Sunday, July 31, 2011

Malacca - A food pilgrimage

I asked a USM colleague about what to do in Malacca. No surprise - he sent a long e-mail with eating recommendations. Decided to go on Friday (to miss the weekend crowds). Our first stop was  Chung Wah Chicken Rice Ball - a quick check of blogs will confirm that many foodies make this their first stop in Malacca. The round rice balls were small, but tasty, and the chicken was fine. Overall - the food was good, the ambiance lively, and implies that one will eat very well in this town.

As we wandered the narrow streets of the old town Doug kept an eye out for the fish market where we had an incredible dinner 10 years ago (we never found it). We ducked into a shop where we bought bookmarks made by the Mah Meri (an indigenous tribe), print bags, and place mats. The bags were described as "ladies' " bags and "men's bags" based solely on the print. Doug has used bag constantly - I didn't buy one, which I will next trip. Both Trace and Doug asked for a shop card, and both lost them! It is on Jalan Tokong. Here is the artist who does block printing in the shop. He is from Penang and told us that "northern" (Penang) food is better - subsequently we have polled people. So far we gave found a perfect association between hometown and food chauvinism.

As we wandered we saw a sign warning against the "bogus monk." Doug was approached by him twice - guess he didn't have a good memory for faces. He was selling "peace/love" charms, but I was tempted to ask for war/violence charms. Also, the heritage area of Melaka is smoke free- something that we appreciate since enduring smokers everywhere in Italy.

The fine print reads "eliminate the bogus monk"
Next to find cendol - better to eat than try to describe. We had several choices, and I have read comments about variations in cendols. But to date I have enjoyed them all and not tried to compare.

We took a break by visiting the Melaka Sultanate Palace. We paid RM2; entry posted at RM5 by the time we left. We assumed that the lower rate was for the hours on Friday when many Malaysians are praying and/or eating. It had an interesting exhibit on marriage customs of the various ethnic groups. Probably worth another visit so that we can remember the details and keep them straight.

Ymmy Friday special: Chicken redeng & nasi lemak
Next we debated between looking for satay or nyonya food. Nyonya food won out. We went to Donald and Lily's. If it hadn't been for the recommendations we would have passed it by. It closes at 4:00 so we got in under the wire and the most recommended dishes were sold out. We ordered what was left - mee siam, chicken redang and nasi lemak, and rojak. We found both the mee and the chicken terrific. So we will remember to arrive earlier next tine and try some of the things we missed.

The satay search was less successful. The men who had directed us to Donald and Lily's gave us directions to the "best satay." After a long hike the shop had a sign saying that due to unforeseen circumstances the shop would only open on Saturday. So back to a bus stop, took the 17 bus and rode around for an hour before we reached the bus station. Our conclusion - no matter the cost difference we will take a taxi next time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

House Guest - At last!

22 hours after leaving Raleigh
We were excited to make use of our guest room and to introduce Malaysia and its food. We wasted no time. Two hours after Trace arrived we headed out to Pasar Sini (Central Market) where we found rambutans, mangosteens, and sate. The sate was freshly grilled from a stand on the street - too taken with the ambiance to remember to take a photo. Maybe if we make a trip back.

Trace still had enough energy to keep going. We walked to one of our neighborhood favorites, Ipoh Chicken Rice, for chicken rice, roast pork, and bean sprouts. All delicious. We were stuffed and welcomed the walk back. Trace benefited from our eating and testing food. We had eliminated meals and items were mediocre.
Good food - long day

Chicken - all ready to be devoured

The next day we were off to Batu Caves on KTM Commuter - a piece of the KL transportation system that we try to avoid. Our trip was uneventful. The caves been upgraded since our visit in 1984, but a monkey still provided entertainment. In 1984 we took a snap of a monkey eating a lollipop. In 2011 we saw this one licking an ice cream cone very expertly.

One thing that has not changed were the 272 steps up to the cave.

We felt that this was the perfect time for  Trace to sample coconut water. We found a restaurant and settled in for a banana leaf meal. This one was a vegetarian version.  

