Monday, January 28, 2013

Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Prior to Saturday night we knew that Thaipusam attracted throngs of people to the Batu Caves and that some devotees carried large structures, had stakes in their bodies, and pierced their checks and tongues. Because of the reported crowds we avoided going last year, but recently a taxi driver urged us to go and stand on the sides. Based on his recommendation, we signed up with the American Association of Malaysia for a tour to Batu Caves on the eve of Thaipusam. We assumed that that the tour would keep us from being consumed by the crowds. Not so. But what we lost in peaceful meandering we gained in knowledge. Rag, our tour guide, explained the festival and guaranteed that we didn't merely observe colorful and strange rituals. We understood what we were seeing.

Worshipers gathering at the riverbank

Showers are provided as the river is no longer clean
Decorations are held by hooks inserted into the body
A worshiper is prepared

Estimates of the number devotees and spectators vary, but they exceed well over a million. The local train (KTM) ran continuous service for 4 days and expected 500,000 riders. When we arrived, people were everywhere. But no chance of being squeezed and trampled. Devotees were busy carrying out their own rituals at their own pace. Spectators lined up along the long route from the river to the temple. With continuous streams of devotees carrying kavadis,which ranged from pots of milk to large wooden structures, there was no focal point where crowds surged.

Giving a blessing

Walking to the stairway to Batu Caves

A pose

Thaipusam is in honor of Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati. During the year devotees may have made vows to Lord Murugan, e.g., they may promise to carry a kavadi if a child is born or if the have good fortune in their business, and so forth. On Thaipusam the rituals fulfill the vows. A kavadi, a burden,  may be a pot of milk. It may be a cloth cradle with a baby inside, which is carried on sugar cane stalks. The baby may have been born after entreaties to Lord Murugan.  Conversely, if a family member died in the past year, immediate family members do not participate in or attend Thaipusam festivities. (Lesson from the taxi driver who drove us home.)

A Kavidi
A God Prepared for Transport
Women carrying pots of milk

A man carrying a pot of milk on his head

As we approached Batu Caves we heard incessant drumming. It is to put the large kavadi bearers and other devotees into a trance. Some devotees may pierce their checks and tongues and put hooks on their bodies. The hooks may be attached to large kavadis, fruits, and other ornamentation are attached to the hooks. Prior to Thaipusam the devotees would have followed a period of fasting (up to 48 days). While fasting they eat only a vegetarian dinner usually water and fruits. Rag said that some of the men would gather in the local temples once or twice a week, drumming and going into trances. His comment was that they usually do not have happy lives and that the trances give them hope.

The Stairway to Batu Caves on left, Lord Murtha on right

Our first stop at Batu Caves was by the Klang River. Traditionally devotees would do ablutions in the river, but the Klang is polluted. Most devotees took advantage of the showers. In the area around the river devotees prepared to carry their kavidis to the temple. After watching the preparations we entered the temple grounds. For a while we stood and watched devotees go by. This is the best and easiest time to take pictures. We then decided to climb the 272 steps into the cave - despite my statement a year ago that I had no intention of repeating the climb ever again. At the bottom of the steps was a collection of shoes, but I decided against a barefoot climb. Not only would the climb been more challenging I don't know how I would have found my shoes again. Climbing the steps was easier at night, but by the time I reached the top I had lost my motivation to check out the final stages of the rituals. Actually the number of people serves to discourage intrusion more than fatigue.

A female participant

Thaipusam is a religious festival, but along the way there were food stalls, snack stands, business displays, retirement planning services, and even a match maker. Although we were getting hungry and the food looked inviting, logistics led us to go back to the bus. We eager to make the LRT that ends service at midnight. Otherwise we might be stuck negotiating with a taxi driver. Drivers in the downtown area don't like using the meter and ask ridiculous fares. Plus fares go up by 50% after midnight.

A officer from the Red Crescent to provide emergency medical assistance.
The Prudential was here to sell insurance and retirement plans.

A local political party had a presence

A few detailed descriptions A reporter decribes his preparations to carry a kavidi (includes link to video)  ("Healing, Sacred Vows, and Trances" puts the rituals in context.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Merdeka Square Tour - Kuala Lumpur

As is true of city dwellers everywhere we only find out what our home city offers when we have a house guest. This time we signed up for the free Merdeka Square Guided Tour, sponsored by Kuala Lumpur City Hall. When I saw the tour map I imaged a fact-filled, boring walk from building to building. I don't find viewing historic buildings as engaging as visiting a community full of traditional foods and crafts.

