Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Haya Raya in Labu

In 2008 I lived in the guest house at USM - I was the only person there for most of Ramadan and hayi raya. By end of Ramadan the campus was deserted so no invitations for raya. Consequently I was delighted when Lina invited us to her family home in Labu (translation - Pumpkin) for raya.

I regretted that I didn't get something new to wear for the day. At the train station I saw many beautiful baju kurungs. 
Waiting for 3 car Commuter at KL Sentr
The picture barely captures the crush of people. Once the train arrived we were pushed inside with scarcely an inch to spare. Doug couldn't reach for his camera and I couldn't get to my phone to tell Lina that we were on our way. A pretty unpleasant trip - by the time we arrived we were covered with sweat. Anything new would have become completely bedraggled. One of Lina's sisters pointed out in addition to the crowding there were the smells - true (enough said).

A raya supply of ketupat
Shortly after we arrived we ate beef redang, chicken redang, and ketupat (squares of condensed rice that used to be sold with satay - not so much now days). We would sample a cookie from one of the jars of cookies, talk for a while than sample another. We enjoyed the conversation and the chance to savor tastes of the individual cookies. One sister is a cooking genius and her three siblings enjoy the benefits.

Later a family who were on way to the next town dropped in. They turned off the main road because of traffic and remembered that they knew Lina's family.  We sat and continued chatting as they ate the rendang, moved on to the cookies, and then headed out. My hypothesis is that Malaysian holidays involve unprogrammed dropping in, eating and chatting. Of course, I am sure that there are families and friends that must not be missed.

Vegetation in Labu
The family house was built by Lina's parents. It is large and airy with a spacious kitchen. We took a tour of the outside - coconut trees, two types of rambutans, jack fruit, pandanan, and herbs. We experienced why Malaysians romaticize  village life. We forgot to take a picture, but this snap taken at the railroad station captures the vegetation.

Lina's two younger sisters are going to Mecca (or Makkah) this year. Soon they will receive an "invitation" telling them when they are going, where they are departing from, and where they are landing. Just part of the logistics of bringing three million people from all over the world to one spot for a limited period of time.

At the end of the afternoon we left for train - the infamous KTM Commuter. As we left Linda reported that the past week she had waited 1.5 hours several times and she was on her way to work. We waited nearly 2 hours. Since Labu is near the beginning of the line we got a seat, but soon the train was jammed. A bell rang the whole way, we smelled burning brakes, and babies (understandably) cried. At major stops people shouted in several languages as they struggled to get out and others surged to get in. We normally do all that we can to avoid taking Commuter. If we go to Labu next year we will search far and wide for an alternative.
Commuter - old, slow, and an unreliable schedule

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Festive Season

August is a festive season in Malaysia.  This year it includes Ramadan in addition to the normal festivities.  We have been observing the Ramadan fast,  seeing...not partaking.  Ramadan bazaars  are a feature of the season.  They spring up around transportation centers (LRT stations, car parks, shopping center parking lots, and bus stations).  They open at about 3PM and are gone by 7:30PM.  They provide inexpensive take-away tradional food for breaking the fast after evening prayers.  We have sampled the dishes and they are good renditions of Malay tradional food.
But other events abound in August....The feast of the hungary ghost (which Liz blogged about in an earlier post), the the mid summer moon festival.  Now this is celebrated with the appearence of Mooncakes....a wonderful pastry with a fudge like filling.  They are rich enough to require being split into multiple pieces.  They come in all flavours from green tea, lotus root, to modern coffee and moka flavours.  The moon cakes are produced by local bakeries, are imported from Taiwan, and can be found for sale in the local Starbucks.  One baker guaranteed that their product would remain good until October 15th, if hidden from the in-laws.
Other events take place during August, including one where the local God's parade around the local area.  In this case the Gods from a temple in the central business district of KL (Jalan Bukit Bintang area) take a tour of the local streets.  This had not happened for 4 years so the Gods were restless.  The Gods began their stroll sometime after 7PM and manged to miss the tourist restaurants on Jalan Alor.  The Gods know not to interfer with business.
Security for the parade is provided by the motorcycle mounted members of RELA, a volunteer force of the Malaysian government.

The parade began with a chinese medium strolling the streets carrying a rope and a snakeskin whip (in his left hand).

