Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas in Kuala Lumpur

Our electronic tree
In 2010 Doug was released from the hospital on Christmas Day (a diabetes related infection) in time for us to go to a favorite restaurant. In 2011 we spent Christmas in Chennai. In 2012 - time to spend a relaxing holiday week at home.

Doug decided that Christmas required a tree. We could have bought an imported fir tree - expensive and we would still need to buy lights and ornaments. Pre-decorated trees for the most part seemed sad. Doug searched the web and found this tree and uploaded it on an electronic picture frame. We haven't discussed how long it will stay up.

On the 23rd as we prepared for the week we discovered one of KL's apparent secrets. Just before Christmas (the 23rd this year) seasonal items were sharply discounted. Christmas cakes and cookies were reduced by 70%. Candy canes were also reduced, but we didn't note the amount. Christmas trees were priced at 1/3 of what they were a week earlier.

Our Christmas week began with a dance performance of Viswa Vinayaka at the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA). The dance celebrates the life of Lord Ganesha The hour went by quickly - the dancing, the music, and the video backdrops were a treat for the eyes and ears. (There is a snippet of a performance in Perth last month.) Throughout TFA were paintings of Lord Ganesha and kolams. We could not photograph the performance, so to leave you with an image of Lord Ganesha this  kolam will have to do.

When we entered TFA I ran a local friend from the senior citizens' yoga class and sat next to her during the performance. While we waited for the program to start she told me that she danced up until the age of 16. She stopped because Malaysian Indian and Sri Lankan families did not think girls/women should expose themselves in public. She also told me that when the British controlled Malaysia the Sri Lankans worked as clerks and Tamil Indians largely were contract workers who worked on rubber plantations. (Love and Struggle, a fictionalized account, fills in part of Malaysia's history. It tells about Tamil workers on Malaysian rubber plantations during the last days of colonialism and the beginning of independence.)  Her comments through light on a conversation I had at a Tamil wedding - one of the guests told me that "this marriage is like Obama - a marriage between a Sri Lankan Tamil and an Indian Tamil.

Getting ready for dinner
For Christmas Eve we booked dinner at Croisette Cafe, the small French restaurant down the hall from our unit and across from the gym where I had worked out earlier. The menu was interesting and the price was reasonable. Dinner was tasty and has some items that we especially like. Doug raved about the duck.  The parsley ramequin was unusual - I would happily order it again. The Christmas log was filled with passion fruit and ice cream - yummy. I gave Doug most of the chocolate trunk, mostly because I find a little chocolate goes a long way.
The first courses were great - can it get better
Do I really have room for this?
Christmas morning was quiet and cool, a perfect day for a walk.. As it started to drizzle we ducked into Bamgsar Shopping Center (BSC). We snapped pictures of the fish, which were well arranged and tempting. Then there was the MYR1500 (USD500) hamper - no post-Christmas reduction.

Christmas Day Fish Display at Jason's (BSC)

MYR1500 (USD500) for that last minute gift
We ate lunch on the balcony using  glass place mats and matching cutlery - bought on sale across the street.

The main event was to see Les Miserables at Mid Valley Mega Mall. "Mega Malll says it all - I have no idea how many eating choices there are. Our favorite, almost every house guest ends up there, is Din Tai Fung where we have always xiao long bau (soup dumplings) and other treats That was our choice for Christmas dinner. The mall was packed - even lines for the escalator.
25 Dec 2012 - Mid Valley Mega Mall, KL
Just a little breathing room
A puzzling mall display

We are often asked - Is Christmas celebrated in Malaysia? You decide
Today is the day after Christmas and the radio station is playing strange Christmas songs, for example, "Roasting Chipmunks over open fire."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cataract Eye Surgery In Malaysia

I had my second cataract done here in Malaysia, so I thought I would give a comparison between my surgery 5 years ago in the USA (Rex Hospital Outpatient Surgery, Raleigh, NC) and a similar surgery performed in Malaysia (Assunta Hospital Day Surgery Unit, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia).  The surgeon in Raleigh was a recent graduate of a Baylor University Ophthalmology residency program with a medical degree from University of Michigan (UM), while the surgeon in Malaysia was a graduate of the University of Malaya (UM) medical school and a Singapore residency in Ophthalmology.

In comparison the physical medical practices could not have been more different.  In North Carolina the surgeon practiced in a large practice dedicated to eyes.  Staff abounded,  at least four were involved in check in, and the waiting room was well appointed.  Patients were ushered into sub waiting rooms where eye drops were administered by physician assistants.  Some procedures were administered by the staff person and eventually you were placed in an examination room to wait for the physician.

In Malaysia, the physician is part of the specialist clinic run by the hospital.  Check in occurs at a very efficient intake department, and the patient is given a several forms which follow you through the appointment. You then make you way to the physician's office.  Two nurses assist the physician, by taking your paperwork and matching it with the records that had been previously delivered by the hospital records office.  Eye drops are administered as necessary. Nurses scan bar codes to record procedures which automatically update your bill resulting in no wait at check-out. 

