In Malaysia, We Eat All of the Stingray

I have left the creature comforts of Singapore and am once again back on the streets! Read: back in the heat, fan rooms, small beds, thin mattresses, cold showers, multiple roommates, and the ever present possibility of bed bugs.

Ah, life on the road.

I am spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur to visit Choo, Woei, and Chi Yan (three girls I met in the Cameron Highlands who live here). After spending almost an hour running around KL and cursing myself for not having a smart phone (or even just a phone with credit), we finally managed to meet up and they stuffed me so full of Malay food I could barely move. It was awesome. We had chicken curry, stingray curry, eggplant, lady fingers, and some sort of sweet chicken over rice. Everything was so good, but as I was pulling one of the stingray bones out of my mouth Chi Yan informed me that you just eat the bones because they were soft. So I tried. I did try, Ill try almost anything once, but as I bit down on the bones it just felt wrong. My western mind is so locked in the idea of not eating fish bones that feeling the crunch of them (although they were actually pretty soft) made me involuntarily scew up my face. I only ate maybe 3 or 4 of them and left the rest on the plate. I did eat the skin though. Waste none of the stingray.

Life in the Cameron Highlands

I have camped myself in the Cameron Highlands for the past couple of days after an unexpected free ride out here and, surprisingly, I am enjoying myself quite a lot! I think I may stay here for at least a week. (I know, a whole week!) As I said, I didn’t think I would enjoy the Cameron Highlands all that much. There are a couple of reasons for this; not only was I told it wasn’t that great by a couple of locals, it’s a bit out of the way to get to and from and is also a tourist hot spot. However, despite traveling down south away from the highlands I have allowed myself to willingly be carted back up north into this areaDSCN1732 anyway.

I’m glad I did end up here, because it’s got the laid back feel of Cherating (minus the beach and add a few more people) and it also has cheap accommodation! There are heaps of hikes you can do on your own and plenty of ways to spend your days. I personally have been busy enjoying the markets a little too much and stuffing my face with food while at the same time moaning over my growing Indian food belly, so the other day it was off to the tea plantations with some new friends for a little bit of exercise! We began the 16km walk to the BOH tea plantation and threw out the thumb to hitch a ride after about 5 minutes. The first vehicle to breeze past was a police car and, not knowing if hitching is actually legal or not in Malaysia, I quickly flipped my thumb into a thumbs up sign (as if he wouldn’t know…). The next car I tried to flag down was a taxi, and he just laughed at me. Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve done any hitch hiking. However, it didn’t take long before the four of us were jumping into the bed of a truck and on our way. Along the way we stopped at a smaller tea plantation, a developing chrysanthemum nursery, and a bee farm. Apparently anything tea related is closed on Mondays, so after all our efforts getting there the BOH tea factory and café were both closed. There was a viewpoint we could hike to which boasted some lovely sights and tea for miles, so I was satisfied with the day.

I think I like the Cameron Highlands.

Cameron Highlands

Why I Didnt Make It to Kuala Terengganu

It happened, it actually happened.

The bus driver forgot about me.
(Fortunately I was already on the bus.)

I was taking the bus from Cherating to Kuala Terengganu…and apparently I was the only one with that stop, because I didn’t hear anyone else complaining that we had missed their stop. Not that I was complaining either, but that’s because I didn’t really know what was going on. It probably didn’t help that I popped my headphones in, pushed play on my ipod and within minutes of departing had already passed out. I woke up a few hours later, about the time I would normally have reached my destination, and looked around. We were inching slowly along in traffic; I sat up and began to pay attention. We passed one small town that was just south of Kuala Terengganu so I knew I hadn’t missed it. I relaxed and watched the countryside zip past and that’s when I saw it. “K Terengganu –> flashed at me through the window pane as we barreled along in the opposite direction.….wait we passed it? Well, shit. I didn’t really know what to do. Should I stand up and declare my missed stop? Quietly approach the bus driver and alert him to his error? I did neither of these things. Instead I sighed and shrugged before dropping back off to sleep, only to wake up a couple hours and 80 kilometers later in Kota Bharu.