He was followed by Lion Dancers (Three lions).
Lion Dancer
The Lion Dancers charged up the street to the sound of large drums and yells from the supporting cast.  Following these were a series of mediums (people who channel the gods).  The linked article by R. Lee,  an anthropologist at the University of Malaya describes in detail Chinese mediums in urban malaysian cities.  In a much earlier post by Liz in her blog from 2008, she describes her encounter with a "god".  But in my observation, the medium need a lot of care and tending by their "retainers".  These medium have people to adjust the iron bars balanced in their mouths, provide for stools for them to sit on, and otherwise provide support.....much like corner men do for their boxers during a fight.
Medium and Assistant
There were a number of mediums including one woman.
Woman medium
Following the mediums were the gods.  The temple gods are carried in sedan chairs.  Seven men carry each chair,  4 supporting the chair, two responsible for swinging the chair from side to side, and one for carrying the supports for the chair.  All I can say is the Gods got a wild ride through town.
God in sedan chair
The final part of the parade are the Gods on the motorized floats.  Much like an RV, but containing a massive generator to power the electric lights the Gods make their way down the street.

The end of the parade.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What holiday is it?

Kampung House at Amcorp Mall
Kampung House at KLCC
Baju Kurung - for Hari Raya wear?
In Malaysia we celebrate, or at least observe, many holidays including ones that we can't name. In August the "Festive Season," which includes Ramadan and Hari Raya, began; it contains items similar to Christmas' decorations and cookies, Easter's new clothes, and Thanksgiving's treks home. Instead of Santa's cottage there are village (kampung) houses, which may serve as a stage for entertainments.  Stacks of Ramadan cookies, which will morph into Devali and Christmas cookies, and displays of baju kurung are everywhere. The first day of Hari Raya is 30 August and Kuala Lumpur will be deserted.

This year the Hungry Ghosts Festival occurred in the middle of Ramadan. During the Chinese 7th Lunar month the gates of hell open and the spirits are released to roam for a month. Alters are found along the roadside with offerings of food and burning joss sticks, paper money, and representations of other possessions that one might need in the after life.
Making an offering - Feast of the Hungry Ghosts
During month there are Chinese operas and other street performances. We went to one at Central Market - okay for picture taking.

An unknown holiday? Wednesday was a public holiday associated with the revelation of the Koran. Not much was said about its significance, but it was the biggest shopping day of the year.

Still to come Merdeka Day (Independence Day) on 31 August. Malaysian flags everywhere, but celebrating may be overwhelmed by Hari Raya. The Merdeka Day celebration has been moved to Freedom Day (date the east Malaysia states of Sabah and Sawarak joined the federation).  The Chinese harvest festival moon cakes started appearing two weeks ago and will be sold until mid-September. We can split one into 12 tiny slices! Then there is Deepavali, Christmas, and Chinese New Year. By next Ramadan we will need to fast!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Food & sights in KL

Having discovered South Pacific Seafood in PJ on last week's walk we wanted to check it out ASAP. We love the ambiance of outdoor restaurants - this one spills into a parking lot; every time a car leaves it spills out more. We had the sate (made special b/c it doesn't have peanut sauce), talapia in a Vietnamese sauce, and sauteed sweet potato leaves. We repeated our dinner later in the week, but substituted grouper in an assam sauce. We will work our way through the other fish and sauces in the weeks ahead.
Under the sauce is a tasty fish

With the start of Ramadan we needed to check out Ramadan markets - markets that open from 3-7 so that people can buy food to take home and eat when they break the fast. We bought baked fish (tasty), fried mee (okay), sate (unacceptable because it was a mixed grill sate) and sweets at this market. My knowledgeable friends warned us against over-priced items and mediocre food. To make better choices I will take a guide (or have read a blog).
To make sure that Tracy knew there was more to Malaysia than food, so we went to the Islamic Arts Museum and Selangor Pewter Factory. The museum featured models of world famous mosques and a textiles exhibit showing different national garb. Worth a few visits so the information can sink it.  BTW the gift shop has an impressive collection of scarves.

The Royal Selangor Pewter Factory is a must-see. Our tour guide was exceptional and she made sure you knew what to look for in the gift shop. As we toured we saw pewter hand prints; they are made by each employee after five years with the company.
We stopped at workstations and watched what a hand made process really entails. For RM60 we could have crafted our own bowl at the School of Hard Knocks - a opportunity for more talented or younger folks. At the gift shop we spotted a few things for doting grandparents to give to a grandson, especially the pewter music boxes.