In Raleigh, the physician saw...maybe 4 patients per hour, in Malaysia, patients appear to be seen every 10 minutes.  In contrast to Raleigh, the physician administers all procedures other than the eye drops.  In contrast to Raleigh, a question about cost is answered directly by the physician (his estimate was within 1% of the final cost....including all pharmaceuticals).  In Raleigh, the time from arriving at the Dr.'s office until I was out the door was probably 1.5 hours, in Malaysia, at Assunta Hospital it is probably 45 minutes.  The questions is, did I get the same service.  Yes I think so, but Malaysian medical practice appears to be more efficient, especially in the scheduling and back office work.

The billing methods are different, especially since I am not covered by an insurance letter.  I have insurance, but must pay in advance and get reimbursed afterwards.  Most Malaysians are covered by some sort of insurance had thus have registered an insurance letter from their provider with the hospital.  In North Carolina I went to the physicians practice to pay my deductibles.  No discussion of costs other than deductibles were discussed, and I seriously doubt if the physician actually knew all the costs involved.  In Malaysia, I had to pay 80% of the estimated costs up front, with the remainder due immediately following the surgery, prior to release from the Day Surgery Unit.

In the US on the day of the surgery, I was requested to check in at least one to two hours prior to the surgical appointment.  At this check in, I provided my insurance information, and filled out forms and forms and forms. I had been a patient at this hospital before, but it did not seem to matter.  After waiting a good 15 to 20 minutes, the check in clerk took an addition 15 minutes of time filling out paperwork.  In the US, I went to the Outpatient Surgical Unit, was assigned a bed, a curtain was drawn, I changed my clothes into a hospital gown that you tried to tie behind your back.  I then got into the bed, as waited for the doctor to appear.  Since my surgery was in the afternoon, I had to fast, and stop taking my standard prescribed medications at least 12 hours prior to surgery.  I think I was given an oral sedative.  The doctor was running behind schedule, so my surgery was 1 hour late.

In Malaysia, I went to the hospital intake unit as normal and gave them my hospital ID card.  The check-in process took approximately 5 minutes (including the wait in the queue...there were 10 numbers before mine).  I proceeded to the Day Surgery Unit and waited approximately 10 minutes.  Although I fasted, I was instructed to take my standard medications.  The nurses checked my blood pressure, pulse, etc. prior to going to a dressing room.  In contrast to the US standard hospital gown (now paper), I was given a freshly laundered and pressed sarong, plus some flip-flops.  The patient has a lot more personal privacy.  My clothes went into gym lockers and I kept the key.  I was then ushered into a surgical waiting room and waited approximately 10 minutes..

In the US, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre (actually closer to a closet) and transferred to the operating table.  What I remember of the procedure was bright lights, and a light show not seen by me since the drug induced ones in the 1960's.  When the surgery was completed, I was taken back to the recovery room.  I violated hospital rules by self medicating with my normal diabetic medications...thus saving a lot of money.  After about an hour of recovery, I was released to the tender mercies of my wife, was driven home and spent the remainder of the day resting.  No check out with finance when leaving.  I had a follow-up appointment the following morning.  I then drove 200 miles to attend the wedding of a friend's daughter.  My only problem was my inability to thread a needle to replace a lost button (Liz is hopeless on these minor domestic chores).  Two additional follow-up appointments occurred, one a week later, and second at the end of a month when the refraction was done for my replacement glass lenses.

In Malaysia, I was escorted and walked back to the surgical operating theatre.  Everything was on schedule.  I got up on the surgical was short with my feet handing over the end.  The surgery was cold and my toes felt it.  The doctor and the nurse both confirmed which eye was being operated on, each twice, repeating the question differently to make sure were were all satisfied.  I think I had a topical anesthetic drops and some more were added.  The doctor explained what he was doing, which did a lot to calm me.    Electronic voices were speaking telling the doctor when certain processes were complete (polishing the capsule) something I did not remember from the US.  When the surgery was completed I was rolled into a recovery room.  It was empty, but within an hour it was overflowing with one nurse for all 10 of us.  Standard monitors periodically checked my O2 level, blood pressure and pulse.  After an hour I was walked to the changing room, changed my cloths and went out to meet Liz.  I needed to go to the finance office to check out and pay the remainder due.....virtually nothing at this time, and picked up my medications from the pharmacist.  I got a thorough review of my medications before returning to the Day Surgery Unit for release. Medications were reviewed again and I was sent home.  I walked down to the taxi queue and we went home.  Follow-up was the next day, 4 days later, a week post-op, two weeks post-op, and a month post-op when refraction was done.  No problem reading immediately following surgery and I could continue to use my existing eyeglasses.

