Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lunar New Year in KL

View from our pool (lights blink) twin towers in the foreground
After memorable lunar new year's spent out of Malaysia we decided to savor KL's lack of traffic and clear skies. Two years ago we wandered the streets of Yogjakarta looking for a place to stay. Doug and I were traveling with Lina.. We had been told that reservations weren't needed. Not true, if is Chinese New Year (CNY). We wanted 2 rooms, but we took a look when a receptionist said he had a perfect room. It was one room with a king sized bed! Last year we were in Laung Prabang. Caravans of families had driven down from China. Small groups wandered through the town looking for rooms. We had reserved a room, but finding a place to eat with available seats was difficult.

We started today (first day of the lunar new year) at a carnival the National Museum. From a newspaper article we learned that it was part of the museum's exhibit "Beads for Beauty." The connection was subtle, and we visited the bead exhibit almost as an afterthought. If you are in KL before 15 February go see it. It is interesting and free. The exhibit included beaded garments, headdresses, and shoes - items produced and worn by different ethnic groups. A person in a ceremonial costume was wandering about the carnival (a
better gig than the person dressed as Sponge Bob who handed out fliers on Times Square in the middle of the winter).The carnival had a few craft demonstrations, freshly cooked traditional cakes, vendors selling herbs and bonsai and beads. A small group from Sarawak (we were disheartened to see how old they were) danced a traditional dance, and a fashion show promoted an upcoming exhibit at the Textile Museum.

The monkey in front of the wood carver took two weeks to make. The piece he was working on at the carnival will probably take a month. While we watched the only tool he used was a chisel.

Next we headed to the Selangor-Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall (SKLCAH) for an open house. We were a bit late, so we missed the lion dance. We helped ourselves to noodles, vegetables, and a potato curry. At Eid, Diwali, Christmas, and Chinese New Year political parties and government officials hold an open house on the holiday associated with their ethnic group. These are come one - come all affairs and apparently can be quite elaborate. Since we aren't particularly comfortable with political Malaysia we were glad to have this opportunity to experience an open house. The SKLCAH is the frequent host of forums and book launches (in English) hat have enriched our understanding of Malaysia and its neighbors.

Eid, Diwali, Christmas, and Chinese New Year the malls do not miss an opportunity to decorate. A few days after Christmas the malls switched their colors to pink and worked horses into their motif. Since we don't usually go to the major malls we decided to visit at least one. Our purpose was to send pictures to our friends in the US who probably saw the malls jump from Christmas to Valentine's Day. We discovered that pictures can't completely pick up the burst of color. And on the first day of CNY the colorful decorations were complemented by some beautiful Chinese-style clothes on women, girls, and a few boys.

Horses everywhere. These will be sold off with
the proceeds going to charity
Temporary carousal with horses - a case of
mall one-ups man?
Capturing the wonder

Gong Xi Fa Cai

UpDate: And on the 2nd day of the lunar new year we walked to a friend'  house for coffee, cookies, and conversation. A week earlier the couple' families gathered to bake love letters, a major project, and other cookies.(Their description of the baking marathon reminded me of times when we visited Mingjai in the US and sat around talking and making dumplings.) We talked with three hours - we shared stories from our travels and they told us tales about notorious Malaysians.

And on the 3rd day we went to a lunch at the home of a Malay friend. Not your typical Malaysian meal - roast chicken, mashed potatoes, assorted steamed veggies, and coleslaw. Not Asian but delicious. A guest asked what the occasion was - the answer "Chinese New Year." A major topic of conversation was Malaysia's current religious/political tensions. There are diverse opinions and beliefs despite the perspective pushed by the powers to be. Later we all went to the home of a Chinese family for cookies and glass noodles with fungus. A lot of conversation - the most amazing one was on death customs. Including Googling to learn how heads are shrunk. We had left home at 2 and returned at 9.

Today is the 4th day and again we are awed at the potential of Malaysia to bring people together and not in a superficial way. People talk about things that matter and embrace their common humanity

Sunday, January 19, 2014

SuperMum, Super Bakery

We are constantly awed by the amazing, dedicated Malaysians we meet. A year ago we jumped at a friend's, Bernie's, invitation to visit SuperMum Bakery in Petaling Jaya - a short LRT ride from Kuala Lumpur. SuperMum trains single mothers to bake breads and cookies with the goal of setting up their own businesses.

