Thursday, September 11, 2014 0 comments

The row over a bus seat in China

"The row over a bus seat in China", Wuhan made the international news today.  For the amazing food, the research being done at the many universities like mine, the suffocating smog problem? Nope, a fight on the bus.

I know the buses can be a bit crazy sometimes ...On Monday, which was Mid-Autumn Festival, a major holiday here, I was at the mall at Guanggu.  I had intended to meet some people there (or I never would have thrown myself into that crowd on a holiday), but it didn't work out.  To not waste my trip, I went into Carrefour to see if there was anything I needed. 

I almost put the miscellaneous small items I was juggling (I hadn't picked up a basket on the way in) and just left when I saw the checkout lines, stretched half way down the first row of aisles-twenty people at least in each line, probably more.  But as I grudgingly joined the back of the queue (inasmuch as any group of waiting Chinese are able to queue), I saw a couple if places ahead of me my friend, FaDa, and a few friends of his, a couple of which I had seen with him before.  Fada is Egyptian, but spent twelve years in Boston, growing up and later working for Boston University.  Now he's here at Huazhong Agricultural finishing up a doctorate in nanotechnology.  I met him last spring when he was part of the group of foreigners from our school who went to teach some special classes for a day at some middle schools in a less-affluent part of the province. 

Seeing me in line, they called me up to join them and quickly cleared a place for me to deposit my armload of groceries in their buggy.  Fada introduced me to his new wife-they were just married two weeks ago, and she has also come to our university to get a doctorate in nanotechnology.  Their other two friends, another Egyptian guy and a half-Chinese half-Turkish woman, are both pursuing doctorates in genetics.  I did feel a bit uneducated among all these scientific minds, but they are all very friendly people. 

After making it through the ridiculous checkout line (Fada timed it at nearly forty minutes), we fought the crowds out if the mall and across the street to the bus stop of the 591, which has its terminus at our school gate.  For once, we didn't have to wait long for the bus, but it was already full when it pulled up.  I made a comment about sardines, which came true immediately as we all crammed on. 

Our little party ended up right at the front, with Fada and I on the step just inside the door and the other three just above us squeezed between us and the driver.  The advantage of this was that at least we were closest to the air conditioning. 

At the next stop one of the girls in our group managed to squeeze further into the bus (and eventually got a seat, which she kept kindly offering to switch out for-but it would be more trouble than it was worth to climb over people to get there), and somehow a young Chinese couple managed to join us on the step. At least they were a couple, so they didn't mind standing intertwined, because they would have had to anyhow.

Much to the driver's amusement, Fada took on the roll of conductor.  As the door opened, he would begin collecting money and taking bus cards to scan, any barking for people to load from the middle door, where there might be more space from people getting off.  He continued this at every stop.  Even the driver realized we could not cram another body on this overloaded bus, so he started yelling out that if someone wanted off they'd better yell and tell him, because otherwise he wasn't stopping.  After that we only let on more people if someone got off. 

Most of the bus seemed to be students going back to our school, so it never did lighten up much.  It took over an hour in the holiday traffic before we finally burst out, gasping for air, at the school gate.  However, what should have been an hour of aching feet and accidental elbowing misery passed much better with Fada for entertainment, as he imperiously barked orders at the hapless mob trying to insert themselves into the bus and encouraging the driver in Chinese, joking with his new wife about their lovely honeymoon trip on the 591 bus in Arabic, chatting with his friend and me in English, and waving happily at bemused passersby goggling at the overstuffed bus. 

So, to survive a city bus in a city of ten million at rush hour on a holiday, you need a sense if humor. And this is what happens if you lose it:

The row over a bus seat in China

Monday, September 1, 2014 0 comments

Curry Chicken Ramen

Continuing a recent theme (cliched I know, in Asian travel circles) about good food in Penang, I feel the need to share another meal. It was that good. I know there's a lot of antagonism towards those that post pictures of lunch on facebook and instagram, but you came here of your own free will, and food is certainly an integral part of travel. :)

I overslept and spent longer than I meant taking care of various odds and ends at the hostel, so it was lunchtime by the time I got started with my day. There were still three major sites in Penang that I hadn't covered, so my plan was to do one today, and then spend the afternoon at Penang Hill, and then get up and moving earlier tomorrow and do the other two, then spend the afternoon at the beach. My first stop, however, was lunch. Wanting to be efficient, I decided to eat somewhere near the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion that I planned to explore after. There was a place called the Red Garden, from the description and from the outside view a food court of street food stalls recommended for all sorts of local specialties, almost next door--but it was shut up and quiet when I walked by.  So I wandered around the corner over to nearby Jalan Penang, and I found a place that looked like it was probably a chain, but had advertisements with tantalizing pictures of set oriental and Italian meals. 

