this picture

 A billboard being put up

Christmas at KL malls was over the top with decorations. Chennai's decorations were calmer. Santa was the most common figure. He even stood outside St Thomas' Basilica. More curious to us the two churches we went into did not have creches or votive candles. One did have a figure of the Infant Jesus devotees lined up to touch - it felt more Hindu than Christian.


Incredible India – Return of a Forgotten Purse

In Kuala Lumpur one is on guard for purse snatchers, and our condo has three padlocks (front door, terrace door, and bedroom window). India is no different, except thankfully for an apparent snatch thieves, hotels and tourist areas have signs reminding people to secure their belongings. So imagine my amazement when I received a forgotten purse intact. Here is the story.

About midway to Pondicherry from Mahaballpuram (about 90 km) our driver received a call asking if I had left a small purse in the toilet at Mahaballpuram. I checked my handbag found that my purse wasn’t there. Next was trying to remember what was in it – money (not sure how much – enough to be an annoying loss) and glasses with transition lenses (more than an annoying loss). If we returned to Mahaballpuram we faced at least an extra 2 hours of travel and a substantial additional charge from the travel agency. Our driver, Suresh Babu, suggested that he would find a bus driver in Pondicherry who could bring the purse back from Mahaballpuram and I would have it the next morning – the logistics escaped me. And the next morning I had the purse;  Suresh asked that we count the money – everything was in order.

Suresh told about a customer who left his camera at a hotel. Suresh orchestrated a similar retrieval process. This time he sent a taxi driver back to the hotel. Throughout the trip we have been reminded that drivers not only assure our safety on the road, but are important in dealing with guides, finding clean toilets, and identifying places to eat. The retrieving of loss objects wasn’t a service that we expected, but we were happy to finding out that we weren’t the only forgetful ones.

How was I identified as the owner of the purse? We stopped at a handicraft boutique close to the Shore Temple. I had pulled out the purse to get small change for the toilet. Our guide (I think his name was Basru) said that since it was a government owned boutique the toilets were free. I guess that I didn’t put the purse back in my handbag. When the purse was discovered, a staff member remembered that two of Basru’s customers had used the toilet. (So much for being anonymous.) Because so many transactions take place over cell phone getting in touch with Suresh was easy.

The staff at the boutique, Basru, and Suresh proved that India can be incredible.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


27 December 2011

More than thirty years ago, while travelling in Thailand, I overheard several elderly couples discussing their travels in Asia. Access to prescription medications was a major issue. At the time, what registered in my mind was “these people are old”. Now that I am “old”, in my 60’s, I have new appreciation for their concerns.

When we decided to move overseas access to medications was a concern. I spent much time on the internet checking out which prescription medications were available, how would I pay for them (insurance, Medicare), and how would I actually get the meds (by mail, or from local pharmacies or chemists).

We left the United States with an ample supply of medications. We determined our insurance would cover us in Malaysia. At visit my most recent visit with our Malaysian physician I discussed prescription medications. Almost all my medications were available, but a common older medication was not in the Malaysia formulary. One of Liz’s medication was expensive and another (a combination of two generic drugs ) was not available at all.

When we mentioned to our physician that we were travelling to India, the preverbal light came on. He said, everything is available in India and they are cheap. Having heard horror stories of fake drugs in India, we contacted Indian friends. The recommendation came back to us, Apollo Pharmacies is a reliable source and they have over 1,000 stores throughout India.

On our first day in Chennai, I located a nearby Apollo pharmacy.

It was a small shop with several helpful pharmacists to assist. We poured over their formulary book, located local sources for the medications and placed the order. The next day a phone call came, one drug us not available and dosage amounts were not exact. A quick trip to the pharmacy determined one drug was not available; however, this is not an issue as the drug is readily available in Malaysia at an attractive price.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, we picked up the medications. Most medications come is blister packs, which protect the meds from environmental contamination, but cause lots of extraneous waste. The medications were purchased at a substantial discount from our deductable price in the US and were manufactured by the same companies. There is no accounting for actually how much these meds would cost in an open market in the United States.