I was wrong. A potentially dry tour was informative and entertaining. Our guide was Jackie Wong; he did an excellent job of combining facts with stories. My initial hypothesis, based on thinking about our favorite guides in India, Vietnam, and Malaysia, was that more mature guides are better. (We had at least one youngish guide in Indonesia who challenges this hypothesis. He had the same skills as older guides.)  I recalled a guide in India who said that he found people interesting and that is what kept him doing a potentially boring job. A better hypothesis.

Model of KL - Upstairs at City Gallery

I have no idea if Jackie Wong enjoyed people or found them interesting, but I would be shocked if we didn't. Our tour group of 11 had tourists from France, Sweden, China, the UK, Canada, and the US. Jackie shared our names and nationalities with the group. This simple strategy encouraged short conversations as we walked along.

The tour started at the KL City Gallery, the former home of the Government (British) Printing Office. As we looked at its exterior Jackie told us about John Russell, who came from England to establish the printing office in KL (I googled John Russell to make sure that I remembered the facts correctly. His father was not the man listed on his birth certificate. Rather his father was the step-father of his mother. John Russell and his wife put their first born son in a fondly home. A contrast to Victorian England's puritanical reputation. One of his sons owned various business ventures including Boh Tea, which is currently led by a third-generation family member. I found this bit of history interesting, because my recollection is that tours of the Boh tea estate is all about tea, not its founders. This contrasts with Royal Selangor Pewter where you might even meet a family member in the sales room.

I half expected that we would wave at the National Textile Museum, but we went in and viewed the rooms with the different national costumes (Indian, Malay, Chinese, Orang Asli, and Peranakan) and accessories. We stopped to see the confluence of the Klang and Gombok Rivers that give Kuala Lumpur its name, i.e., muddy estuary. (I always thought that it meant muddy waters.)

We stopped at the former KL City Hall, now the City Theatre, where its dance troupe performed three dances. (Jackie told us that each performance is different, and the number of dancers may vary.) The performance was entertaining - neither overly long or overly pretentious. All the dancers were Malay. I learned that at least one dancer trained at the Temple of Fine Arts. I would like to have learned more about where the dancers studied. Dance performances by Indian or Chinese troupes are relatively common. Performances by Malay groups seem equally uncommon.

It's not every City Hall that has a dance troupe

Our last stop was the Royal Selangor Club, where
we were able to order drinks at the long bar at members' prices. The club's decor felt very clubby. At the entrance to the long bar was sign not allowing ladies. We were told that we (women) could enter the bar, but we would
have to drink on the veranda. Somewhere there was a miscommunication. No problem, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed the view. A much better ending than finishing in a gift shop. 

My final surprise was when we left. We asked for directions to GoKL, the city's wonderful bus that loops around downtown. We were directed to Central Market, which was where the saw the union of the Gombak and Klang Rivers, i.e., very close. We go to Central Market often and we have been to performances at the City Theatre. But I don't remember being at the back of Central Market or if I had I didn't pay attend. Same with the City Theatre; we approach it from another part street. So I not only learned more about the city's history, I improved my knowledge of its geography.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Some day we will learn to speak Malaysian

We are veterans of Bahasa Malaysian (BM) I classes. I have taken four and Doug has taken three. At the basic level it isn't a difficult language, but in a city where many people speak English we don't get much practice. Taxi drivers have been the most help in improving our skills. For a few weeks a neighborhood security guard practiced with us, but then he was transferred.

My first BM class was at USM in Penang in 2008. The class was for foreign students. A student from China was named "Lolita," which as I recall was a fitting name. The instructor wasn't engaged; she gave excess time for in-class writing assignments. My interest in the class decreased when a staff member told me that I was learning "kampung Malaya" (village Malay). I was surprised when the instructor told us that there was no difference between kita ("we" excluding the person addressed) and kami ("we" including the person addressed). I have since learned that many Malaysians don't know the difference.

Our next class was at the KL YMCA with Noorita. She was an exceptional teacher. She quickly engaged our class of 10 that included persons from Slovenia, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and Australia. A  typical class began with Noorita asking what we had for dinner. With such a diverse class our our knowledge of food - what it was, what it was called, and where to find it - quickly grew. Technically, the next class we signed up for was BMII. Noorita was not the instructor and the "text" was incoherent. The course was a disaster  Our Malaysian did not improve. In fact it got worse. No one in the class signed up for BMIII. My favorite memory was the instructor correcting the English pronunciation of a Frenchwoman in the class.

