Monday, April 05, 2010

One of These People is Not Like the Other Ones

Remember that segment on Sesame Street which challenges kids to figure out which of the objects in a group is different from the rest? Well, it doesn't take a Sesame Street graduate to figure this one out. These are my sweet Filipino friends who live here in Majuro with me. They invited me over for lunch after attending church together. Despite the height differential, we actually do have a lot in common, and I'm grateful for them.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Winding Down

After spending most of the long weekend inside my house, I was feeling so stir crazy that I just had to get outside and walk a little. It was dusk, and the weather was just perfect: warm yet breezy. It just absolutely bowled me over that I have confined myself to a tiny little 2 mile strip of my island and just gone back and forth and back and forth for the last 2 months. No wonder I'm feeling restless!

It was great to get out on Easter evening and just feel alive and a part of the island community. It's amazing the little wonderful things that I miss out on because I'm too busy hibernating in my house. Tonight some of these wonderful little things were: seeing my little friend Blueberry (whom I didn't recognize until he called me "blueberry...I was the one wearing a blue shirt afterall!), watching kids with home-made noisemakers made from palm fronds, watching the sun set from a nice little beach that I never took much notice of before, and dozens of friendly "hello's", "Yokwe's" and "Goodnight's" from people who I've never met before but somehow know me.

I can't believe that my time here is coming to an end. I have become so isolated and solitary for the past months, that I haven't even posted the blog entries from South East Asia last summer (I promise I'll do it! They are all written, it just takes forever to upload pictures here). The reality that I'm leaving in 2 months has not yet set in. Neither do I have any idea where I'm going after July. But whatever new adventures come my way, I'm looking forward to them. And in the meantime, I am going to try to get out and walk more often. I'll let you know how that goes.

P.S. The photos are from the Good Friday "Stations of the Cross" shrines at Assumption Catholic Church, next to my house. Aren't they so beautiful?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kuala Terengganu and Pulau Kappas

Terengganu is one of the most pious and conservative parts of Malaysia. The entire prayer is given over the loudspeaker at the mosque, not just the call to prayers. We were very grateful for that, because our hostel was just down the street from the main mosque and we were able to use the voice from the mosque to find our way home when we got lost in town. We were there on Friday, the Islamic holy day, so nothing was open. It was a nice chance to just relax and rest and have some down-time. We went for a walk on the beachfront, tried some new foods: Delicious soup (wow, Malaysian food is GOOD!) and "ABC" (a strange mix of ice, jello, beans, creamed corn, syrup, and some other unrecognizable things...see the picture). We met some new friends and lazed around a bit.

The next morning we took a bus out to Marang to catch a ferry to beautiful little Kappas Island, just off the coast. While it is the off-season (because of the rainy season) right now in most parts of Southeast Asia, it's the high season along Malaysia's Gulf Coast, so it was a little hard to find accomodation on Kappas. We met up with some other backpackers in Marang: Nina from Denmark, Marilyn from Australia, and Berten and Thomas from Belgium. They were cool folks, so we stuck together and found some bungalows that were not too unreasonably priced (for the high season...we have gotten spoiled with low-season low prices for accommodation elsewhere!) The snorkeling on Kappas was good. The reef was not very healthy in many places, but the fish population seemed to be doing well, as did the Jellyfish! Nina and Marilyn and I went out to a remote beach on the north side of the island and swam through huge school of fish. There were hundreds of little fish and they kept circling us, coming right up to our snorkel masks to look us in the eye. Every once in a while they would take a nibble at our legs or back. It was the coolest experience! The fish were no more spectacular than the ones I swim with in Majuro (if anything, they were less colorful), but in Majuro they all just swim away as soon as they see you, but these guys just hung out all around us for about 30 minutes.