The pharmacist pointed to one medication and asked how much that would cost in the United States, when I answered it caused quite a commotion among both the staff and customers. .

Friday, December 23, 2011

Getting a cell phone number in India

22 December 2011 Chennai

Today was our first full day in Chennai, India. This city was previously known as Madras, and as many Indian cities it has changed its name from the one left by the British.

On our first day in a city/country we had many housekeeping activities to keep us (me) busy. While Liz attended a vocal concert at the Music Academy, I went about several tasks: getting money and getting our local mobile (cell or hand) phone number activated.

Given our previous adventure in getting an Indian mobile number (2010 in Gurgaon), I was prepared. I first went to the hotel desk clerk and asked for assistance. He referred me to the hotel manager. A copy of my official registration materials, countersigned by the hotel manager, and stamped with the official stamp of the hotel I headed off for a cell phone store to get my SIM card. I only needed a SIM card since I use an unlocked GSM phone….4 band so I can use it in North America as well. While it may cost more upfront, I have the freedom to switch carriers at will, as I travel across continents.

Finding the cell phone store was no simple task. I looked along the main road. None was to be seen. The previous night I had seen many cell phone stores for the taxi as we came in from the airport, but today none seemed to pop out at me. I asked a clerk at a luggage shop and he directed me to the Chennai City Centre. As it was some distance away, I went by auto rickshaw. Later I was to read that this was an upscale mall in south Chennai. Yes there was a cell phone store and it was open. I presented to the clerk my documents: the letter from the hotel manager, copies of my passport and visa, and thought I was done. Wrong….I forgot to bring a passport photo. Never mind that the copies of my passport pages included a photo. All my paperwork was handed back to me and off I went to find a photo store.

I was assured it was close….no more than a 5 minute walk. I have come to believe that distances are measured by minutes. Five minutes stands in for relative close buy, 10 minutes medium distance, 15 minutes somewhat further. It does not really relate to how many minutes it will take to get there.

I walked down a busy street…past a series of lumber stores, plywood stores, wood molding stores. All varieties of vehicles were hauling away lumber: pickup trucks, tri wheel vehicles, small lorries, bicycle delivery vehicles, and hand carts. Large lorries were delivering supplies, while cars, bicycles, buses, autocabs, and rickshaws swirled about. A few hundred feet beyond lay a small market area with vegetables and fruit stands.

Finally I saw the sign for a photo shop. Eight (8) passport photos in 10 minutes and only 80 rp (about USD 1.60). I went in. I was told it would take 1 hour. I said I would wait and sat down. Someone handed me a copy of the local English language newspaper. I read that. The man behind the desk announced it would be 15 minutes. Then he said, come….come. He handed me a comb to fix my hair, sat me down and took two photos. He loaded them into Photoshop, cleaned up the background and printed them out. I also got the photos and the photoshop file on a CD.

Next it was back to the mall and the cell phone shop. I presented the documents, and the photo. In return I received a SIM card for my phone. After a few minutes my phone came to life. Settings began to be changed automatically, registration information began to be displayed, and I made a phone call to the proprietor’s phone to check it out. I wanted to add some value to the phone card (being prepaid) but was told that I would need to go to another store for that. (Nothing is really simple). I have since added 555 rp to the phone….mainly to call to the US over Christmas holidays, sent several SMS and received a call. Life is great.

I now have an Indian Phone number, to go along with my 4 Malaysian numbers, and my one US number with an area code for a state I no longer live in. I wonder if I will get an Indonesian number next month.

Oh yes, Christmas is celebrated in Chennai.