I still drop by to watch the business grow. It is a hive of activity. Workers gather around a table kneading, shaping items, and chatting. Trays of treats to be baked or packaged surround them. Neighbors pop in to shop and visit. It is time to introduce SuperMum to others in Kuala Lumpur.

The food: No matter how worthy the project the breads and cookies must be good. We have sampled most of the 7 cookies, Usually we buy muesli or walnut-raisin bread, pretzels, scones and cookies. (I am a creature of habit. We have yet to remember to try the herb wholewheat bread with rosemary, thyme, parsley and black pepper.) The bakery maintains a tight inventory, and freshly baked cookies are available for spur of the moment purchases. Also readily available are muesli, wholemeal, pumpkin wholemeal, black sesame wholemeal, walnut and raisin wholemeal, lemon milk wholemeal, sweet potato wholemeal, multi-grain walnut and  soft buns. The target market for the buns are children who stop by after school. (On my last visit I had an onion bun - it could become addictive.)

At our first visit we couldn't resist the freshly baked pretzels.They aren't the doughy, salty pretzels sold on the streets of NYC, which we drench with mustard. These were sweeter, wheatier and covered with seeds - a healthy, tasty alternative. We usually toast the breads, which aren't overly sweet. In my opinion they hold there own without butter or jam.
Clare - putting the last touches on the pretzels
Kumar next to kneading machine (very impressive equipment)
The workers: After retiring Clare and Kumar took baking courses at the Malaysian Institute of Baking (MIB) and opened a home bakery. In December 2012 the Rotary Club of Petaling Jaya (RCPJ) appointed them to run the SuperMum bakery. SuperMum is Clare and Kumar's business where they give training single mothers to develop their skills and self confidence. Equipment and space are donated by the Sun and Petaling Jaya's local government (MBPJ) respectively. 

One piece of equipment donated by Sun newspapers
Potential trainees walk in and ask about the project. If they are keen, they negotiate with Clare on their training days and times. After training the bakery may offer skilled, involved trainees with part-time work with a small allowance. Currently, 5 mothers with them
Claudia getting ready to work

The project Prior to opening the bakery the Rotary club sent single mothers to MIB for training, but the trained women lacked the self confidence to launch their own business. The SuperMum bakery, with its hands-on training, gives the MIB graduates the knowledge, support, and self confidence to go out on their own. The bakery is a joint project of the Rotary Club of PJ, Petaling Jaya's local government (MBPJ) and the Sun newspaper. A short review of the project shows the effort it takes to launch a project, and the challenges of working with women who face daily challenges in managing their lives.

Lessons Learned: A community project requires flexibility and persistence. Bringing sponsors, resources, and program participants together is a learning process. False starts are inevitable requiring organizers to identify problems and make needed changes. Coordinating with other organization is helpful The large group training offered by MIB and SuperMums' individualized training worked best in conjunction with each other. MIB provides the foundation and SuperMum helps women transition into managing their own business. 

After one year the organizers have learned that mothers with older children have more control over their schedule and can make the extensive time commitment baking requires. Mothers with young children may drop out because of frequent conflicting demands. To date the trainees have not gone on to start their own businesses. One issue is working by themselves for long hours. Amarjit, who along with Claudia has been with the project since the start, said that now she does all her family's baking. The project has given her something to do outside her home and work with other women. In the long run SuperMum may end up training women to work independently in a bakery or restaurant instead of starting one-woman businesses. A year is not enough time to see how the women use their training. I'll check back next year.

Location and ordering: SuperMum is at Gelanggang Skuasy Jalan SS24/1, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya Telephone 03-78030482. Open Tue-Sat 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. and Sun 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. Ignore Google Maps. It is an easy walk from the Kelana Jaya LRT station. At station take the bridge over the highway. Turn right, walk past the shop houses and a block of residences to Jalan SS24/1. Turn left and walk about  600m. The bakery is in the park on the left, facing the traffic light junction, and with the Sekolah Kebangsaan Taman Megah a further 300m away on it’s left. Special orders and large orders, best to call two to three days in advance.