We hoped that signing up for a class at the Association of British Women in Malaysia would get us out of our rut. The classes are conducted by ALS Languages. We had a small class. The class started with two women from the UK and us. One of the women attended only half the classes, because of conflicting travel plans.

Our instructor was Hanipah, different from Noorita but equally good. Hanipah was closer to our age. She clearly explained the basic grammatical details of Bahasa. We had conversations about "life now" that middle class, middle age people everywhere have.We also learned about the Malaysian culture. For example, Malays consider one a guest for three days. After the third day you are not longer a guest and are expected to pitch in. Since I always stay with Lena for three days I guess I am a perpetual guest, i.e., very well cared for.

Now our challenge is to follow up on this BM class. We haven't looked for Intermediate classes. But with only three in our class,we assume that few people are looking for an intermediate class. In addition our travel schedule during the fall was challenging - we missed two classes while we were in India - and the coming spring will be worse. We plan to open up our Rosetta Stone Indonesia class. We now know some of the differences at the basic level. Plus we have been told that Malaysians usually understand Indonesian because they go to Indonesia films. The reverse is not true.

Bottom Line - the ALS classes are far more expensive that the Y classes, but the materials are far superior: a textbook; dictionary arranged by topics, such as, people's jobs; glossary; conversation book and CD. Noorita was great, but given our limited experience we assume that there is little variation in the skills of ALS teachers. The same was not true of the Y instructors.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A weekend at home (KL)

Doug getting ready for the weekend
The most common question among retirees we meet is "how do you spend your day?" I have a few weekday routines - volunteering at Empower, taking Bahasa Malay lessons, and senior citizen yoga. The weekends fill themselves up. This weekend consisted of: three tasty, inexpensive meals; viewing a documentary on a refugee camp followed by a Q&A session with the director; an outstanding production of Philadelphia Here I Come.

This is Malaysia, so meals first. We ate three Indian meals. We had a vegetarian banana leaf lunch at Sri Ananda Bahawn, across from Bangsar LRT, several months ago. IMO the gravy was outstanding and the breakfast menu looked tempting. Another time for dinner we had sizzling meat dishes, tasty but one dish would have satisfied both of us. On Saturday we stopped in before going to a lecture. Doug had a  masala rava dosa (thosai) and I had Chinese noodles - an acceptable balance between price and taste. Sunday morning we met friends for breakfast at Aiswaryi,
which is walking distance from the house. Too late for thosai,so we settled for roti canai, roti pisang, and roti telor. We learned that a stall in front of the restaurant serves uppuma in the evening - a favorite of mine - so we will look for an excuse to each there soon.

Chinese noodles & masala rava thosai
We RSVP for every lecture that seems interesting and convenient. On Saturday we saw the documentary film, One Flew over Dadaab followed by a Q&A with the film maker, Andre Vltchek. Dadaab is a refugee camp in Kenya. It shelters over 650,000 refugees. The film made a convincing case that there is no such thing as a good refugee camp. Two women who were interviewed together, didn't even look at each other. The schools used ancient blackboards with worn out surfaces. Ghosts of previous lessons showed through. In one shot most of the students seemed engaged with the lesson. The few students were spread out and did not seem to interact with each other. Andre answer most questions by saying "it's complicated." A totally honest and appropriate answer. What political forces drive people from their homes? How much does bribery dictate who gets opportunities? What is the price for reporting on a refugee camp,e.g.,  what restrictions does one have to agree to to get access? How much to interview subjects censor themselves before speaking? We didn't leave with answers, but we surer of our information. We had the added pleasure of meeting interesting, congenial people.The woman who sat next to me is a recently retired law professor from Sarawak; she talked about being by Peace Corp volunteers in high school. She wore a hjab and her name was Marilyn! Malaysian constantly defy stereotypes.