As I disembarked in the bus driver looked at me and asked, “Kota Bharu?” In the dim glow of the bus lights I saw a flash of realization in his eyes and I thought I was busted; I kind of liked the idea of only paying for half the trip. The moment soon passed and I responded with a hesitant “yyyyyyeeeesssss…?” before hopping off quickly. Success! But now I was unexpectedly in some strange place called Kota Bharu. Fortunately I found a cheap hostel right around the corner and I have spent the last couple of days wandering this city sooner than I had planned to. It’s not that exciting of a city, and I have realized that Ramadan turns beach towns into ghost towns.

I came this realization as I went off to explore PCB, a small beach town about 9km out of KB. The bus dropped me off on an empty stretch of road near the crashing waves, the only signs of life being one massive digger working its way into the ground and a couple goats standing on the tables of empty shacks and cafés. On the bright side, the beach was empty! Or maybe that wasn’t such a good thing since I ended up being followed onto and off the beach and I am 90% sure I watched the beginning of a porno before throwing the guy’s arm who was showing it to me on his phone off of my thigh and storming off. It was a bit of a creepy situation. (Ok it was a really creepy situation). Thankfully the bus arrived literally as I reached the bus stop and I was in and out of that town in a grand total of about 20 minutes. (And Mom no freaking out without hearing the whole story. Remember that.)

Lessons learned: bus drivers won’t always remember your stop ,and no going to beaches alone during Ramadan because you will really, truly be alone. (Plus maybe a perv or two. And that’s not cool.)

Tomorrow…it’s off to the jungle!

Breaking Fast

Cherating was indeed a nice little break for me, I spent days in the hammock and on the beach, I finished two books, and I even managed to make local friends. All in all, it was a very relaxing and successful four days. Yes, I only managed four days before I got too restless. But it was a valiant effort at making it a week! I actually would have liked to DSCN1519stay another night or two but the budget isn’t allowing it (ha! Like I budget. I try….but the reason I had to move on to cheaper pastures is because past budgeting has somewhat failed. At least I’m having fun). Anyway, my third night there turned into a rather unexpected adventure of sorts.

When I first entered what I thought to be the ghost town of Cherating, I had met a local who not only pointed me in the direction of a cheap guesthouse but also invited me to join the nightly run to the market. I didn’t get around to going back on their side of the road until the third day and he again invited me, so I took the chance to get out of Cherating and grab some fresh local food. I was to meet him at the guesthouse he was managing at 5ish.Upon arrival I was informed that he had to take over the information booth but I could still hitch a ride in with his son who was going with some friends. I ended up in a car full of people around my age, and the guys son (who’s name is pronounced like owie but I have no idea how to spell it) invited me to break fast with them. I told him I wasn’t entirely willing to beak into a family event but he assured me not to worry about it, it was just him and his dad and the more the merrier. We bought a ridiculous amount of delicious food and made our way back to DSCN1547Cherating, excited for dinner (them obviously more so than me, seeing as they were fasting and I had been snacking off and on throughout the day). The best part of Ramadan, as explained to be in the car on the way back, was at the end of the month when kids shook hands with their parents and asked forgiveness for everything they had done wrong in the past year. Personally I would find 730pm every night the most exciting part about Ramadan.

We got back into town and set up the table for dinner, food flowing in abundance. At 730 we all dug in, and I found out very quickly that my bringing forks to the table was pointless, everyone began digging in with their hands. Correction, their hand. Right hand only. Without hesitating I abandoned my fork and joined in, scooping up rice, fish and various curries into my hand. I felt like a child playing with my food…if was awesome! I had established a friendship with this group and we ended up going to the midnight showing of Pacific Rim later in Kuantan and I had the chance to learn a bit more about Ramadan and the Muslim way of life in general by talking to them. Gaining friends like them was one of the many reasons I was sad to leave Cherating, but as I said before, my budget wasn’t allowing for it. I decided to make my way up to Kuala Terengganu for cheaper accommodation.

