Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Doctor and The Man

I am heading back to Saigon tomorrow. I miss Saigon. Yes, the food of Malaysia has drawn me in, but I sure am glad I don't eat this way all the time. I would be soooo fat- because the food is rich and oily, in addition to being legendary. I am at an internet cafe back in Kuala Lumpur, hiding from the rain again, listening to Neil Diamond, wondering if they really love him here, or is it just coincidence that I have heard five of his songs within six days? Also, the theme to "Chariots of Fire" plays everywhere.

So while I wait for the rain to pass, I will tell you about two characters I met this week. They were my "favorite" in retrospect - in that while I interacted with them, I was thinking about writing about them, and that's the only way I kept my patience in each situation:

My favorite character of the week was Dr. Cheong Fung, the wine-medicine maker and masseuse that I escaped to during part of one (of four) days of rain this week while walking through Chinatown in Penang. He led me through a shopfront "owned by Pakistanis who do business without money" into his tiny little house where his wife was making dinner for their son.

He spoke a very broken-English stream of consciousness, but he added "I know that you don't believe me" very clearly at the end of each sentence. Such as:

"My son," he said (within hearing distance of his son), "He eighteen. He no interested in my medicine. He think he know everything. Very stupid boy. I know that you don't believe me."

"I healed a woman who couldn't walk. I know that you don't believe me."

"You should take up tai chi. A big, tall woman like you (I was twice his size), it would make you strong. From here (he pointed to his core). I know that you don't believe me."

"I healed a man that was struck by lightning. I know that you don't believe me."

"I have had diabetes for twenty years. I married and had my son when I was 55. I know that you don't believe me."

"The government no believe my medicine. They try stop me. They jealous. They send people after me. I know that you don't believe me."

"I am 75 years old. I know that you don't believe me." And then he had me squeeze his shoulder blade and punch him in the gut to show me just how strong a 75 year-old man could be. I said, "Wow," but actually, I have no idea how strong a 75 year-old man can be.

And my favorite:

"Most Americans don't like Obama because (then he broke into a whisper) he is black." He looked at me for my response to this shocking news. "I know that you don't believe me."

"Um," I finally interrupted, "Americans elected Obama by voting."

At this he stopped and looked at me as if surprised he had a speaking client, and then continued on. "I loved president Kennedy. Do you know him? They killed him. It was conspiracy. I know that you don't believe me..."

As I left, I said to the doctor, "I believe everything you told me" - just to see how he would react. He didn't. He just stared at me blankly.

"Tell people you meet about me," he called after me. And he didn't add anything to the end of that sentence.

In second (last) place: Azhar, my replacement rent-a-friend on Penang Island. I had chatted with a roly-poly, friendly guy named Lee at a travel agency the night before and liked him instantly. I liked him so much that I asked him if it would be possible to pay him to take me around the island on his motorbike (I had tried to rent on my own, but didn't bring my license with me and Malay policy, unlike Indonesian policy, is seemingly very strict on this matter). He lit up when I said I wanted to "see the island and taste some local food." I could just tell that Lee would be my food guy. He said he would really like to, but that he had to check with his boss. "No one has ever asked to see the island by motorbike," he told me.

When I showed up the next morning, Lee introduced me to Azhar, presumably the owner. "He's going to take you around," he said, and he looked and sounded disappointed. I was, too, because the first thing Azhar said to me was "I know exactly where I will take you" in a very dominant way. For every easy going Muslim man like Lee, there seemed to be three hard core, in-charge know-it-alls like Azhar. The contrast in Malaysia seems pretty severe.

"Um, well, I already know exactly where I want to go, so I will tell you," I said, and showed him on the map the area with the national park and the local village in the middle of the island. "I don't want to do anything touristy." But I could tell he wasn't listening.

The first place we stopped was a touristy "Spice Farm." Of course, it sounded a little bit interesting, being about spices, so I went ahead and bought a ticket, even though I knew I shouldn't have.

At the beginning of our "garden tour," Azhar stopped at an English description of a fern tree, read it silently, then translated it for me in his heavily accented English. I just looked at him incredulously and wanted to tell him that, actually, I could read and understand English. But I didn't say anything.