What was the same?  The eye drops used were identical, and the replacement lenses were of the same manufacture.

The bottom line.  Both the surgeries in the US and Malaysia were successful.  The recovery in Malaysia was easier as my prescription lenses did not need to be changed.  I actually no longer need my lenses for distance, but since my driver's license says "corrected" I continue to use them.  I do not drive here in Malaysia.  What did I appreciate.  Well, the creature comforts in the US were better (nicer couches), longer beds, but the wait times were incredible.  The complete lack of knowledge about the costs in the  US adds to the stress of the operation.  It is only when bills begin to arrive in the mailbox that you begin to understand the costs.  I do not have them here, but the retail cost was well in excess of USD $5,000.  Then the insurance information came in with the costs being dramatically cut (pre-negotiated prices).  All in all, I recall the total cost being close to USD $2,000 (deductibles, co-pays, refraction costs).  In Malaysia, I appreciated the doctor knowing the cost of his services (accurately), the efficiency of the administrative procedures.  I appreciated getting the costs from the hospital at the time  I left the building. The total cost was less than USD $1,800.  I have yet to submit the claims to my US insurance company which is secondary to Medicare.  Medicare premiums are mandatory at about USD $99 per month, but reimbursement for services overseas are forbidden.

As an aside, both Liz and I get our prescription medications in India.  They are made by the same companies that supply the US generics, and our cost is less that the deductibles we would otherwise pay.

Doug with his plastic protective eye cover.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Human Rights: UPR and Suaram

Living in Malaysia has increased my knowledge of human rights. The Fulbright Alumni grant has exposed me to Malaysia's refugee population and people who work on its behalf. Recently I represented some Malaysian NGOs at a workshop in Bangkok (Malaysian staff were busy with year end activities). The International Service for Human Rights held the workshop to prepare Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand human rights institutes and NGOs for the 2nd cycle Uniform Periodic Review (UPR) review. Simply put, the UPR is an interactive process between a state and other UN states; in Geneva each state reports what it has done to improve human rights. Between 2007-2011 (the first cycle) all 193 member states were reviewed.The 2nd cycle began in 2012 - Malaysia will report in 2013.(The United States submitted its first cycle report in 2010. This article describes the process, the recommendations, and the State Department's immediate reaction.)

Some stuffed dinner guests

On Day 1 we reviewed the UPR process, the countries' record in implementing 1st cycle recommendations, and linking them to the 2nd cycle review. A common observation was that governments said that they were taking action, but weren't. Malaysia did not accept any recommendation to ratify a UN treaty or covenant. We ended the day with an amazing dinner, comparable to a Chinese wedding banquet.

The most valuable activities were hearing from and meeting with representatives from Indonesia and the Philippines who have had their 2nd cycle review. We met separately with representatives from the Philippines who shared helpful advice and materials. (One Filipino described himself as representing Philippine's "vibrant" NGOs - a perfect description of himself as well.) They recommended that NGOs lobbying embassies, especially those representing countries that had asked questions during the first cycle.

Commissioner Muhammad Sha'ani
I was pleased to meet and work with a SUHAKAM commissioner and staff member. SUHAKAM, is Malaysia's Human Rights Commission. Its commissioners are appointed to three year terms, so the current set of "good" commissioners can be replaced by not so good commissioners.) Commissioner Muhammad Sha'ani was a storehouse of information about food (he was trained/worked in agriculture) and Malaysian politics. His dedication to to the rights of migrant workers (including refugees) and orang asli was impressive. He spends many weekends in orang asli communities learning about them and their needs. Sha-ani and staff member Fahmi were examples of  smart, dedicated Malaysians who are advancing this country's human rights and creating a more just society.

The second day was devoted to small group meetings about implementing and monitoring UPR recommendations.One theme was that NGOs had to continue their engagement after the UPR review. They can educate the public, lobby agencies, and set up or support a monitoring system. I was in one group with a representative from Myanmar who was intense about the need to train soldiers on human rights. Her concerns do no apply in Malaysia where the military keep out of domestic matters. Sha'ani attributed that Malaysia had never had military a coupe, unlike its neighbors other than Singapore.

Fahmi, SUHAKAM staff and drafting partner
The third day Sha'ani, Fahmi, the SUHAKAM staff member, and I met to discuss follow up. Sha'ani suggested that SUHAKAM might engage more of civil society in the UPR process. No need for us to speak  with the same voice, the process is meant to give voice. The workshop ended with participants producing a "good practices" document to summarize the valuable lessons learned. Fahmi and I had worked on the initial draft with the extensive involvement of Eleanor, one of the facilitators.

Thoroughly schooled in UPR processes my next step was to learn the content of Malaysia's human rights issues (although I already had a good idea of what they were). I went to the launch of Suaram's 2012 civil and political rights report. Suaram, a human rights organization, has faced continual police and administrative harassment this year, which has distracted its leaders and its allies.