I spent a while deciding--play it safe or take a risk?  Finally I settled on curry chicken ramen.  I did not regret my choice--it was love at first bite.  I have got to learn to make some curry dishes.  The curry was creamy and full of flavor without being overly spicy, perfect on noodles (I've only ever had it on rice before), and all the Asian odds and ends (which are usually an acquired taste that I haven't acquired) were wonderful, even if I couldn't positively identify them.  The only part that wasn't great, actually, was the chicken, which was a bit gristly, but there was so much else to eat I didn't miss it.  With so many food opportunities in Penang, I don't have the time to repeat meals, but every time I get a whiff of curry (which is often in Penang; I keep passing through Little India), my mouth starts watering again.  And it's watering now writing about it.  Hmm, I wonder if they have one of those places in Kuala Lumpur?

Sunday, August 31, 2014 0 comments

Would YOU try it?

While I was enjoying my Fried Koay Teow, I glanced up at the poster hanging above my table.  At first it seemed to be ordinary iced tea (which Malaysia thankfully has an abundance of--and peach tea, and passion fruit green tea!), but then I read closer...seaweed in my tea? It does promise all sorts of benefits...I might have tried it just for the novelty, but I already had iced green apple juice.  Would you try it?

Char Koay Teow

Penang is famous for its food--and that might be putting it mildly.  Part of the reason is the astounding variety: long being an important trade stop for merchant ships, the city's population is a grand mixture of cultures.  There are the native Malay peoples, Chinatown, Little India, as well as smaller groups from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Armenia, and Europeans from the days of British colonialism.  Added to that, Penang isn't too far from the Thai border... It seems on nearly every street you can find several of the above cuisines or an interesting combination thereof.

Besides seeing the famous mansions, temples, and colonial buildings, trying the local specialties is part of the traveler experience in Penang.  As I entered the old fort earlier in the day, I passed a rack of brochures and picked up one about Penang food.  It helpfully describes and shows pictures of various dishes, as well as giving a list of restaurants known to serve a delicious (it's hard for me to write that word seriously anymore; it's so overused by my Chinese students) version of each, and a map showing where all these restaurants are located. 

From the pictures, I chose Char Koay Teow for tonight's adventure.  After a bit of confusion (the map they so kindly provided wasn't exactly accurate...), I stumbled upon one of the recommended establishments, Ho Ping Cafe. It was little more than street food with tables and drinks in glasses instead of bottles. To save myself a bit of mental strain, I'll just quote the brochure's description:

"The ever fragrant, garlicky and rich Penang Char Koay Teow holds a revered place in the hearts of foodies all over Malaysia.  Around the world you can find Char Koay Teow eateries bearing the title 'Penang Char Koay Teow' in hopes of trying to woo in customers based on the promise of a morsel of Penang's famous street food.  The secret behind a plate of heavenly Char Koay Teow relies on the heat of the wok: the higher the heat, the tastier the koay teow.  The flat rice noodles are fried in an iron cast wok over very high heat to be able to achieve a slightly charred and smoky aroma.  Oil is added into the wok followed by a small amount of minced garlic and fresh prawns. Noodles are added in, followed by a dash of seasoned soy sauce, bean sprouts, egg and chives.  The last ingredient is the cockles.  Some outlets include crunchy bits of lard and slices of pork sausage in their Char Koay Teow, so look out for the halal sign [many Malaysians are Muslim, and thus don't eat pork] before making your order. With big prawns, each plate costs from RM7 to RM9."