"This tree is from the fern family," he said. Which is what it said on the placard.

"Hmmmm..." I answered. Suddenly I felt very, very tired.

We crossed a bridge that went over a little stream and Azar pointed down to the stream. "That water comes from up there," he said, then pointed up to a little waterfall. I was having flashbacks of Nam at the castle doorstep grabbing corn on the cobb and showing me that it needed to be peeled before being eaten. Streams come from waterfalls? Imagine!

We passed a few plants that had no placards and when asked, Azhar had no idea what kind of flora any of it was. Then we came upon a platform with a swing that had ropes reaching high into the treetops. "Look," said Azhar, "it swings from way up there. It's a fun swing! It's a tree swing!"

I had had enough. "Azhar, I don't want to be here. I told you I didn't want to do anything touristy and this is very touristy. I could do this on my own if I wanted to."

"I see," he said. So we got back on the bike and who did we see enjoying a huge plate of food at a little hawker stand on our way out? Lee. He waved to me and I waved longingly back as Azhar whisked me away to our next tourist destination: a pier with boats that rowed out to a fishing village. "Do you want to go to the fishing village?" he asked.

"Azhar, listen to me. I don't want to do anything touristy. I just want to see the island and eat local food. I don't want to do anything touristy."

I guess it took Azhar three times to hear things because he finally nodded and said, "Oh! OK, why didn't you say that back at the agency?"

"I did."

"I want to give the customer what they want, so you should have just told me what you wanted."

"I did."

Well, he did drive me around, and as long as he wasn't talking, he was an OK motorbike driver. We did stop in town and eat at a local Malay restaurant, which was good, but that required me to have a fifteen-minute conversation with him. Which wasn't good, and which I really don't even care to record here.

Believe me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Legendary Food I Ate Today

I started my day with THE Penang specialty, Assam Laksa soup. Looking back, it was my favorite taste of the day, but each dish I tried after that made me waver on that decision momentarily.


The food in Penang is legendary.

Laksa broth is made from mackerel, which is poached, deboned and then joined by lemongrass, chilies and tamarind. The noodles are thick vermicelli, and after those are placed in the bowl, they are topped with lettuces, cucumber, onions, pineapple and fresh mint. On top of all of this, a spoonful of shrimp paste is placed on top for you to mix in yourself.

When I say that everything is represented here, it's in a Sweet, Sour, Spicy, Crunchy kind-o-way. Unforgettable. I would eat this every day for the rest of the week, at least. Cost = $1.

Next came Hokkien Mee, or "prawn noodle." This soup has a thick pork and prawn base and is garnished with water spinach, hard boiled eggs, shrimp, slices of pork and crispy shallots. The same spoonful of paste is placed across the bowl as mentioned above, but this one is filled with chili paste for a little more spice.

I adored this soup. Please, oh please, Malaysian restaurant in Seattle, please carry these two soups!

Cost: $1

I am nuts about the won ton soup in my neighborhood - just ask my family about it, because they got hooked on it, too.

So when I read about Wan Tan Mee, I had to carry my won ton competition to another country. I chose to have mine dry, like in the picture - but you can also have it as soup.

The dry form is served over thick soy sauce and you can toss it up as you like. Mine - which I waited for for at least 45 minutes at a hopping roadside stand - was topped with one fried won ton and two dumpling won tons and a row of delicious barbecued pork.

For dessert, I had cendool. The beans are thick and sweetened red beans, and the green worms are made from starch and the coloring comes from the pandan leaf. The syrup is made from coconut milk and is sweetened with palm sugar to give it an almost-coffee taste. All of this is served over shaved ice.

And what did I do during my three hours intervals in between meals? I saw the town - museums, old colonial mansions and state buildings and forts. I hid from the rain in my hotel where I watched a really stupid movie, and then hid from the rain some more with a 75 year-old Chinese healer who massaged his secret wine sauce into my wrists after he told me he had cured a man with it who was struck by lightning. I'll let you know if my wrist pain goes away.