Here is a  partial price list so you can plan your trip
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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A short stay in Strasbourg

Our October trip from the US to KL included a stopover in France. Rather than squander our stay in Paris by sleeping off jet lag we went to Strasbourg. About 24 hours after leaving Indianapolis we were at the Hotel Vendome across from the Strasbourg train station. We landed in Paris and then took our train (booked on line) to Strasbourg. We have been to Strasbourg several times and decided to revisit because: it is cheaper than Paris, we like Alsacian food, and  it is a walkable city. Having been there before we felt no need to do more than wander, eat, and sleep. We picked the Vendome because it was inexpensive, had good reviews, and easy for jet lagged travelers to spend their time walking and exploring.

We looked forward to having a tartes flambee (flammenkuechen). We knew more or less where Le Flam's was - a inexpensive source and no worries about being out of them. We found Flam, ate, picked up bread and cheese, and went back to sleep. The next morning we had a 8 Euro breakfast at the hotel. It was better than we expected - fresh breads and rolls, cheese, flavored yogurt, and cereal.

When we left we had no particular place in mind. At the town square we spent time gazing at the historical carousel. We don't recall noticing it before, perhaps we were more involved in checking out the Christmas market vendors.

Note the two levels

End of October and still lots of al fresco dining

We worked our way toward the Cathedral. (Wikipedia entry is worth reading.) The cathedral was closed during mass, but the singers pictured below entertained a large group waiting to enter. Not pictured is a woman with a cup for money, she was clearly unhappy that they were in her spot. Not to worry, she apparently got her spot back because we spotted the singers later at a brasserie.

Are the Guatemalan Pipe Players who Reinvented Themselves?

Time to buy a stork (available S, M, L) for our grandson
Astronomical clock - Christ and 12 Apostles start moving
at 12:30 p.m
In center panel: St. Roch, St. Maurice, St. Nicholas
Why these 3 together? You can't learn everything
by Googling
To direct our wanderings we decided to take an audio walking tour. We would have preferred a guided tour, but there none available in English. We only received the audio set. Brochures are available; I don't remember if the staff member forgot or if the office was out of them.  Consequently, we weren't always sure if we were looking at the right building and various details were quickly forgotten. There is a lot to be said for visual reinforcement. Still it was a lovely, worthwhile walk and if we return to Strasbourg often enough we will take the tour again to appreciate more the city's history as told by its buildings.  We also took the walking tour while dodging runners in marathon.  The local security for the marathon were very helpful in getting casual spectators back and forth across the route through the city.

St. Thomas Church, the nearly 500 year old "Protestant Cathedral" stands on the site that was used as a place of worship under the patronage of Thomas the Apostle as early as the sixth century. I found St. Thomas' association puzzling since we had visited his alleged tomb in Chennai where he died in 72 A.D. Probably the word "patronage" means something different to the translator than to me. Pictured below is a 16th century tombstone that virtually every Google source went on to say "notable for its realistic depiction of his decaying corpse" and nothing more.

I appreciated the irony of learning that the Ecole National d'Administration is a building that was formerly a prison. The graduate school was founded in 1945 by DeGaulle to democratize the senior civil service.

School of Public Administration

A view of the Ill, a Rhine Tributary

Buildings along the Ill
After the walk we headed back to our hotel stopping for a tarte flambee and a salad at a small restaurant. We saw the building pictured below. Although we know nothing about it, it deserved a picture.
A pub perhaps?
We started our search for dinner by looking for a place that we have eaten at before - no luck. So we began to look with our budget in mind. We had a 17 Euro prix fixe meal (entree, main, and dessert) at La Petite Alsace. Doug's menu included a tarte flambee (last one for this trip) and Choucroute traditionnelle 4 garnitures (sauerkraut surounded with 4 pieces of meat including wurst). It was  lot of meat. For my entree I had a salad and then my potato and cheese casserole came with a salad. A day that started with me feel that I had too few vegetables was completely reversed. My casserole was good but a portion half the size would have done just as well.

Our stay was relaxing and left us ready to explore Paris.