I did enjoy mine, although it wasn't quite as flavorful as I'd hoped. I think it needed a bit more garlic and maybe a slightly hotter wok. Then again, I paid only 5 ringgits, less than the brochure predicted. I left behind the cockles on the plate, but everything else blended well.  Char Koay Teow (I'm really getting rather tired of typing that) is an enjoyable and filling dinner, but not oh-my-goodness-I-can't-stop-eating-this level. 
Saturday, August 30, 2014 0 comments

New Second Best

Sooo...remember that bus I rhapsodized about the other day? I declared it the second-best I'd ever been on, but today it must take a demotion to third.  I'm sitting on yet another bus
(after already spending several hours on a van and another bus already today--Taman Negara and Penang having unfortunately turned out to not be terribly well connected), waiting to leave.  This one also follows the luxurious trend of having only three seats across rather than four, and everything seems sparkling new.  The. curtains are a tasteful red and gold--but apparently, even for the most well-appointed buses, bus seats only come in garish prints, this one bright red with neon...I don't even know what you would call those markings.  But you can see for yourself in the pictures...
Monday, August 25, 2014 0 comments

2nd Best Bus of All Time

Look at this bus! Okay, maybe don't look that hard; that fabric might blind you--but still, I have a recliner for a seat! And the bus is due to leave in a minute and a half, and there are a grand total of six people on here, including the driver.  At the ticket booth the guy let me pick my seat, so I chose one towards the back, knowing that if someone doesn't express a preference the ticket agents fill from the front.  So, I have the entire back two-thirds of the bus to myself.  I feel like I ought to unpack a bit to take advantage of all this space. 

I think I rank this bus (assuming it doesn't break down and they don't play any stupid movies) second out of all the ridiculously many buses I've slogged my way around the world on.  The number is still the bus in Nanning, China--I don't remember for sure now if it was from Guilin to Nanning or if it was from Nanning on to the Vietnamese border.  It was laid out like this with large recliner-like seats made possible by only having three across instead of four, but the colors were out of an elderly lady's apartment rather than a skating rink like this one--muted burgundy velvet with doilies and cream curtains.  The conductor was a young woman dressed like a flight attendant, who came around offering complimentary bottles of water.  The experience was like flying first-class (not that I have much experience with that-I only did it for about twenty minutes one time), except with more doilies. 


Rainy Travel Day

Moving on...after starting in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, I went down to Malacca, two hours south, on the coast not too far from Singapore for the weekend.  Now it's Monday morning and I'm back on the bus.
It was a bright and already-unbearably-hot-at-ten am sunny morning in Malacca, but we've been running through rain most of the way, although it's cloudy but dry now that we're coming into the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Oh, no, now it's raining again. Considering it's monsoon season, I've been very fortunate with how conveniently it's rained--so far only while I'm on a bus or in a restaurant.

From Kuala Lumpur, I'll get another bus up to the Cameron Highlands, in the mountains in the central part of the Malaysian peninsula.  I want to hike around the tea plantations and hopefully see a Rafflesia flower--the largest bloom in the world.   Its supposed to be cool up there, which will be a nice break from the crazy humidity down here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014 0 comments

Sticking to the Pavement in Malacca

Melting. Sticky. Hot. Damp. Even in the middle of a city, Mother Nature won't let me forget that Malaysia is a nation carved out of a tropical jungle.  Fortunately, a slight breeze is blowing in off the water, or I might have stuck to this pavement by now. It's the kind of humidity that, even if it doesn't feel too hot at first, within five minutes you are drenched in sweat--and it definitely feels hot.

Apparently benches aren't popular around here, but I finally found a semi-shady set of steps leading done to the river to sit on and rest a bit.  I've visited St. Paul's, the ruins of the old colonial church on the hill overlooking the city, the Clock Tower Square, the antique shops in Jonger Street, and toured the ornate some of one of the prominent families of the Baba-Nonya culture. Now that I've exhausted the more highbrow and historical attractions of Malacca--it's time for the tacky tourist diversions. What should I do next--take a boat cruise up and down the river, tour the replica pirate ship, or go up in the rotating observation deck that goes up and down the big tower in the park?


Hard Rocks Everywhere!

Long time readers of this blog (so, mom) might recall that, ten years ago (!!!) when I was studying abroad in Belgium, my friends and I went to several Hard Rock cafes across Europe.  It seems so laughable and naive now,  but for us first-time-living-abroad travelers, European food was exotic and new, and we craved familiar American food.  Now, I'm used to American and European food being lumped together under the term 'western' and not much difference made.

Anyhow, I've kept up the tradition all these years.  I usually always ordered a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich and onion rings--good southern food that I couldn't get elsewhere either in Italy or in China.  O know they're touristy and, according to the received wisdom of travelers vs. tourists, I should be ashamed of missing an opportunity for local food.  Actually, as I get older, I care less about some subjective definition of what makes a good traveler, and my bad-traveler guilt is more because it's usually twice the price of eating in a local restaurant.  It's one of those traditions that's rather taken on a life of its own, though--as I've mentioned before, I'm a list person, and it seems awful to pass one by that could go on my list of Hard Rocks Visited.  So, I just make sure I order cheaper things...