Our trip back was more typical KTM Commuter - the train stopped for over 1/2 hour. No explanation. One passenger sprawled out and slept - others looked out at the window to see what was going on. A picture of Malaysian tranquility - we tried to imagine what would have happened if this was Manhattan. Given the delay and the prospect of a really crowded car on the last leg of the trip we opted to switch to the LRT to return to our apartment. Dinner was at Uncle Chili's - a restaurant in the basement of the mall. I had Singapore fried mee hoon, which is what I always have. The consensus was that I had the best dish of the evening.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Living in a mall or a state fair?

When did we decide that our apartment was an adjunct of a state fair? Was it the weekend flea market that occupies three floors? The Ecuadorans playing pan flutes and selling CDs? Or the rotating displays of clothes, household items, and cosmetics in the central area? Entering the mall each day we wonder what we will see  - we don't know what spaces are occupied and who is occupying them. 

Most people in KL & PJ know Amcorp Mall because of the weekend flea market, where one can buy used books, record albums, stamp and coin collections (we had no idea that a market for them still existed), RM10 watches, other old stuff and clothes. Yesterday we saw what seemed to be Victrola complete with a listening horn. The mall also houses a Star Bucks, McDonald's (truly international food - the Friday crowd is a microcosm of the city), and Secret Recipe. 

We now have lived at Amcorp Suites for three months. We rented our apartment largely because it is close to a LRT station. Our unit has good views - we can check the weather, monitor pool activity, and spot traffic jams. The building is well-maintained, and the laundry service is inexpensive. (One-third the rate of the laundry run by the lovely lady who told us that she would charge us the "local rate" not the "hotel rate")

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Our night with the Carabinieri

We debated whether to report the theft of the suitcase  - we couldn't imagine that it was worthwhile. We asked the hotel desk clerk if we should report. He said that we should and went to call the police. (Given the level of English in Turin we would have gotten nowhere.) He came back and gave us the address of the carabinieri.

The cab drove us to a dark building with an impressive iron gate. It looked closed, but as we walked toward the gate an officer came out of the shadows. It was the opening scene of Tosca. We were directed to a waiting area - 6 basic chairs and a few Italian magazines. I didn't check the dates, but it reminded us of a poor public clinic or welfare office.

The building felt deserted - there were no sounds indicating human activity. Soon an officer appeared at the head of the stairs and directed us to come up. He apologized that the light in the entry way was broken. Italy's economy is a mess, but the offices felt like underfunded public offices everywhere. His office had a map (looked like an area street map; a generic picture of a  man, woman, and child; and a carabinieri poster of men in full uniform - it felt like a ruminant of glory days.

He never introduced himself -  this may be Italian police SOP (I assume that it is) or reflect his anxiety about conducting an interview in  English. We assured him that this was a small crime. Small crime or not, the first thing I was asked for was my passport (back at the hotel) - he settled for Doug's. We went through the various items - from his questions we confirmed that the standard items are documents and laptops - not old clothes and papers (all downloadable articles). passports, laptops and so on). When he want to make sure information was right he tapped on the paper in front of him, which meant we were to  write the information. Included in the gathered information was my handphone number - I can't imagine less useful information than a Malaysian phone number; e-mail would have been better.

After about 45 minutes we signed the report - 3 copies - and he called a cab. It appeared almost instantly. His final words "See you."

Lesson - learned get travel insurance (not only for Italy).

Friday, July 15, 2011

Three days in Cinque Terre

The mountains, coast, or an Italian city? How to spend three unscheduled days in Italy? We could make a day trip to Florence, but it could be mobbed with tourists. Finding accommodations in the mountains during school holidays is nearly impossible,and if the days were overcast we might not even see them. So the coast, Cinque Terre, won out. It was a perfect choice - all the relaxation of a resort without a resort's fishbowl atmosphere.

On the train from Turin we had reserved seats in a 6-person compartment. One woman talked endlessly. Two other women made an occasional response; another woman left to read in the corridor. Doug and I suffered in silence. To avoid a recurrence we tried to book a first class seat for the trip back. No luck. This time the car was quiet. The downside? The ac didn't work!