Well fed and introduced to Malaysia we let Tracy return to the US. Alas, we were rushing to Bahasa Malay classes and our picture didn't come out.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What to do in Penang other than eat

With Tracy along we were motivated to hire a taxi for a truncated tour of the island - our plan was the fruit farm, canopy walk, the Kek Lok Si Temple, and assam laksa. At the Penang National Park we learned that the canopy walk was closed. (The canopy walk near KL is also closed. So Tracy will have to return for the complete Malaysian experience.)At least the drive rewarded us with views of Penang's coastline, its highrises, and rural communities.

Our driver stopped at the Tropical Spice Garden, we gave into the opportunity to explore it. We opted to only walk through the gardens. The next time we will take a tour, which seemed to consist of people who are traveling together led by an informed, chatty guide. (We are learning that guides in Malaysia are unusually good). Near the end of our walk we noticed signs with symbols providing information on various plants, e.g., whether they were toxic, a money crop,or had a medicinal use. Doug may include a class at the garden's cooking school during a future trip.

Next we went to the Tropical Fruit Farm because of a blog's recommendation. The tour was a good value we viewed fruit trees and tasted some fruits straight from the source. If we go again I will take notes. After the tour we were treated to a fruit buffet (but no durian) and a smoothies.
Our excellent guide - his 2nd career

Avocado - who knew they grow on trees?
The Fruit Buffet - yes we went for seconds. Dragon fruit on the right
Don't find the right wish? You can find a do-it-yourself ribbon
Our last stop was Kek Loh Si temple, a Buddist temple. It is so vast that I discover many new things with each visit. The one frustration - I wish one could buy a pamphlet explaining Buddhism, the major features of a temple, and its role in Buddhism. I first visited this temple with Rattu from Bhutan. His comment was "same god different face." (On another trip Rattu noted that people who did not remove their shoes were thoughtless and making work for others.)
It's the year of the rabbit!

Inside pagoda containing 10,000 Buddhas

We commemorated our grandson's birthday by buying a roof tile and inscribing it with his name and birth date.

The temple offered an opportunity to state your greatest wish - success in exams, professional achievement, world piece - and tie it on a tree

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Penang - So much food, so little time

When I lived at USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) I found cheap, but not memorable, food. Fortunately over the course of the semester friends went out of their way to introduce me to the food of Malaysia, especially Penang. On this trip we benefited from their generosity, we ate terrific food and still had items left on our "must eat" list.

Two well feed diners and the owner/cook
Our first stop was  Nyonya Baba Cuisine for dinner. We are fans of its thoughtful spicing and how well the dishes work together. Tracy was so taken with the food we ate there two nights. Almost as good as the food were the conversations with the owners. We talked about recent political events and a brother, who is a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins. He was in-town for a 3 week holiday, which he spent eating at hawker stalls. We learned the differences between Malacca and Penang's nyonya food; the former uses coconut milk and Penang relies more on herbs. When we asked about fish the owner/cook told us that her favorite fish was sting ray. When we asked for a recommendation where to find it she told us to go to a wet market - we didn't to tell her that we don't have a stove or grill.

The next day Lina took us out for fish. (I need to get the directions.) The fish stall is in a group of stalls far off the beaten path. We had snapper grilled in a coconut leaf - "yummy" is the only way to describe it. It was succulent and a bit sweeter than your typical fish. Best fish of the trip and we had a lot of fish.

Two spoons? Yes I shared it
Penang assam laska was on the agenda Friday. The taxi driver, the owner of Nyonya Baba and others agreed that  Air Hitam had the best assam laska - another outstanding food memory. Bad news we drove up and only then learned that "best place" was closed for renovations. We had to settle for a bowl at New World Park. (If you click on the link you will find foods we didn't get to eat this trip.) I was eager to dive in and I didn't stop to compare it with other laksas- I was satisfied. I was appalled at Tracy's suggestion that we share the laksa. I will share most foods but not laksa. A look at the picture shows two spoons - okay, I shared it. We ended our lunch/snack with ABC. In this case no need to compromise the ABC stall at New World is a favorite. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Selling your house (when you are not there)

In the fall of 2010 we decided to put our house up for sale.  We got it ready, or so we thought.  We cleared out the clutter, had interior and exterior painting done.  We interviewed several agents, and picked one (not the one with the highest listing price) but not the one that was an obvious low ball.  Contracts signed, house cleaned, decluttered, the cat outsourced, we went on vacation.