Georgetown Heritage Festival

I happened to arrive in Georgetown at the right time. My first full day there was spent wandering the National Park with my new Pennsylvania friends Jolene and LDSCN1160iedeke, where we ended up spending a couple of hours reading under the shade of a palm tree on Monkey Beach after an hour or two of easy trekking through the park. We ended our day back in town eating roti banana (banana pancake) and kopi ais (ice coffee), creating a nightly ritual that would continue as long as we were in Penang. The Georgetown Heritage Festival, a celebration of culture, started the very next day.  We spent two days wandering the crowded streets of Penang checking out the activities. We saw puppet shows, theatrical productions, and story-telling. All of this was in a different language, of course, and despite not understanding DSCN1193a word of it I enjoyed watching each culture showcase its traditional activities. The night ended with a very impressive show of strength, agility and balance. Atop a row of upright posts of various heights, two men dressed in a dragon costume leapt from post to post, precariously balanced on each one as well as each other. I held my breath for most DSCN1244of it, praying neither of them would miss a landing.  Of course we went back to the restaurant from the night before to get our usual roti banana and kopi ais before going to bed. But oh! the horror! There was only one banana left!! “One banana!?” we cried, “We’ll go buy some!” The man shook his head sadly, “the banana stand is closed for the night, we can’t get any more.” We were devastated, but let him talk us into some sort of sweet, sugary roti and roti chocolate as well as the last roti banana. “We will have more bananas tomorrow.” We left with this DSCN1454promise, happy bellys despite the lack of bananas.

The next day was full of street dances, ethnic food, and even more performances. Penang certainly lived up to its reputation as being the “food capital” of Malaysia, I have never eaten more in a day than I did in Penang. I feel like I was always snacking on various foods from street hawkers. There were street dances and performances going on throughout the day, but things got exciting once night fell in Little India. The three of us found our new dorm mate, Sarah, near a snake show and joined forces. The snake show was cool, he had a massive python wrapped around his shoulders and was letting other people hold it. I wanted to hold the snake, but we were in the back of the crowd and he didn’t see us. Dejected, we moved on to some sort of weird combination of fighting and dancing going on farther along down the road.

We caught the end of that show and began walking back towards the main road when officials started yelling to make room for the fire dancers as they ushered people into a circle. We were crammed in the middle of a huge throng of people, and by lucDSCN1417ky chance we happened to be in the front of the circle! Without even trying to, we had managed to find ourselves front and center for the fire show. “Move back! Make more room! More room!” they officials yelled, urging people to take a couple steps back to widen the circle. Not wanting to lose their viewing spot, people were hesitant to budge, and the circle hardly expanded. Sarah and I were in the front, rows of motorbikes behind us. This was good because no one could push in front of us and no one was behind us, but it also meant that we couldn’t step back any more than we already were. “Back, back” a man urged us as we shrugged and pointed helplessly at the cluster of bikes behind us. “What is the problem?” Upon seeing the bikes he muttered under his breath about stupid people and why would they park their bikes there anyway? as he picked some up and tried to force more room by moving them around.

The performance started, young men running into the circle, their bare chests and arms painted up in tribal looking designs and wielding batons of fire. They would fill their mouths with kerosene from a water bottDSCN1428le (which I thought had to be so bad for them…) before spitting it out on the flames, not only creating huge fireballs but showering each other in kerosene. More men would come into the circle, each with a new lit up instrument. About 3 minutes into the show someone came in with two batons, chains running down the ends of them with a huge glowering ball of fire at each end, swinging them exuberantly around as part of the show. Suddenly, one of the coals broke loose and a fireball went flying into the crowd. Screams broke the cheers as people jumped back, leaving a burning hole in their wake. The fire was quickly dampened but fear had been instilled, and as the circle instantly grew wider without any urging Sarah and I realized with horror that we couldn’t back up. And there was nothing in front of us to stop a fireball from flying into us. We cringed just a little bit each time they came near us, hoping we weren’t going to be the next victims. Flying fireballs certainly add an element of danger to the show I guess.

DSCN1432We survived the show burn free and followed the crowds, finding ourselves back at the snake show. It was over and most people had left, so I jumped at the chance and finally got to hold the snake! Win. We stopped in front of an information board on the street, deciding where to go next, when someone asked for my name. I turned, not quite realizing how loud his voice had been, and was shocked to find a microphone in my face. “Um…Kayla.” My voice reverberated around me for all of Georgetown to hear.