 In Malaysia refugees live in city and towns throughout the country. Their legal status is ambiguous and the children cannot go to government schools. At the same time refugees >are not isolated from the larger society. Their communities have developed support systems and they . Not a good or desirable situation, but perhaps it does not condemn generation after generation to an aimless struggle to survive.
KLPAC - lots going on (but posters are a bit far from public view
On Sunday we indulged in our first love, theater, with some trepidation. In the US we saw at least 50 plays a year, mostly dramas. In KL we have seen a few plays; hardly any stick out in our memories. This weekend that changed. We saw Philadelphia Here I Come. The play written by Brian Friel. was adapted. The KL production did not take place in Ireland, but in suburban Cheras

It was an outstanding production. The cast made me forget that they were telling an adapted story. Sometimes I found it painful to witness the characters making bad decisions. We left the theater buoyed by the knowledge that one can see fine plays with good local actors.

Director engaging audience in a pre-theater chat

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cooking in Bangkok

First Day

Liz had a last minute trip to Bangkok to attend a conference on Human Rights advocacy for NGO's.  I went along on this trip.  I had to decide what to do.  The first day coincided with "Father's Day", a national holiday in Thailand.....actually it was the birthday of the King of Thailand, a revered figure in Thailand.  I spent the day with an acquaintance, Lance Woodruff,  from over 40 years ago when I was in the then Republic of Vietnam. The one time we met was at a Christmas party in Saigon.  He had pictures to show it.

VNCS 1971 Christmas Party (From Left to Right) Doug, Dean, and Doug (me)  copyright Lance Woodruff
We spent the day talking, drinking coffee (Starbucks because everything else was closed) and eating (at the Madrid Cafe which I think was in the movie Air America or Apocalypse Now.  Of note here, the waitresses were bored with the lack of business due to the holiday, so they sat in a booth making Christmas ornaments.  I was invited to an Chin Burmese engagement party, but had to attend a dinner with Liz.

The Second Day - Cooking

The second day is the main subject of this blog.

I searched the web looking for a tourist cooking school  in the vicinity of our hotel in the Silom District.  I ended choosing the Silom Cooking School.  It received good reviews in Trip Advisor, was appropriately priced, and had a menu I was interested in learning.  Of note, many cooking schools in Bangkok have two paths (especially the schools based in good restaurants): a short day course for tourists, and longer courses (recommended 10 to 20 days @ THB 10,000 per day) aimed at professionals wishing to start Thai restaurants.

Waiting with Motorcycle Taxi Driver (the vest is a uniform)

The morning's class met on a street corner.  It happens so often the motorcycle taxi drivers knew who I was waiting for.  After the meetup we went to a neighborhood market to pick up the spices, vegetables, and shrimp.  Although I have taken many market tours in Asia, I always learn something new.

Peppers, Peppers, and still more Peppers

Our harvest from the market

The Silom Cooking School is aimed at tourists. It provides plenty of hands on experience with staff dealing with peeling shrimp, and breaking down chicken carcases.  Good sanitation practices were followed in the preparation process: plenty of water for washing hands and vegetables; separation of meat and vegetables when cutting (separate cutting boards); constant reminders to wash up.

The Silom Cooking School

Our Instructor
Each dish was prepped by a group (our group included a South African woman, an Australian man, a couple from Columbia, a newly engaged couple from the UK and Poland, and an American) sitting on a bamboo mat in a room adjacent to the wet kitchen.  All ingredients were discussed, and demonstrations given on how to prepare.  I have since become a fan of the mortar and pestle for preparing pastes.

Proper form with the mortar and pestle

 It is easy with a stone set (not ceramic or wooden).  Tip, put the mortar on top of a dish cloth or pot holder, and chop the items in small pieces before pounding.  While you can use a chopper, blender or food processor, the end result is not the same (I need to get a larger mortar and pestle set).  Each person in the group (8) was responsible for preparing one ingredient or you did it in pairs.  Staff divided the ingredients onto trays and we went to the hallway to cook on individual gas stoves and woks.

Our Cooking Stations
 We cooked together, and the instructor was walking up and down giving some helpful hints and directions.  When the cooking was completed, we plated our dishes, and added decorations (edible flowers, sliced red pepper, and basil/mint leaf garnishes.  Then we ate the dish.

Group Cooking, sitting on the floor.

This pattern was repeated four times as our menu included: Spicy Shrimp Soup (Tom- Yum- Gung), Fried Chicken with Holy Basil ( Kra –Pow – Gai ), Phanaeng Curry Paste (Nam- Phrik- Kang- Phanaeng), Green Curry with Chicken (Kang- Khiao- Wan- Gai) and Mango on Sticky Rice (Kow -Neuw- Mamuang ).

I can cook.


Enjoying the fruits of our labor

A main dish

A second main dish