Well the house went on the market two weeks after we left.  And minimal action began to occur.  We had comments that potential buyers didn't like the electrical outlet covers, wanted granite countertops, etc.  Some even commented on the bedroom layout (as if this could be changed).  We returned, with no nibbles.  Several weeks later an open house was scheduled.  It snowed.  Now in Raleigh, this means basically snow flurries.  The real estate agent sent her assistant.  No one came....not even the neighbors (what else do you do on a snowy Saturday morning).  No follow-up was scheduled.  

Well Christmas was coming, and we were moving.  In came 5 U-BOX pods.  Furniture was moved into the pods, stuff was given away, hauled to the curb, or donated to various charities.  In the middle of this, I went to the hospital for several days.

Retirement came, the house was empty, New Years came, and we moved.  Still no movement on the house. 

Our real estate agent indicated that we were approaching the home buying season.  But nothing happened.  February came, and we lowered the price by $10,000.  The real estate agent had suggested $5,000.  We said "why so little", why play games.  We were coming up on the 6 months end of contract, the real estate agent said she had a client who was interested, we waited for an offer, none was forthcoming.  Then we got a call....we needed a home inspection done "immediately".  We were travelling in Rochester, NY.  We did and it uncovered that we had a 55 year old house, with the incumbant issues of a 55 year old house.  We decided that we would switch real estate agents.  We said to ourselves that we would be told that the agent had a buyer in hand just before the contract expired.  Guess what, that is what happened.  The first agent wanted the contract extended for another month.  We didn't want to get into a month to month cycle.

Lesson learned:  list your house with a seller, not a lister!  

We worked in good faith with our existing real estate agent, but had a backup plan.  The contract expired and we signed with another agent.  He told us that having a inspection was a bad idea at this point since everything found would need to be disclosed.  Good point!  We listed at what we though was an agressive price, cutting it by another $15K.  This was just the first of several cuts.  Then came the real problem.  I was in the process of cancelling our auto insurance (why pay for auto insurance when the car has no license and is in a garage.)  Our insurance company said "You are obviously not living in the house, so the insurance is cancelled."  Yup,  no notice.  So we were in Indianapolis the day before leaving for Malaysia and had to find homeowners insurance for a vacant for sale property.  Our real estate agent had a solution and we got minimal insurance coverage.  However this involved faxing a lot of documents from our hotel at LAX.  In the middle of this a cup of coffee was spilled into the laptop.  It only shorted out the wireless card.

For the next two months we communicate frequently with our agent, lowering the price to see if we get any nibbles.  Finally in June one is offered, but with many conditions.  We offer to lower the price, since being 12K miles away does not allow you to find, and supervise a contractor.  The deal is accepted.  But given this is a buyers market, negotiations went up until the morning of closing.  Thank goodness we had an experienced negotiator as our real estate agent.

My sister-in-law handled the closing for us.  Our attorney in Indiana prepared a limited power of attorney which allowed her to close the deal, sign the papers etc.  Many thanks Joan.  But the buyer used a Cary real estate agent and attorney.  Evidently it took many telephone calls to convience the real estate agent that we had no home owners association.  And I don't recall how many times we had to certify that we were US citizens.  Somehow some people think if you move overseas you lose your U.S. citizenship.  We still carry our US passports, are still represented by a non-functional congress with "third world" tea party politicians, pay US/NC taxes, and pay for medical care that we are prohibited by law from using (Medicare).

So much for selling into a seriously down real estate market.  We read articles about "baby boomers" who have all their wealth tied up in their home.  By real estate standards of the last two decades we were seriously underhoused.  It turned out to be the right decision for us.

Cooling off in the Cameron Highlands

On Unititi Express Bus
The Cameron Highlands offer relief from the heat (average highs of 21C or 69F) of KL and a chance to eat steamboat. We stayed at the Century Pines Resort, pleasant and an easy walk from town. Tracy picked up a brochure that gave the rack rate - we paid far less through Agoda, our go to source for Asian bookings.

Tanah Rata had changed radically over the past 25 years. Along the main street were a Starbucks and a HSBC branch. The restaurant tables were arranged in a row along the street. As far as the eye could see there was an unbroken line of Westerners were sitting at tables. It reminded us of Bali.