Suaram Launch. Why all the photographers?
While human rights issues in Malaysia may pale besides Myanmar's child soldiers and forced labor and the Philippines recent experiences with extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the harassment of Suaram is indicative of practices that stifles dissent, The report wasn't all bad news. For example, it commended SUHAKAM for its actions to protect human rights (I was glad to have my impression confirmed.) It documented concerns about range of human rights issues.

In addition to launching the report Suaram awarded its human rights award to Himpunan Hijau and the Murum and Baram communities. Himpunan Hijau recently held a 300 km march to protest a rare earth project that will have serious environmental impact. Murum and Baram communities have fought the building of dams in Sarawak on the island of Borneo. The destruction of the forests in Sarawak is a travesty and building the dams will add to environmental desecration, The awards recognize that a healthy vibrant environment as a human right.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Another Malaysia Project: Training Teachers of Refugee Children

This is a story in three parts: our Fulbright project funded by the US State Department, refugees in Malaysia, and refugee schools.

The Fulbright invited alumni to form teams of with at least 10 members and submit a proposal to the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF). Colleen, a 2010-2011 Fulbrighter, proposed building on a pilot project that she had implemented and tested, and she enlisted other Fulbrighters to join the team. Our proposal was to implement an "intervention" to "help empower the refugee teachers and improve the emotional and academic future of their students." I joined the team athough I wasn't sure how my skills fit in. Our project was selected and funded (just under $25K). Then reality set in. The majority of team members are not currently living in Malaysia. Only one team member in Malaysia is a psychologist. The State Department disallowed paying a principal investigator/project manager. No money for administrators. Fortunately Wai Sheng has recruited former students and community contacts to conduct focus groups and offer the training. She has cheerfully taken on the role of project organizer. My role - I am the banker and doer of odd jobs. To learn more about the project and track our progress visit our project blog, resilient refugees.

Linking our team, refugee schools, Malaysia Cares of
A psychologist, a teacher, a community organizer
Malaysia has not ratified the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees; therefore, they have no legal right to be in Malaysia. (This article summarizes the history/summary of refugees in Malaysia.) The refugees don't live in camps. They live and blend into cities and towns, where they may crowd into small apartments and they are largely invisible to their neighbors. The sign reminded refugees (potential con artists and victims) that UNHCR services are free. A UNHCR card, based on a case by case analysis of a refugee's case, allows one to work - it does not necessarily prevent police harassment and intimidation.

A sad consequence of government's lack of a refugee policy is that the children of refugees cannot attend government schools. Refugee communities have pooled their money to open and staff community schools. Because of the ambiguous situation of refugees the schools operate a cloud, i.e., what happens if a school is discovered, raid, and the status of the children, their parents or teachers checked? The school we visited has 80 students from 3 years old to 16 and three teachers. Volunteers teach English. They normally come once a week, and as is true of volunteers everywhere - they don't always come each week. We spoke with young teacher whose command of English was excellent. This may seem condescending, but in fact he largely taught himself English. In addition to teaching he is working with Malaysia Cares to develop a youth center for teenagers and young men - the group which is most prone to act out their boredom.

It may be a refugee school, but it still has rules
Team members in a classroom/meeting room

The school we visited is part of the Chin community from Myanmar. They tend to be more developed and have more resources than other refugee communities. We debated reaching out to other communities, but the resources available (time and money) served as constraints. Even working with a well organized community takes time - contacts have to be made and we have to convince agencies and schools that we are offering something of value.

This project is an example of how one's skills can be put to new uses in retirement. In addition I have met and admire dedicated Malaysians and marvel at the resilience, ambitions, and selflessness of young Asians.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Some Musings on Thanksgiving Dinner 2012

Thanksgiving Dinner 2012

Deconstructed Malaysian Style


Cranberry Juice

Main Course

Tandoori Chicken Ala Jeffrey Saad

With Basmati Rice and Spicy Tomato Chutney


Matar Paneer

Oven Roasted Pumpkin with pumpkin pie spicing


Crème Brulee Ice Cream with Chocolate Cookies


Cold Water

Rolf Binder Hale’s 2010
Shiraz Barossa Valley (Australia)

The Back Story

Until recently, we hosted the annual extended family Thanksgiving Gathering.  Over the years up to 46 people gathered at our home in Raleigh, NC, USA.  The gathering included family, friends, and casual acquaintances.  Some of the friends and acquaintances became family.

A traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the USA varies greatly depending upon where you lived and your ethnic heritage.  My mother's family was originally of Swiss/German extraction and the dinner included sauerkraut, and horseradish infused Lime jello salad.  In our Thanksgiving tradition we quickly dropped the sauerkraut and jello salad, but added other items: matar paneer (adopted during one son's vegetarian phase), cranberry sauce with horseradish (sounded like a great NPR recipe), green bean curry (because it tasted so good), and homemade salsa (adopted from a friend's recipe while we were living in Arizona).  But the center piece of the dinner was always the turkey.  As our economic situation changed we migrated from frozen turkey to fresh, from one large to multiple small sized birds.  We always had a stuffing (and it was always stuffed in the bird, not cooked on the side).  Liz baked a pumpkin pie (which became less popular over the years as tastes (and waistlines) changed).  