We spent the rest of the day at Kappas and half of the next day, and then headed back to Terengganu to catch an overnight bus to our next destination: Penang.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur and Melaka

I went to sleep on the train in Singapore and woke up at about 6am in Kuala Lumpur's central train terminal. Ray sent me a message that she had already left KL for Melaka because of a stalker situation, so I didn't want to stay in KL long, but there were a couple things I wanted to see. I made my way to the bus station and scheduled a ticket to Melaka and then headed over to the Petronas Towers (tallest twin buildings in the world). They offer free tickets up to the 41st floor walkway, but you have to arrive early (like before 8am) to queue for them. I hopped on the subway amidst a throng of headscarfs and skullcaps. It was 7:30am: rush hour in KL. There was hardly room to breathe, and I was grateful to make it to the towers. I met up in the line with Simon and Geoff, two British backpackers that I had met in the hostel in Singapore, and we were lucky enough to get tickets for the 2nd group to go up the towers (impecable timing...20 minutes later and our tour time would have been noon or 1pm). Petronas is the national oil company, and showed us a short video (complete with 3-D glasses) showing propaganda about how many community initiatives they support, and how great the company is. I was willing to listen to it for the privilege of a free trip to the top. The view of KL was nice. We headed down and over to the Musjid Jamek, the oldest mosque in KL. They gave us robes and me a headscarf and allowed us to walk around the outer prayer platforms at our own place. It's a beautiful building, and very nice of them to allow us to come visit. After spending 20 minutes in a headscarf in the KL heat, I have newfound respect for Muslim women! It is stifflingly hot under there! I don't know how they do it, but their dedication impresses me. We grabbed a bite to eat, looked for the museum which has now been closed, and then split up to catch my bus and their train. Six hours in the bussle and chaos and clatter of KL was all I needed to experience. It was nice while it lasted, but I was glad to be headed to a smaller city. Two hours later I was in Melaka.

Melaka is a city with a rich history. It's strategic location on the Straights of Melaka (between Malaysia and Indonesia, an important channel between the South China Sea and the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean) has made it a very important and fought-over port. Since the 14th century it has been controlled by a Sultan from Sumatra, the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British, and finally the Malay people. Today Melaka's citizens reflect the diverse groups who came to Melaka, and people called Peranakan are descended from marriages between Chinese and Malays, Indians and Malays, and Portuguese and Malays. The main thing that I wanted to see in Melaka was the Straits, and so I walked around town until I found the tallest bridge possible. Luckily it had a sidewalk and I walked across it, took some photos, returned to the hotel, and made arrangements to return to Singapore to retrieve my thumb drive. Tony, the guesthouse owner, gave me some tips on where to most easily catch a bus. I walked down there with my bags and waited in the hot sun for 45 minutes without seeing anything. Finally I hailed a taxi and I was glad that I did, because the taxi driver was very friendly and gave me good tips on the best bus to take to Singapore. He makes the three hour trip to Singapore often to visit his daughter and grandkids. I bought my ticket, sat down and ate the nicest meal (Roti Canai with curry to dip it in and Biryani for about $1.75) and boarded the bus. The bus was a super VIP bus, which means that there are only 3 seats per row and they resemble lazy-boy recliners. It was heavenly! I got to Singapore, bought a laptop, picked up my thumbdrive, spent one last night with my friends in the hostel in Chinatown, and hoped on a bus headed toward Malaysia again.

At the border, I had a little problem. I checked out of Singapore and I was supposed to get back on the bus downstairs to Johor Bahru (the Malaysian side of the border), but as I came downstairs, the bus pulled away, and as I followed it, I got locked out from Singapore, yet a long causeway separating me from Malaysia. I went around in a circle, checked back into Singapore, then back out (this is the 4th time through Singapore Immigration for me in 1 week, and I'm sure they were wondering what the heck I was doing!) and finally got downstairs and picked up the next bus. By the time I got to Johor Bahru, I was relieved to find that I had just barely made the last bus to Kuala Terengganu for the day. I settled in for the 9 hour journey and enjoyed the sights up the East Coast of Malaysia to Terengganu, where I would meet up with Ray again and explore some of the tropical islands offshore.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I *heart* Singapore

Singapore is the cleanest, most organized city that I've ever experienced! That's thanks to the government and their excessive system of fining people for anything and everything. If you're caught chewing gum you're fined. If you're caught jaywalking, you're fined. If you're smoking outside of the yellow box at the bar, you're fined. If you bring a Durian (the world's stinkiest fruit) on a bus or subway (the super-efficient MRT), you're fined. I can understand that the locals are really tired of so much regulation and restriction, but the result is a really clean, orderly city that is free of chaos and stress. It's the most peaceful and calm big city I've ever visited! The MRT is never crowded, the buses all look like they just rolled off the showroom floor, and everything runs on schedule like clockwork! Even Little India and Chinatown are clean, organized, and calm! Little India?!? Chinatown?!? This is truly a unique place!