Motivated by 25 year old food memories, I insisted that we have lunch at a restaurant that served toasted cheese sandwiches. What I got was a piece of cheese, lettuce, and tomato on toast. It went down as our worse meal of the trip.

Our dinner cooking
That night we took at taxi to Brinchang for steamboat. Guided by our taxi driver (did he get a commission?) we went to a charcoal steamboat restaurant. We were served plates containing prawns, fish balls, tofu, mee, veggies, and eggs and received directions on the order of cooking them. One blog claimed that there was little difference among the restaurants - not entirely true their prices varied. In any case we were satisfied.

Our taxi driver (return trip) was a Malaysian Indian farmer - he complained about the impact of development (there is a lot) on farming and the size of cabbages. We thought of him the next day when we took a jungle hike and saw these cabbages in a small plot.

After the jungle hike we went to Boh Tea Estates. The tea tour consisted of a 5 minute overview of how tea is made. I was curious about the life of the plantation workers. Friends in KL said workers largely consist of "foreign" labor and the children are schooled off the estate

Getting a bus to Penang was a challenge. There are 2 buses - one at 8:00 a.m. (too early) and one at 2:30 p.m. (just right). But the 2:30 bus was being repaired. We finally settled on a bus to Ipoh where we could get a bus to Penang. 
Note the Color Coordination with the Hibiscus

Friday, August 5, 2011

Introducing House Guest to more KL food

What to do on a weekend with a house guest? Look for something to do between meals. As it worked out we mostly looked for food, and we were so pleased with our options that we devoured our food and forgot to take photos.

On Saturday morning the mandatory drill is to send a guest on the walking tour of Brickfields. After the 2 hour walk Trace was ready to start eating. The first stop was the vegetarian Restoran Chaat Masala. Unlike our previous visit, when the waiter guided our choices, we were left on our own. We hadn't checked the blog recommendations, so we started with the known choice (butter chicken) and two new (to us) dishes. Everything was flavorful. Trace didn't know that the chicken was not chicken until we told her.

The chaats aren't available before 3:00, so we had to schedule an encore visit to introduce Trace to pani puri. A customer had told us how to eat the puri - put hole in the top of the puri (small cups), spoon in the accompanying pani, and sip out the innards. BTW the blogs suggest eating by punching the top, spooning in pani, and popping the whole puri into your mouth. It is yummy however eaten.

Chicken Fish
Jalan Alor for dinner. The street consists of rows of hawker stalls. We looked for the place where we ate at in October, I think that we found it. In any case we settled in at Restoran Sun Chui Yuen , the place with  yellow table cloths. We went for the chicken fish (good) and we were wowed by an eggplant dish (outstanding). We will check out what it is out next visit.

Sunday more food. Off to Din Tai Fung MidValley for xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings). Similar to the pani puri one nibbles a whole in the dumpling and sucks out the soup. This website gives a step-by-step description on how to eat.

We ended the weekend by eating at Saravana, one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants. It is a vegetarian restaurant with worldwide branches. I introduced Trace to mixed vegetable parotta - I like it so much I never order anything else. Doug's onion masala rav dosa makes a better picture - the parotta was an indistinct pile of cut up bread.

After dinner we  walked around the neighborhood and discovered South Pacific Seafood - its tables spilled out into the parking lot. (During the day it is boarded up and doesn't look inviting.) We decided that would be our first meal back after our trip to Penang. For now I can only said that our walk around the neighborhood was well rewarded.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Welcoming a grandchild from the other side of the planet

When we left the US Jenny and Colin (our son) were expecting their first child and our first grandchild in September. By late May we knew that he would arrive early. On 27 July my older son called to tell us that our grandson was born an hour earlier (on July 26). He was small, but heavier than expected (under 3 pounds).
On his way to the NICU

Mom  day after delivery

Dad doing the first bottle feeding
The logistics of keeping up to date have been challenging: no cell phones in Neonatal Intensive Care, and Colin and Jenny were running out of daytime minutes. In addition we haven't found a window when all of us are awake and Colin's schedule is unpredictable as they commute between home and hospital (to say nothing of his need to check in at work). Brendan, who uses the same cell phone provider, and Jenny's family have been a major source of information. Once everyone gets settled we will learn how to use Skype.

BTW Our grandson may be small but he is doing well. He was born crying and breathing on his own.