Various friends and relatives contributed to the dinner:  some made yams cooked in a sweet sauce with marshmallows melted on top, others brought cookies, apple pies, a minced meat pie, various Chinese dishes, and other Asian dishes.  Everything was labeled so people with dietary restrictions could partake.  We always had peanut butter on hand for the occasional child whose palate did not include new and strange foods.

In later years, I learned to make Ice Cream (an obsession learned when visiting Hanoi early in the 21st century).  So ginger ice cream, coffee ice cream and East India Company spiced ice cream joined the mix. 

This all came to an end in 2010 with the last Thanksgiving Meal at the O'Sullivan-Hale household in Raleigh.  We retired shortly later and moved to Malaysia.  The USA dinner continued at a new venue a year later, but the geographical dispersion of the family  members with new nuclear families forming caused the tradition to end.  This is not sad, but the natural order of things.  Over the years five generations of family members celebrated with us.  

Uncle Brendan

Dad (Colin)
However in the new venue's some traditions continue.  Family members in Texas, USA are now making their own "strange cheese", and a grandson in Rochester, NY (USA) is learning the fine art of paneer making in the arms of his doting Uncle.  Other members of the family celebrate in Alexandria, VA, USA, Laurel, MD, USA, London, UK, and in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Bangsar, Malaysia 2012

In 2011, we invited my niece who was doing a gap semester in Seoul, Korea to come to Kuala Lumpur.  It was a busy time and we celebrate Thanksgiving by Skyping to Oregon and the family gathering in Maryland.  We ate at a local restaurant.  

This year I began looking for a method to make a Thanksgiving dinner.  We first looked for restaurants serving a Thanksgiving dinner.  We found one which would include a suite of rooms and a room service provided meal (it was only USD 600 for four people).  I wondered whom we could include who would share the room with us.  Another hotel offered a "Southern Thanksgiving Dinner" buffet.  The thought somewhat scared me, especially when one son opined that it probably included "Cream of Mushroom soup".

So I decided to evaluate my kitchen and determine how I could create a satisfying Thanksgiving Dinner.  I have an oven (a counter top overgrown toaster oven), and a small, work surface challenged environment.

My Oven

My Kitchen

My first choice was looking for a turkey breast.  All turkey in Malaysia comes from Australia, and are "liquid infused" birds.  However, they are "halal".  But the birds were too large for my limited baking environment.  I was not interested in deep frying my turkey, and potentially setting fire to my condo building.  Then I looked for turkey parts.  Frozen drumsticks are available, but no turkey breast.  This is somewhat puzzling, since no sliced meat  pork free substitutes (pastrami, salami, ham, and bacon are made from turkey) and freshly ground turkey meat is similarly unavailable.  What has happened to the missing breasts, thighs, wings, necks, and turkey feet?  Mystified, I decided to abandon turkey as the centerpiece of our dinner.

Using a roast chicken did not resonate with me.  If I was going to make a change it was going to be an Asian homage to a Thanksgiving dinner.  What were the elements I needed to include:  a meat centerpiece, a starch dish, a vegetable dish (matar paneer was the easy choice but its implementation is controversial within the family), a tomato salsa dish and a pumpkin pie dish.   So what did I come up with?

My spice infused mortar and pestle
The meat centerpiece was replaced with the Tandoori-style Chicken, basmati rice and spiced tomato chutney adopted from Jeffrey Saar's  Global Kitchen: Recipes Without Borders: 2012, Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Originals, New York, USA.  The rice is a beautiful yellow in colour, courtesy of turmeric (I used some turmeric produced by a woman's collective in Bhutan).  It did not have the sharp taste of the powder turmeric distributed in the USA.  Maybe I am overly critical as I have become accustomed to using fresh turmeric ground in my mortar and pestle.  The tomato chutney replaced the Arizona based tomato salsa.  It is sweet with a nice vinegar kick.  I used the red wine vinegar specified in the recipe, but an Asian rice wine would be nice substitute. 

A healthier and economic choice
The featured part of his dish was the chicken.  I do not like the chicken parts the local stores package.  The chicken meat is heavily infused with water.  Instead I chose a Japanese style of chicken, which is antibiotic free, and air dried.  I cut the chicken into  parts myself.  It is amazing how some little things are so different.  Butchering of chicken parts is different, with the thigh parts containing part of the back, and of course the feet are included.  I substituted "Gheeblend" for ghee.  It was both an economic and well as a health choice.  Real Ghee in Malaysia, at least at my "expensive" neighborhood store is exorbitantly priced, and the substitute must be better for my arteries.  Otherwise I followed the recipe.  Of course I had to transfer the chicken from the frying pan into a baking dish because I oven was too small.