Oh, and a confession: I also had chicken curry in Little India. It was delicious, but I knew that I wanted to try the wan tan mee, so I ate only half of it and only one piece of naan (I can exercise self-control in these situations). So I left with the deliberate thought, "No one will ever know about this..."

Well, I was wrong. I was sitting there eating my wan tan mee beside the road when a man I did not recognize approached my table. "You didn't like the chicken curry at the restaurant?" he asked, a little confused.

I had been caught, red-handed, slurping an egg noddle. "Um, no, I mean, yes, I liked it a lot," I answered as I wiped soy sauce from my chin. How could I explain my odd behavior to this man, who, probably like everyone else in that restaurant, had seen the light-haired foreigner leave half of her chicken?

"Why did you leave it?" There it was.

"I wanted this, too?" I said, smiling sheepishly.

The man belly laughed and said, "Good, good!" and went away.

Can't wait for another day in Penang~

(I got all of these pictures on the internet - they are better than mine!)

Monday, April 26, 2010

My Destiny Lies with Legendary Food

KUALA LUMPUR, Spring Break -

It took a while to find a taxi driver willing to take me to the bus station. "It's far from here," the owner of my guesthouse told me, "so you might have to ask quite a few drivers before someone takes you."

He was right. Just when I thought I might not make it to Melaka - a colonial/cultural food destination two hours south of Kuala Lumpur - without paying a very high price to merely get to the bus station, Mano stuck his friendly hand out after seven turn-downs and said, "I will take you there."

Friendly and chatty, Mano wanted to know my plans while in Malaysia. "Ah," he said in response to "Melaka," and then in a sing-songy, bored voice he said, "Ev-er-y bo-dy goes to Me-la-ka."

"I shoudn't go to Melaka?" I guessed.

"You will be bored after three hours. What will you do after that?"

I had no answer, so I asked where he would go, if he only had a week on peninsular Malaysia. Mano became quite animated with this question. "I would go to Penang. Many things to do on the island. The beach, the national park, the town" and then he added three magic words, "and the food."

"The food?" I was awake now. "What about the food?"

"Ah, best food in Malaysia," Mano sighed, and went on to describe the Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai and Nonya influences.

I quickly looked up "Penang" in my Lonely Planet and read the words, "...affectionately known as 'The Pearl of the Orient'...the only of the country's 13 states to have a Chinese majority, giving the island a distinct character all its own. The quality and variety of the food in Penang is legendary..."

Just as I read the word "legendary," we pulled up at the bus station and a man was yelling into my window, "Going to Penang? The bus is leaving NOW!"

I looked at Mano and shrugged. He said, "Go to Melaka next time." He nodded at the man and said "yes." The man opened the taxi door, pulled me out, grabbed my backpack and pushed me toward a window to buy a ticket. Within minutes, I was on a bus traveling north for five hours instead of south for two.

I am in Malaysia by myself. After two years of traveling with friends from school and home, spring break seemed to be announcing itself as a "Do it yourself" kind of vacation. Everyone had something else going, or was going somewhere I didn't really want to go. So - what destination did I choose? The one known for legendary food. And you know what? I had spent zero time planning for this trip. After reading up on Indonesia for hours, and after planning trips for eighteen castle guests, I decided to just allow this trip to happen, with my only real goal being to eat well. Extremely well. Legendarily well.

Already I had spent two days in Kuala Lumpur's "Golden Triangle" and had explored Chinatown and Little India. I had decided - after trying roti canai the first hour, that I would eat roti canai every day for the rest of the week. I had tasted it in Seattle before (at our one Malaysian restaurant), this unleavened bread that is fried and then served with a little bowl of curry/lentil/potato dipping sauce, but seeing it being flipped and grilled on every corner was just too much to resist. So difficult to resist, in fact, that in two days, six stalls of roti canai had drawn me in. And then I tried beef rendang at the Old China Cafe near Chinatown, and I decided that I would have to eat beef rendang (beef slow cooked to absorb lemon grass, chili, ginger, galangal, turmeric leaf and then topped with kaffir lime leaves) every day for the rest of the week.