Cinque Terre is along the Mediterranean coast; it consists of 5 villages linked by footpaths, trains, and ferries. Auto access is limited. We took a few hikes and boarded a train when our feet (and the rest of our body) demanded relief. We stayed at My One Hotel in La Spezia. My major criteria (beyond safety and cleanliness) is breakfast. Great breakfast - pastries, meat, cheese, eggs, fruit, and cereal.

We tried to remember the last time we did more than a long walk - it has been years and it showed. Going slow was the rule of the day. Once we arrived in a village, we would wander, eat, and take a train for further exploring. We would have pasta for lunch and I quickly took to spaghetti with mussels - something I never imagined liking. Here I am sporting my new hat - 100% paper.

Dinner was back at La Spezia. One night Doug had pancetta, which I frankly thought looked revolting. Another night I ordered roast chicken - good, enormous and 12 euros. More meat than we eat in a week if not a month.

Our last hike was on the Via dell'amore. It is covered with padlocks.
By googling I learned that couples leave padlocks with their names to confirm that their hearts are locked together.

And finally here is a photo of the beach. It reminded us of so many movie scenes, as did the whole area. All in all this is a side trip that we highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I was robbed

Well I must now eat crow. For years I have been telling Liz to be aware of her surroundings.

We were on bus #35 in Torino. I was taking care of both suitcases. One walked off the bus without me.

So we went to the hotel. We called the Carabinieri, went to their offices, filed an official report and came back to the hotel and had two glasses of wine.

LIz lost shoes, three necklaces, a znew scarf, the charger for her camera, and some clothes....and all the papers from her work with the UN.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Time Flies

On June 27 Doug and I arrived in Turin,Italy. I came to teach a week-long course at the UN Staff College beginning on July 4. The UN gig was unbelievably consuming. At the same time political events in Malaysia were unsettling. I spent pre-class time in Turin with the UN Staff College staff going over the class sessions and each slide I had prepared. The review improved the course's coherence and flow, as well as makig detailed time estimates. Problems began once the course started - its marketing had attracted students with very different expectations of its content. I spent most of the week teaching from 9-5,then going back to my room and figuring out how to pull things together for the next day, so that the participants had their needs and expectations partially met. I was so tired at the end of the day that I had no trouble sleeping.

Rather than go through a complete description of the experience here is what I learned. One, UN employees work very hard (the staff worked as long, if not longer, than I did). Two, UN jobs are particularly hard on younger employees who seem to be contract employees. They have to look for their next job, often in another part of the world. From an HR standpoint the work has many downsides. Third, the youth and energy in Asia portends that the future may be on that side of the planet. The same may be true of Africa. I met talented participants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethopia. A woman from Kenya was excited about its future. (The women in Kenya have closely monitored the guarantees for gender equality in the newly adopted constitution.) Fourth, one remarkable woman who stood out is a physician from Bangladesh. She promoted (successfully) the Midwife Registration Act working through layers of the political system. Fifth, what one does in a UN job depends on where you work. Person who work in lower income counties spoke of meeting with various ministers. A woman who works in Russia, as part of a discussion on political advocates in middle-income countries, pointed out that it would be very hard to meet with a minister (I had trouble visualizing her meeting with Putin).

While I was trying to stay on top of things Doug explored Turin. He has promised to file in the details and pictures soon.

In the meantime we were trying to keep up to date with events in Malaysia. On 29 June the police raided the office of a NGO, took items related to Bersih 2.0, and detained the office employees. I have been volunteering at the office(doing limited research on gender equality in constitutions and statutes). I am sure that the women I had been working with, who recommended our physician and reminded us to buy wine in Italy. (Doug asked a man at the wine shop what wine we should get for a friend being released from jail.) To illustrate one point of insanity - Bersih logo was yellow and its t-shirts shirts were yellow - so by wearing a yellow t-shirts one risked arrest. BTW Bersih (means "clean" in Malaysian); the rally was a demand for Clean and Fair elections. Initially we read nothing in the NYT, BBC, or Al Jazeera. The rally was held on the 9th as planned and it was covered by The Times and other media. For anyone who wants more details Malaysiankini may be available (usually it is by subscription, but currently it is free). We are eager to get back, check in with friends, and hope that change is implemented. The country has to have a General Election in 2013, but like any party in power the government will do all that it can to keep in power. After all 51 years of one party in control can be a very hard habit to break