The matar paneer was a violation of the family tradition.  I used a prepackaged version.  It was an adequate substitute but not the real thing.  Maybe next year.

I apologize to to Matar Paneer purists.

The roasted pumpkin was my own creation.  I had a half butternut squash in the refrigerator and had roasted pumpkin in an earlier recipe for pumpkin and potato curry.  As I was cutting up the pumpkin using my "Vietnamese peeler" I was thinking "what about dessert".  I added some butter, a stick of cinnamon, some freshly ground nutmeg (I needed to find a hammer to crack the shell before grating the nice interior nut), and some whole cloves. It was put into the oven while the chicken was resting.  About 20 minutes at 200 (375) was about right.

The final part of the meal were the nicely caramelized onions and red bell peppers in Jeffrey Saal's recipe.  They added both a colourful and a flavourful touch.  Again, I learned that colour and flavour can go hand in hand.

For service, I made a bed of the caramelized onion/pepper mixture, reconstructed the chicken from the parts, and added some fresh coriander.  A spritzer of fresh lime would have added some brightness to the dish.  Garlic coated Naan were originally included, but for the two of us it would have been overkill.

The wine was nice, and it got better as it breathed.  I always forget that step in serving wine, it really mellows with the exposure to air.  It probably could have used a few minutes in the fridge to take a bit of the warmth out of the wine.  A short note about wine in Malaysia. According to a report on the local news this AM, Malaysian excise taxes on alcoholic products is the second highest in the world: following Norway.  Given that "two-buck Chuck" would cost USD 10 here.

A nice cheap wine.

The dessert was nothing to write about.  Just straight out the store freezer and a bag of cookies.  I have given up on making ice cream here in Malaysia.  One we don't need the calories or cholesterol, the ingredients are expensive and UHT heat treated, and many of our friends to whom we would serve the ice cream are lactose intolerant.  Besides, the pricing of a compressor ice cream maker is 5 times that of the USA or UK.

The Aftermath

I am now reflecting on what I miss.  The deconstructed dinner does not easily lead to:  cold turkey sandwiches with Susan Stanberg's Mother's cranberry sauce,  Left over pan fried mashed potato cakes, nibbling on left over stuffing, and matar paneer at its best, a day later.  I miss cooking breakfast the next morning when I can serve pancakes without Liz objecting.  I miss walking with family on cool autumn days, and either organizing shopping trips to local potteries, visiting museums, going to the symphony, or attending ice hockey games with a group of 20.  I miss the hordes of people and actually I miss the feeling of solitude when everybody goes home.

Travel logistics for Kerala (and Mysore)

For our travel in India we have asked travel agencies to arrange a two person tour. This year we felt we could do the planning ourselves. In the end mostly because of laziness we asked a travel agency do the work. After surfing the web we contacted Envoy Tours and asked them to modify their standard Kerala tour. They hired our driver and city guides, booked hotels, and suggested extra activities.

To help individual travelers to Kerala and Karnaka this post comments on the travel agency, drivers, and guides. They were all excellent.

Travel Agency
Envoy Tours was the 3rd travel agency we have used in India. It was by far the best. Envoy sent a proposed program, so we could ask for adjustments (we asked for one hotel change and passed on an elephant ride).  The agency also found a driver and city guide for the Mysore portion of our trip.

All Indian travel agencies are not equal. A previous agency booked us into a Mysore hotel that lacked convenient public transportation into the city  For New Year's eve they booked us into hotel that charged USD29/person for a New Year's "party." It was highway robbery.The party was a buffet dinner held in the hotel's unheated (freezing) garage and the guests were charged for drinks including water! For more information on what can go wrong see our post India Travel Logistics.

We can't overstate how important a driver is. A good driver can make a trip virtually hassle free. He may meet you at the airport or your hotel, follows a flexible schedule, and goes where you want to go. In practice we let drivers set the time for a morning departure; they are better at estimating travel times between points. Our driver in Karnataka was Ravi and in Kerala Rajeel. Both were careful, managed congested traffic and winding roads capably, and scheduled rest breaks at places with clean toilets and inviting restaurants.The restaurants catered to travelers, but not necessarily tourists. We stopped at a one place that gave us an extensive menu. The waiter acknowledged most requests including one for stuffed tomatoes, with "don't have." Surprisingly stuffed tomatoes appeared - a yummy surprise. A limited inventory and more limited English made the restaurant memorable.