“And where are you from, Kayla?”
“America” I looked to the girls for support but they had backed well up against the wall and stood watching me, cameras up and letting me unwillingly take the spot light.
“And how do you like the food here? Would you recommend anything to try?”
Unfortunately with his accent I didn’t understand a word of what he said, so I stared for a second before looking to the girls. “the food!” Jolene offered. “Oh!” I said, “…It’s delicious!”
My interviewer looked at me a second, waiting for the rest of my answer. Correctly assuming that I had nothing else to say on the matter he asked me if I could name anything that I had eaten that day. My mind blanked, wiped free of everything as I tried to remember the name of…anything.  I stole a glance back over to my “friends”, who were currently laughing as Liedeke had the camera rolling and Jolene was helping me out. Nasi kendar she whispered.
“Nasi rendar. And, uh, roti.…” I offered, blanking again “rotiiiiiii….(canai! I hear from the sidelines) roti canai!” (I would make a horrible celebrity)
“Ok,” he laughed, “and would you come back again next year for the festivities?”
“If I’m here yeah, it’s been a lot of fun”
“Ok thank you Kayla, enjoy the rest of your night.” With that closing comment he was gone as suddenly as he had arrived.

I now know why people say the dumbest things on Jay Walking with Jay Leno, I know why they can’t remember simple things like the presidents name or the capitaDSCN1460l of their own state. When you are accosted with a line of questions and caught off guard, camera and/or microphone flung into your face, you just…forget…everything. Like a deer in the headlights, you stand there stunned into stupidity. I’m onto you Jay.

On our way to a traditional Indian dance performance we passed by our new favorite roti provider. “Hello girls!” He called out to us in the street, DSCN1461waving happily with a huge smile, “We have bananas tonight!” Elated, we promised to return in less than an hour. After a great show we did in fact return, and ended the night with our usual, thus establishing ourselves as regulars in this picturesque town.

Colorful Penang

I have always been fascinated by color. Sunsets move me more than orchestras; the blending hues of blood reds, fiery oranges, muted yellows and deepening purples creating silent symphonies that reverberate within me far longer than the final haunting note of any piano, violin, jazz flute or guitar ever could.  I can stare endlessly at the dazzling aqua, teal, turquoise, and midnight blues of the sea; I become enraptured watching sunlight dance across landscapes and shroud fields in the golden halos of late afternoon. When I was younger I would collect those strips of paper with the color samples from hardware and home improvement stores simply because I loved the varying shades of the rainbow. I still sometimes resist the urge to grab a handful of them if I walk past a display wall; I almost fear the day I become a homeowner with the freedom to DSCN1331use the walls as my canvas.

It’s no wonder then that Pulau Penang captured my attention and held me willful prisoner from the moment I stepped off the bus to the day I silently said farewell while slowly slipping away on the ferry. The idyllic Georgetown DSCN1357boasts both a contrast of the modern era and architecture of yesteryear side by side in its buildings. The crisp, new, freshly painted, pulsating purple concrete shop stands next to a tired old shack, its fading blue and green splattering of paint peeling gracefully around the edges of the splintering wood of the windowsill. DSCN1307I fell in love with the red door that splashed color onto an otherwise fading, mottled grey and black cement building, and the yellow awnings waving hello in the gentle breeze next door. This rainbow city seduced me more at every turn down new streets.

Christchurch is rebuilding itself up as a rather colorful city at the DSCN1339moment, and when I look around the streets of Georgetown I catch glimpses of what Christchurch may gradually morph into after many, many years; it will age gracefully.  I spent a week in Penang, longer than originally anticipated. In fact, I hadn’t planned to go to Penang at all! I was on the bus in Ipoh on the way to the main station when I got to talking to a young teen. I really wish I could find him and thank him now. He asked where I was going. “I don’t know” I shrugged, “maybe Penang, maybe Langkawi, maybe east bound.” His face brightened at one of the options. “Go to Penang!” he urged excitedly, “I love it! All the amazing food, the beach, the national park, the old walks, Penang has everything!” So I went to Penang. I am so glad I did, too, because in Penang I found a haven for both my eyes and heart… despite my 63 year old nudist dorm mate. But that’s another story for another day.