Singapore is in a stage of transition. They are one of the wealthiest countries in South East Asia, but manufacturing which used to happen in Singapore has moved to other countries with cheaper labor costs, so Singapore is re-inventing itself to try to maintain its healthy economy and prosperity. The island of Singapore was established originally as a port and manufacturing city. It has many dutch and british influences, especially visible in the architecture. Many men migrated there from surrounding countries (China, Malaysia, India) seeking work. As a result, around the turn of the 20th century, the ratio of Men to Women in Singapore was 10:1! With a gigantic bachelor population, there was a need to feed everyone on the street, so hawker stalls set up shop. But the president was not happy about the chaos that could potentially ensue (and does in most other southeast asian countries) with stalls and stands up and down every street, so he organized huge hawker centers and moved all the food vendors to centralized locations where things could be kept clean and organized and under control. Today these hawker centers still exist, and they are still turning out delicious Singaporean food at bargain prices. I sampled Nasi Lemak, Laksa (one of my favorites!), Satay, and many other Indian, Malay, and Singaporean dishes. Most are an interesting blend of Chinese, Indian, and Malay culinary traditions. While in Singapore, Ray and I also tried some new fruits that neither of us had ever seen before: Durians (the spikey so-called “King of Fruits,” which resemble chicken organs inside (see the accompanying picture...Ray's face says it all!) and taste just as foul as they smell...despite what the vendors try to tell you, Rambutans (which look like aliens but taste pretty good), Dragonfruit (which are also very colorful...the ones that are hot pink inside are nice, but the ones that are white inside have almost no flavor whatsoever), and Mangosteens (which are dark purple on the outside with white, mushy sections on the inside...they are pretty good).

I went out to try to find some live music on Friday night with a guy named Chris who was staying at our hostel. He was on his way home to England after living in Australia and NZ for 2 years. We went to an Australian pub called “The Prince of Whales” only to find out that the live band was awful and loud, so we sat outside in the garden. We met two locals: Chris (a girl) and Dong who were very entertaining and told us all about their place. Dong has some interesting ideas that he pitched to us, including a vending machine that sells emotions. It was fun to get their perspective on life. The next day Ray took off for Malaysia, but I was having a good time and wanted to see more of Singapore. We had mainly wandered around Little India and East Coast Road, where we were staying at the time. After Ray left, Chris and I checked ouy Changi Villiage (where they serve up the best Laksa!) and Ubin Island (just off the coast of Singapore). We took a bum-bum boat out to the island, and rented bicycles once we arrived. The island is pretty and remains the way Singapore was before the high-rises and sky-scrapers took over downtown. In fact, Ubin island resembles Majuro in many ways (though it is bigger). The next night I shifted to the Chinatown branch of the same hostel, which was a great way to see a different part of the city. I met two English backpackers (Simon and Geoff) who ended up on the same train to Kuala Lumpur later that week, and Maria, a pretty, young Filipina who manages the Chinatown hostel. On Sunday I took the MRT to church and then went out walking at Bukit Timah nature reserve nearby. It is the last patch of primary rainforest left in Singapore, and it's a beautiful green space to visit. They have lots of gutsy Macaque Monkeys and great views of the city from the top of the hill. It is such a unique and beautiful contrast to look through the lush jungle onto the skyscrapers below. There were many cute families out spending time together on Sunday afternoon, which was fun to watch. This family togetherness is something I really like about South East Asian culture.

At church I heard a name announced that sounded familiar. I recognized it was a friend of a fried of mine who grew up in London but now lives in Singapore and teaches English to Chinese and Vietnamese students preparing to attend University in English, so I emailed him and he invited me to visit his class the next day. It was a lot of fun and his students were so sweet. I just love being in class with students, and his were a really wonderful group. After class we went out to lunch with a few of them and got to know them better. After class I wandered to the one part of Singapore that I had not yet seen: the Colonial district. When I passed by the Parliament building, there was a group of traditional dancers in white performing outside. It was a beautiful sight! I went up to the “Fountain of Wealth,” which is the largest fountain in the world. They have a free water and lights show at dusk, so I went to check it out. People believe that if you circle the fountain 3 times while touching the water, you'll accumulate greater wealth. It has been commercialized and when they had “water touching time and started playing the song, “Some People Wait a Lifetime, for a moment like this...some people search forever, for a moment like this,” I was so disgusted that I almost picked up and left. But then they put on an equally cheesy, yet less superstitious Celine Dion song and I'm glad I stayed because the light show was nice. On the walk back home I stopped by the famous Merlion statue on the Esplanade and took a few pictures. It was a beautiful view with the lights of the city behind. I walked by Clark Quay (another beautiful, lit up area) and back to Chinatown and then to the train station. I had such a lovely time! I'll definitely be back to Singapore!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Metro Manila to the Jungles of Borneo