Rajeev Kumar
We spent 4 days with Ravi and 10 with Rajeel. Think about it - it is a lot of together time. Both men pointed out sites along the road, stopped for quick tours and commented on what we were seeing, e.g., in Karnataka signs had their English blacked out. Both drivers made sure that the hotel registrations went smoothly and they acted as translators for a few transactions. Along the way we had conversations and came to know a bit about each other's lives and families. We recommend both Ravi and Rajeel highly and hope that you can  book with them if you are traveling in the region. Ravi , who lives in Bangalore, may be booked through GL Tours & Travel and Rajeev can be hired through Envoy. Rejeev would prefer to be booked directly. If you leave a comment and I can send his mobile number. 

Tour Guides

In general we have found licensed Indian guides are quite good, but once again Envoy did an exceptional job. We had four guides who did far more than rattle off facts or, as is often the case in India, focus on the many gods and their relationships to each other. Unlike Northern Indian guides no shopping "opportunities" popped up on our journey

For one day - crowd management
In Mysore M.S. Raghunath "Ragu" made sure that we didn't get swept up in the Dasara crowds. I expected that the palace would be boring, after all we had seen it in January.  I was wrong.  Ragu focused on items that were important in the Dasara parade. He added similar depth to the other sites we visited. Raghunath can be contacted at

In Kovalam we met Ramesh Nair who took us to some sights in Tamal Nadu as well as Kerala. We had a lot of car time, which allowed for many interesting conversations over a wide range of topics, including the status of women (good). He said that he doesn't get bored because always learns new things from his clients. Our contribution - the naturalized Americans can change their name when they become citizens (thank you, Sandhya, for teaching us this.) Ramesh talked about the challenges of working on bus tours, making sure that passports aren't lost or luggage forgotten -  may be worse then chaperoning a bunch of teenagers. Ramesh can be reached at (the aa is not an error)

Sreeraj may have been our youngest guide ever. No problem - he was a committed environmentalist and studying to be a volunteer naturalist. He was invested in introducing us to Mummar. He was pleased to choose our lunch menu at a local restaurant and so were we. The piece of personal information that I enjoy was that he and his wife lived with his brother and his family and Sreeraj (I can't remember if grandparents were also in the house.) To keep piece television serials (which I think are similar to soap operas) and politics couldn't be discussed. He can be reached at

Our tour with Tomy Joseph was the shortest of the trip (3 hours); they were a packed 3 hours. We went aboard a Chinese fishnet. We were especially interested in the synagogue and Jew town. He was informative in describing what was in the synagogue and the status of the tiny Jewish community. You can reach Tomy at

In the Future

We were happy with all the arrangements - the only change we might have made was to stay at different beach at Kovalam, but then we found a small seafood restaurant and expressed a wish that we would see the staff again in the future. In a few cases the guide had to fill in an open schedule. In hindsight it isn't fair to put the burden of where to go on the guide and we would give more thought to what we want to see, e.g., contemporary art and markets. In some areas we may see if a travel agency can help us identify music or dance performances.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fort Cochin (Kochi)

Our last stop in Kerala was Fort Cochin.  The metro area is large and parts of the city are on various peninsulas and islands that are linked together by ferries and bridges. When we booked the tour we needed to choose where we wanted to stay; in Fort Cochin with the historical buildings and charm, or  Ernakulam.  However as we learned from our guides, a major portion of the population lives on Vypeen Island, and Vallarpadam Island just to the north.  The tourist maps show no streets there, but they are densely populated.  We chose to stay in Fort Cochin, and were booked into a heritage boutique hotel (Killian's) on Calvathy Road.  This was a good choice, not only was the hotel nice, the restaurant fantastic, and we could easily walk to most of the tourist sites.

As our trip came to a close, we need to descend from the Western Ghats.  The valleys were beautiful, and we had wonderful vistas to gaze at.  On several occasions I requested that the driver stop so I could get pictures.  We saw large waterfalls and wide valleys.  As we descended it got warmer and population density increased.  It was almost a shock when we encountered metro Kochi.  We had to skirt around the southern sided of the city and crossing private toll bridges (the list of exceptions to tolls was interesting starting with the President and Prime Minister of India, and including pensioners, police, etc.).

Western Ghats on descent to Kochi

Waterfall in Western Ghats

A view of the Western Ghats

Our driver had some difficulty finding the hotel, but had no problem with asking for directions.  Although he carried a smart phone all the time, he never seemed to use some of its advanced features.  We made arrangements for a representative of the tour company to meet us the following morning to follow-up on a refund due us (this was not a problem and our tour company was very accommodating).

After a quick rest (and shower) we began our exploration of Fort Cochin.  As always, I am enamored by ferries (Liz is not) and spent some time watching a ferry unload.  Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians are crammed on these boats.  Star Ferry in Hong Kong would be luxurious in comparison.  The massive amount of water exiting the backwaters joins the Arabian Sea.
Kochi Ferry

 It is so massive that only a small amount of sea water actually enters.  Tankers, freighters, and container ships enter and exit the harbour with regularity.