Next blog for me…an Indian pharmacy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday in Belum Rain Forest

Our third trip to a rain forest in rainy season and for the third time it rained. No problem. Groupon enticed us to purchase a 3N/4D package that introduced us to the Belum Rainforest. The promotional materials did  not mention the pleasant surprises of the first day. The first surprise - our taxi driver wore traditional dress and wore a white skull cap (indicating that he had made the hajj). His taste in music? Heavy metal. The next surprise the bathrooms - the word “unique” does not adequately describe the resort’s public toilets. (This in a country where unpleasant public toilets are common.)
Public Rest Room (near bar) - yes, the tree is real

Public Rest Room (near reception) - no window, no screens
just a wall of bamboo
Band Chenl (Legend in their local language)
The last surprise was hearing a band from a “local” village. The band members traveled two hours by boat from their village in the jungle. They played and sang their own compositions. When Doug asked where the tip jar was, the response was “we don’t do that here.” The band members did not say a word about their program, so we have no idea of what they were singing about; it seemed heartfelt.

One move from collapse
December are school holidays, so the resort was jammed with children.  Lots of toddlers and young children were running  around. A few kids gathered around a computer, but most were playing games such as Twister and Uno. No fighting, whining, or crying.  And no TV in the room (thanks for the little things).  While some reviews complained about the lack of activities, families seemed to do quite well at entertaining themselves. We brought a stack of books – when it rained we read. It has been a good plan.
Doug rowing - Liz in front aimed camera over her head
We spaced out our Groupon activities – kayaking (or bamboo rafting), a night hike, and a boat ride around the island. In our experience night hikes, always sound like a good idea, but they are little more than a hike in the jungle in the dark. The sounds in the jungle and the resort proper are the same. While a group of 30 people may keep the wildlife at bay – time of year and closeness of the resort do as well. The kayaking trip was fun; we would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t neophyte kayakers and had a plan beyond checking out the harbor area.

Inspecting the bamboo rafts - people actually went out on them
As for wildlife we saw the ever present monkeys, butterflies, and this insect that sat next to us at the bar.

To better experience the flora and fauna will require a later trip with a guide and time to get further into the forest. We were told that the best times to visit are Aug-Oct (to see hornbills) or Feb (to see butterflies). To get started we will explore the Malaysian Nature Society website – since MNS guides are exceptional informants.
Travel from KL: Bought Transnational tickets at Puda Raya for bus to Gerik, traveled from Hentian jalan Duta Bus Terminal to Gerik. We arrived in Gerik on Friday at prayer time – so we had to wait until a taxi driver appeared (after praying and having lunch). Cost of taxi to Belum Rainforest Resort (posted as Bandung at taxi stand) was RM 50. From trip adviser we learned people have different expectations. For our part we found that the staff was pleasant and the food, while not outstanding, was similar to comparable nature resorts.

View from our room
Doug said that I need to note that the public bathrooms are not the only highlight. The rooms are quite nice. Ours faced on to water garden with soothing water sounds and frogs croaking. The resort's public areas were handicapped accessible, something that isn't common in Malaysia.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Santa for a day

In mid November, I visited the YMCA Kuala Lumpur to sign up for a digital photography class. After I signed up I was approached by Irene Kwan, the YMCA programme director, and was asked to volunteer as "Santa" at the YMCA KL Christmas party. The guests at the party would be children from foster homes, and children of deaf parents. How could I not volunteer, but I was worried about language and costume.

In a city of 7 million people, I thought there might be a costume shop. Little did I know that I would have several shops to chose from, with multiple styles of Santa costumes (either the European style of a St. Nicolas robe, or the suit familiar to North Americans). I chose the later which included black spats, a patent leather belt, a fake beard and fake hair. I used neither of the later two items.

On Dec 4 we were at the YMCA at the appointed time. The "we" included Liz, my niece Lydia, and me. Liz and Lydia refused to be Santa's helpers, would not wear simple elfen hats, but they did document the event with over 200 digital images. But I did have two self defined "Santatina's" to assist me.

The volunteers included a large cohort from IBM Malaysia (a multinational group including UK, US, Slovakian, Chinese, Malaysian and others whom I did not meet). They used their organization skills to stuff goodie bags, lead the children in games, and set up the queueing system to organize the children when visiting with Santa and the sponsors of the event. Mary Brown and McDonalds provided food to keep the children and volunteers well fed.

About 70 children attended the event, with many individuals documenting their activities with digital photography.