After such beautiful weather in Manila during my previous time there, the heavens opened and dumped on us. It rained continuously all day on the 5th and all day on the 6th of June. Ray saw nothing but rain and road congestion during her stay in Manila, and wasn't a big fan of the city because of it. I was still having issues with a pinched nerve in my shoulder, so we packed up our bags and took a Jeepney to Quezon City to the accupressure/holistic medicine clinic there. They were very nice and put us right in steamy roaster bags where we were cooked like Thanksgiving Turkeys! Steam therapy was the first part, then an accupressure massage. After the experience, I'm a believer in accupressure! I felt a little bit better that day, and within 2 days all pain in my shoulder was gone. I had been taking Tylenol with Codine and muscle relaxer for the past 3 weeks to try to lessen the excruciating pain, with no relief. After a 1 hour accupressure session, I was on my way to feeling better. I was so relieved that I wouldn't have to go through this 10 week trip with sharp pain from my shoulder down my left arm as had been the case for the prior 3 weeks! After the Roaster Bag/Accupressure experience, we took a taxi to the Megamall (holy cow, these Southeast Asians LOVE to shop!!) to get our bus up to Clark Airport (1.5 hours north of Manila). The Air Asia jet that we caught there was really cool. It's a new low-cost airline with glowing neon lights, highly made-up flight attendants, and fog blowing out of the airconditioners. It resembles a dance club in the main cabin. After seeing how conservative and understated Malaysia is (a strict muslim country), its a little weird to consider that Air Asia is a Malaysian-owned airline! Anyway, it was a good flight, right on time, efficient with good service, and a good price-tag, too! Two hours later we touched down in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo.

Kota Kinabalu (or KK at it's frequently shortened) is a nice medium-size city, a lot less chaotic and loud than Manila. We met a friend at our hostel and went out to dinner with her. I had firey, delicious Tom Yam soup, which I could not finish. When I asked the waiter if I could take it home, he said sure and proceeded to put it in a plastic bag for me! This seems to be the Southeast Asian wayDrinks, foods, sauces, all are sold in plastic baggies! The night market and the fruit markets in KK were outstanding! I ate so many Guavas, Mangos, and Pomelos that I made myself sick! For dinner at the night market you just browse the buffet selection at various stalls and then pick 3 items that look tasty to add to your rice for 4 Ringit (about $1.25). It's delicious, and less meaty (well, at least less weird looking/tasting meat) than the Philippines. Yahoo!

Our first excoursion in Borneo was a day trip to Gaya Island, which was fabulous. It's just off the coast of KK and the water was sparkling. We swam, hiked, made friends with some 4-foot long monitor lizards, and came back all in one day. The next day we traveled by bus across Borneo to a place called Sepilok, where there is an Oran-Utan rehabilitation center and also a rainforest discovery center. We stayed at a quiet Bed and Breakfast with a super friendlylocal host named Justin and a very nice staff. Justin grew up in the Jungle and has been involved in conservation efforts his whole life. He took us for a night hike to try to find some flying foxes (a type of squirrel), but the animals never came out. It was a really cool experience to stand on the 17 meter tall viewing platform at the top of the forest canopy as dusk settled over the forest. The cicadas and birds made a wonderful symphony for us, and across the top of the forest we could hear the last prayer-call of the day from the local mosque. On our way back from Sipelok, we stopped by Mt. Kinbalu national park. Mt. Kinabalu is the highest peak in South East Asia, and is supposed to have amazing views all the way to Palawan Philippines from the top. We didn't hike the mountain (a 2-day, vigorous trek that our sea-level lungs and muscles weren't really ready for!), but we did hike around some trails in the park through beautiful jungles, which was very nice. That night we got back to KK and boarded our flight to Singapore.