I didn't realize it while planning, but there are three (!) Hard Rocks here in Malaysia.  I knew there was one in Kuala Lumpur; I kept meaning to look up where but happened upon it before I got around to it, on my way to the Menara KL.  Here in Malacca, I didn't even know there was one when there it was, right across the bridge with a big sign.   I stopped for lunch there during my full day in Malacca; usually I save big meals for evening but with the hot sun beating down today it seemed an idea to spend a little time during the heat of the day in air conditioning.  The onion rings and chicken tenders were wonderful as always--with lots of barbecue sauce, but the music wasn't so hot.  It was all poppy, non-classic-rock stuff I'd never heard of, and the drummer for the evening's entertainment was noisily doing a sound-check across the room.  
Saturday, August 23, 2014 0 comments

The Long Walk

After exploring every corner of the shell of St. Paul's, I decided it really was time to find some dinner.  I made my way back down the hill, past the Porta de Santiago, and down in front of the mall.  I had been reading a guide to Malacca, which listed a few local foods not to miss.  Satay, as those of you familiar with Asian food know, is meat-on-a-stick and one of Malaysia's most prolific contributions to Asian street food.  But I read about something called Satay Celup, which from the description sounded a lot like my beloved hot pot in China: a bowl of boiling soup served with various items on sticks to be cooked in the broth.  Sure, it would be quite different spices to suit local tastes, but it would be fun to compare the two.  According to Lonely Planet, there was an excellent restaurant for this, and I had glanced at its location on the map and thought that my perambulations were taking me in the right general direction, only to find that I had completely confused it and it was exactly in the opposite direction.  Well, a long walk would only make it taste better when I got there. 

Back up the way I came, past all the trishaws--which are a sight in themselves.  A holdover from the days before taxis and still popular due to the crowded and narrow streets of the old town, the bicycle-powered conveyences are an art form, albeit a rather loud and tacky one.  To attract tourists to hire them to take a ride around the sights, the drivers (riders?  cyclers?  Seems there ought to be a more apt word, but it isn't coming to me) began adding decorations.  First a few fake flowers or a colorful fabric on the seat...but by now they've added stuffed animals, enough fake flowers for half a cemetery, ruffle-covered canopies, and even battery packs on the back to run strings of neon lights and steros blaring upbeat pop music.  They look like the sort of thing only a four-year-old girl could love, but the level of garishness and sparkle that they can achieve is a point of pride among the drivers.  

I passed by Dutch Square again and took a few pictures of the square by night, more interesting, really, in the glow of the street lamps and with fewer milling Chinese tour groups.  I checked the map in Lonely Planet again, which pointed me down the street alongside the church passed now-closed souvenir shops and directly out of the tourist area.  Soon I was walk down deserted streets of closed businesses and schools and feeling just a bit nervous--but surely it would be worth it when I got there, and all the better for not being on the tourist strip.  I love maps, and navigating, and usually follow them quite well.  I followed exactly as the map showed--and nothing.  I never saw any side street that could possible be the one indicated.  I finally gave up and decided to just make it back to the river and find something to eat there.  It seemed to me I'd walked more or less parallel to it since passing Christ Church, so if I turned left, it should take me down to the main road.  If I could only find a left-hand turn, which were suddenly scarce.  I had walked such a long way already that I didn't want to retrace my steps all the way back.  So I kept walking and walking, trying to find the streets I passed on the map with no luck.  I was starting to get nervous and ready to turn around even though it would be a long slog back through nothing when I came upon another brightly-lit modern shopping mall, with fancy hotels around.  Through the flourescent glow I saw a Papa John's sign.  Apparently the Satay Celup was not meant to be, I was exhausted and hot and starving as it was pushing nine by now, so I gave up and sat down for pizza and breadsticks drenched in garlic butter in air conditioning.  At least I could rest a while and hopefully figure out where I was before the long walk back.  

After I ate, I asked the waiter if he could show me where we were on a map.  Apparently map-reading was not in his skill set, so he nervously called over a passing local customer who showed me that, somehow, I was at the far end of the very same mall with the A&W I'd stepped into hours before.  I had, and I still have no idea how, walked in a gigantic circle all the way around St. Paul's hill back to exactly where I had started.  Still a bit of a walk back, but nowhere near what I'd thought.  I don't get lost often, but when I do...