Chinese Nets at Fort Kochi

Fishermen mending their nets

Lining both sides of the strait are the Chinese fishing nets.  They take their name from the original designs brought to Kochi in the 14th century by traders. The technology has been enlarged and expanded by local fishermen.  On a Saturday afternoon, many families were walking along the waterfront and beach areas, vendors were selling an assortment of items (locally roasted nuts, ice cream, canned drinks, sliced fruit, toys, and novelties).  People willing pose for picture, and businessmen tried to attract our business (we stopped at a fish restaurant for a mid-afternoon drink of fresh lime and sparkling soda.  While we are careful with our selection of food and drinks in India, we do indulge somewhat, but no ice and bottled water only.

A vendor roasting nuts

We left the beach and wandered looking for dining choices, and searched for Sing Cheung Chili Sauce (Kolkota).  Liz found this sauce in Bhutan and has been on a quest to get more.  But while looking, I found Sriracha sauce, an essential for Vietnamese Pho.  It is unavailable in Malaysia.  You find things in strange places.

We ended up back in the hotel.  We had a delightful dinner in the open air restaurant, a grilled fish in banana leaf, some vegetables, and a nice pulao.  While local wine was on the menu we deferred instead for fresh lime and soda, and a local lager.  The rest of the time we spend sitting around the pool, catching up on the Internet.
People love to have their photo's taken

Yes, we are still in Fort Kochi
We love signs

The next morning we had breakfast (not good, not bad) with weak coffee.  I assisted the hotel staff to print my boarding passes (a tick in the wrong box caused all the problems), and waited for the travel agent representative to arrive.  Precisely on time, I met with him and we conducted our business quickly.  I have found in India, that people are very punctual.

We do not recommend this tour agent!!
A wall mural

After conducting our business we went for a walk, and I managed to get lost.  We ended up making a purchase of a blouse for Liz, that we needed to return for a size change.  Our guide for the afternoon assisted us in finding the store. Indian sizes can very greatly, but for accurate European sizing go to Fabindia.  There was a store in Fort Kochin, but we did not visit it. There are stores throughout the country, but main stores in New Delhi are fantastic with selection and sales assistance.  They even have international shipping assistance.

We visited the Chinese Fishing Nets, but this time got a good explanation, and walked out on the net structure, and saw the fishermen actually catching fish (only twice a day at high tide).  The catch was meager with the five workers sharing with the owner the proceeds from the catch.

Catch of the day
Working on the Chinese Nets
A seventy-five year old fisherman
 I think they also share the tips from posing for photos.  We then walked past the Portuguese bastion (one one of the original remains).  It is being renovated as the Indian Department of Revenue has vacated the premises.  Much of the historical beach area has been preserved, in part due to the presence of the Indian Navy.

A goat walking along the wall of a urban canal
Clothes are dried on all available services

St. Francis Church is a relic from the past.  First build by the Portuguese, and then converted to a Dutch Reformed Church, later converted to Anglican, and now Church of India.  It contains the original resting place for Vasco de Gama.  I know, you all remember Vasco de Gama from elementary school history classes.  Hanging above the nave are large panels of cloth attached to ropes going through holes in the walls.  These were early fans with people standing outside pulling on the ropes to cool the congregants.  On this Sunday afternoon, the church choir was rehearsing Christmas carols.

Little Flower Parish
Lunch before our tour
Yet another fish to be devoured

We then visited Jew Street, and the Synagogue.  The history of Judaism in Kerala is long, starting with migrants following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  One group migrated to Kerala, were after a period of time were allowed to establish a Jewish Kingdom within his realm.  This lasted until the 15th century when the Portuguese in conjunction with a Sultanate destroyed them.  They were replaced with another European Jewish community.  The two communities did not recognize each other until recently as the Jewish population of Kerala has dropped to three families (9 individuals in the 70's and older).

Gate to the Synagogue
Our guide for Fort Kochi, Tomy

Our driver for Kerala, Rajeev
This was the end of our tour in Kerala, but we had several hours until our flight back to Kuala Lumpur.  We do not like hanging out in airports, especially prior to check in (in India the authorities generally do not allow access to the terminals until check-in begins.  So to waste time, the driver took us to the "largest mall" in Kochi.  As we approached he pointed out the line of cars waiting to enter the underground parking lot.  We joined the queue, and actually found a parking space.  The driver gave us 45 minutes to explore.  The interior was 5 stories, with various department stores.  Some sort of contest was being run at a TATA Nano exhibit.   They sell cars in shopping centres in India.  We wandered for a while, purchased nothing and met our driver (and  tour company agent) for our 45 minute trip to the airport.

The flight to Kuala Lumpur was a little late, but we arrived on time.  We disembarked, went through immigration, collected our luggage, passed customs and were in our taxi within 15-20 minutes of landing.

Our India trip is now over,  we will return in a year, after our trip to Sri Lanka in 2013.  But Laos is next in early 2013.