Now to the act of being Santa. It is nothing like the "Santaland Diaries" as described by David Sedaris. I was ushered in following a Disney Christmas cartoon and was asked to deliver a moral message about Santa. Santa visits people from around the world irrespective of size, race, and age. No mention of being good!

Santa then took the stage and began to receive the children. Each child was announced to the crowd and released to greet Santa. A Santa's helper gave me a goodie bag to give to each child who then met with an event sponsor to receive an individualized gift.

After all the children from an individual facility or group had received their gifts we all gathered on stage for a group picture. Individual pictures with Santa were made by the group of children by their deaf parents. Most of these children were not hearing impaired, but many had multiple disabilities.

At one point a child came over to check out my beard, and tugged on it to make sure it was real. Another child poked at my midsection to determine if it was real (yes it is, but it is getting smaller). I was glad I did not wear the fake beard. I also discovered, my half glasses were not correct, I needed "Harry Potter" glasses. I can tell you that a Santa costume is "hot", even in a heavily cooled room.

I discovered that I am a "hard nosed" Santa. I told children with lollypops in their mouths to brush their teeth, and informed a small child asking for a "big boy" motorocycle that he was not yet old enough. One small girl spent 5 minutes or so clinging to me while pictures were being taken, and one boy when presented with his gift bag sat down and went through it on the spot...checking out each and every item.

All in all, this was a very good event. The YMCA KL did a great job organizing, IBM employees spent an afternoon volunteering, and many others spent time and money to make the children happy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Another day with SHOUT

On Saturday I joined AWAM (All Women Action Society) at a crime prevention workshop sponsored by the Crime and Investigation Network. The mall management put the displays in outside area with light foot traffic. When AWAM women went into the mall to pass out brochures they were stopped and told they could not. Lesson - mall management around the world is the same.

A light turnout can be a disappointment, but in this case the workshop allowed SHOUT (Sexual Harassment Out) participants to practice and critique their presentation and role plays.
"Bus passenger" getting close

Successfully tossing off an attacker

KickStart Academy's role players were amazing. They were so realistic and fierce I wondered who their friends were.

The workshop started with Crime and Investigation clip of an upcoming program, featuring a 2003 murder that occurred at our local up-market shopping center. Slick, scary crime shows are not limited to the west.

Half a planet away but familiar themes. A NGO swimming upstream to reach an audience, a mall purporting social responsibility but not impeding the business of buying and selling, and sensational television programming. (A blogger at the event posted more pictures including the KickStart presentation on his 4 December entry.) And, I had a day to think about NGOs and advocacy, chat with Malaysians, and learn more about the the challenges of Malaysian advocacy organizations.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Visiting Putrajaya

We made our 3rd visit to Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia; it houses the Prime Minister's residence, the Prime Minister's offices and the country's ministries. The landscape is lovely, and the buildings are large and spread out. Malaysia's climate does not encourage long  daytime walks, so I wondered how often staff interact across ministries. Interactions with the commercial sector and the NGOs are surely rarer. I have heard NGO staff complain about the distance from KL and the lack of parking.

An acquaintance from Turkey compared Istanbul and Accra, noting that Istanbul was fun to live in with lively exchanges of ideas and Accra was generally sterile. The same comparison can be made between KL and Putrajaya, although Putrajaya probably has less non-government life than Accra. (An article examining administrative capitals must exist, but I found none in Google scholar. IMO administrative capitals do not correlate well with responsive gov't)

An Indian lunch in Putrajaya

Our trips to Putrajaya remind us that without a car we  miss a lot of this country. Fortunately,  our friends were eager to arrange an outing with an Indian meal a highlight. We had roti, dhal, mango lassi, rogan josh, vegetables jalfrezi, and chicken biryani. We left full and happy and headed for the wetlands.

Ong sisters & Aaron at Putrajaya wetlands

We climbed a watchtower, watched a lizard on a plant, and visited the pelican pool. Seeing the pelicans take off and fly was mesmerizing. Our last stop was for sate and ice kacang (shaved ice with sweetened condensed mill). We neglected to take a picture of the sleeping sate man before we woke him.