Welcome to the Hotel California

We lurched to a stop on the highway, the driver pointing down a dirt path and saying something in Malay. This must be my stop; I gather my bags and hop off the dilapidated local bus from Kuantan, making the mistake of setting my pack back down on a bench inhabited by giant red ants as I try to get my bearings. I stared down the empty dirt road that I assume leads to Cherating with trepidation as I spied one of the guesthouses mentioned in the five year old guide book I picked up in ruins, nothing more than a rotting collection of wooden panels and beams, the welcome sign swinging lazily from it’s last remaining hinge. Even in Penang the bus attendants thought I was telling them the wrong name when I said I wanted to come here. This does not bode well for me.

Cursing silently as I notice the ants storming my pack, I brush off the ones I can see and swing it over my shoulders, causing one or two hidden ones to attack my waistline as I clip myself in. Lovely. It’s barely 9am, and fortunately the sun is still at bay just enough for me to walk comfortably with all of my belongings, for once not dripping in sweat after two minutes.  Cherating is a ghost town. The air sits heavily upon its empty streets, flags hang limply and chairs sit upside down on café tables behind bamboo slat curtains, not a single inhabitant to be seen. If this were the desert vultures would be circling, the lonely caw caw of crows echoing through the air. Instead I am at a lost beach; macaques silently scale long deserted buildings, mutely slinking along power lines, letting only the occasional birdsong and crashing waves break the suffocating silence. I eye them warily as I walk past, remembering previous encounters.

The reason for the unusually empty streets and closed shops is nothing sinister, although it feels a bit post-apocalyptic; today marks the beginning of Ramadan. Today is the first day of a month full of prayer and fasting. Nothing opens up until after 5 or 6 in the evening….I am going to starve here.  I think this small village also runs on island time, and the eerie emptiness I initially intruded on was in part simply because it was still early. I ran into a local who directed me to a budget guesthouse up the road a ways, and after I got settled in I walked around town again and discovered the first signs of life; a scattering of people on the beach, neighbors sitting in the shade gossiping, convenience shop owners opening their doors as the sun peaked in the sky. The restaurants and cafés are all still closed, but it is Ramadan after all.

As it turns out, there are quite a few expats and long termers here in Cherating. The hostel I am in hosts more than a few people who arrived last month thinking they were only staying for a couple of days, yet still they remain. One German girl, who had been here before for three weeks and, after a short stint up north is back again for another two weeks, laughed as she told me “it’s like Hotel California.” Instantly I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, pulled back to the Irishman in New Zealand, Maia and I belting out this Eagles classic with gusto every Friday for karaoke night…and for just a moment I longed to be back.

I am beginning to understand the allure of this beach village. The beach itself is nearly empty, it seems everyone knows each other by name, and trails dart off from the white sands into various jungle openings just waiting to be explored. A German traveler told me about a nearby beach where you can watch turtles lay their eggs and offered to take me there, a group of us is going there tonight. On the walk back across the receding tide lines I stumbled across a massive jellyfish three times the size of a large dinner plate caught out in the sand, later finding two more unfortunate non-polyps farther along the beach.  So there are massive jellyfish in the water, good to know.  A river runs along the back of the village and you can go on night tours to surround yourself with fireflies in the mangroves as you float through the dark waters, or you can rent a kayak for an hour or two, or even go fishing. I can see how this place would grab you, pull you in, and bring you back again and again (even if not physically). I tend to be a restless person, I’ve found that if I’m not doing something productive- or at least active- I get anxious, feeling like I’m wasting time and ready to pack up and leave yet again. But sometimes just being still can boost your well-being, a needed break for your body and mind. I tend to think a lot when I have a lot of time on my hands, maybe that’s why I’m always on the move. Maybe I don’t want to think, I don’t want to do any soul searching, I just want to live in the moment and do, do, do.

Who knows what this place holds for me, maybe I will fall under the spell of it’s charm, maybe I will allow myself more than a day of rest, reflection and re-centering…maybe I will actually be able to do nothing and be content. I have been lugging around this stupid hammock that I got pressured into buying my first night in Bangkok, and with the help of my new German friend it now hangs behind me invitingly as I sit writing this on my bungalow porch, so I have a feeling I will at least need to put it to good use.

It is Ramadan, after all.