The next night we joined the Ongs for a family dinner. Mooi Lian's parents have treated us to so many scrumptious family meals that this time we are honoring the parents instead of the food.

                           The end of a long satisfying meal

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hunting for an apartment part II

Well, it was October, almost 7 months after we arrived in Malaysia when we began our search for better housing.  As our son and friend Tracy can attest our previous apartment was "basic".  Since we received our MM2H visa and felt better legally, and our lease in the mall was almost up, we decided to look for a different apartment.  Our goals for the new apartment:  not in a mall, adequate cooking facilities, and something that would feel like we had left graduate school digs.

To look for an apartment, we went back to the real estate agency we used the first time.  YJ, our agent was the same person we used again.  Why you ask do you use a real estate agent?  Most apartment/condos for rent are individually owned and rented.  Virtually no building is owned/managed by a single company.  Searching the web results in listing of properties, but as I learned later, many of the listings are not active (even though they appear to be current listing), and many agents do not return phone calls.  And since I do not have a car (by choice), the agent provided an additional service: transportation.

I gave YJ parameters of what we wanted: 2 br, 2 ba, a "real kitchen", and in the Bangsar area.  We also wanted to be close to transit facitilies (a reliable bus line, LRT, and adequate taxi service).  The local train service KTM Kommuter was not condered adequate.

I also searched two web sites:, and to find properties that met our specifications.  I gave the property listings to YJ for consideration. 

On four separate days, I went on apartment hunting trips with YJ.  In all I visited 16 different apartments...some twice.  Liz joined us on two additional trips.  One the last trip two apartments were rejected, one was similar to a well worn beach house, and one was rejected due to "old plumbing".  Because we live in the tropics, high ceilings are welcome, and cross ventiliation is a desirable feature.  If the unit was on a low floor, screens are mandatory.  Some apartments have standard approximately 8' ceilings.  No room for ceiling fans and thus dependence on a/c.  This is not a good idea as electrical power is expensive in Malaysia.

On our last trip we viewed a new building.  It was nice, although the bedroom had no windows.  They were in an adjacent sitting area.  The view was over an industrical area, a construction site and a shopping mall.  No stores were within easy walking distance, and crossing roads to get to public transit would be a problem.  Another building was promising, but we both decided that it was too much like a resort, with signs stating where bathing suits could be worn.  My comments was:  this is the home of corporate wives and diplomatic spouses.  We did not want that.

Finally, we saw three units in the Cascadium.  One was on a high floor, facing the street.  One was on the top floor, was very large and had good cross ventilation.  Unfortunately, its furnishings were well worn and the owner had done little to fix it up.  We went back to the one on the third level.  It had a large terrace, two bedrooms, two baths and was tastefully decorated.  We made an offer and it was accepted.

The owners have been very nice. We have been continiously surprised by the hospitality of Malaysians.  The apartment was fully furnished with sheets (new), pillows (new), and a fully functional kitchen, knives, dishtowels, buckets, etc.  They even brought over a drying rack so we can dry our cloths on the large terrace.  We have been continiously surprised by the hospitality of Malaysians.

The satelite tv was already installed and we were allowed to customize the channels.  The building is fibre optic ready so in a month or so the service will be installed.  In the meantime, our wireless wifi system is working even better than before.  We almost never drop out and even managed a skype call to see our grandson and participate in a Thanksgiving Celebration in Maryland, USA.

What I learned during this process.  Apartment hunting takes a lot of time.  Almost all apartments are individually owned and managed.  The use of an estate agent speeds up the process.  You delegate the responsibility for arranging appointments for viewings, and he/she handles the negotiations and documentation.

Okay, now some pictures.

The pool is just down the hallway.

A view of downtown Kuala Lumpur from the pool.

Our living room.
Half of our kitchen, but fully functional.
Master bedroom with en-suite bathroom.
En-suite bath.
Our guest bedroom.
Our terrace overlooking a little piece of jungle (green lung area).