But now I am in Penang, a very interesting place where you kind of see it all: covered women, uncovered women, fake flowers laced into the pedicabs, Indian gods, steamed buns, Chinese medicine, and signs that tell you to "Come in and have your bad luck changed." I just walked down to Little India (I love those two words placed side by side) and had the best tandoori chicken and mushroom and pea dosai (rice flour pancake) I have ever tasted at a simple little roadside stand. As I am eating, wondering what I can possibly find to do for the next three hours until I am hungry again, I am thinking that I will have to have tandoori chicken and dosai every day for the rest of the week...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How To Fall in Love with Vietnam in Ten Days

by Rita

Sitting on an Asiana flight or at the Seoul airport for 28 hours provides plenty of time to contemplate what it'll be like to see Marjie in her element! It was a visit so worthwhile. I am still living it, although it's been a week. Marjie is indeed in the heart of the old city, District 1...where every darn time a taxi driver stared with disbelief at the Vietnamese hotel card, doubting that the little unknown hotel was, indeed, the destination of this westerner.

Once arrived, I found the room large and clean with views of District 1's morning hustle and bustle of the local - what more does one need when one has authenticity?

Whereas many of her teaching colleagues live in the wide-street 'burbs with foreign restaurant choices and gated communities, Marjie and her roommates have found the closest place to heavenly Sweet Sour Salty Spicy and Crunchy.

To find her, however, you must wind your way down narrow, sunless alleys, very conscious of where you step, very aware of a constant stream of motorcycles and scooters winding their way, uhh....both directions, in the most narrow of spots. They somehow slow for a mother and child holding hands, slowly walking in the middle. I, like a typical foreigner, dancestep nervously to the edge of the path the first few days.

Women, men, and children did look, sometimes staring up at my tall redheadness; but if I smile, so do they. Days later, the little children dart out and try to speak a little English and the women wave first. Their homes are their family business. Content with only a few rooms, there they reside with a little t.v., a game board on the floor, and often the men seek a cool peace by lying directly on the floor.

Motorcycles command this city. Sometimes 10 abreast, sometimes up on the sidewalks. Many going the other direction on "your side" of the street. And it all flows like the Saigon River. Men riding motorcyles with 5 family members squeezed in tight. Pairs of school girls giggling and texting while cycling; man holding his hand on an untethered, bright pink birdcage in back while driving; another deftly carrying Gulliveresque cages of chickens...anything comes and goes!

The load kept falling off of this man's treasure.
It's so fascinating, especially on the back of Marjie's motorcycle. A nightmare and an amusement ride that rivals anything from Disney's creations. She's amazing, you guys!

With this noisy backdrop, Talented Travel Planner Ms. Marjorie, helped me plan for some escape: bus rides to the lush Mekong Delta for a country wedding of her friend. It was held in the family's largest room, a steep-peaked temple room with Buddhist shrines, tables laden with food and drink, air conditioning that stopped when all electricity was cut off in the common "rolling black-outs", and a bevy of little children and women staring at us Westerner women/teachers through the open windows.

Alas, faithful friends, I have no photos of Marjie looking ever so beautiful and excruciatingly hot in her long, 2-piece aio dai. Sorry to say: my camera was swiped at the very end of this unique wedding, as I briefly left it on a table for one last photo request from a local. I lamented my folly for days...still do.

Marjie then suggested a trip to the cooler Central Highlands, to the fabled Flower City of Da Lat, where I spent two glorious, tranquil days. The cheap, round trip flight was so worth it. A million fruits and flowers stands beckon you ..a city so fragrant that your senses literally write you a daily thank you card. Take a fun train ride to a village on an old, wooden cog train. Put it on your Bucket List.

In the interim, I rode with Marjie to school one day to teach. She must deftly maneuver through torn-up streets and mounds of dirt with her cycle. You would not believe it! But, being with her clever, fun, and friendly 6th graders was worth it. I read each class a story, showed them a powerpoint of Marjie's 'Other Life', and watched devoted Marjie interact with a wacky sense of humor and still expect top quality work. They'd walk on hot coals for her. See last post - the photos are on her camera.

The Travel Planner Extraordinaire provides again the final destination while lying on the hammock on her roof one night: "Let's go to Mui Ne and do some beach time on the South China Sea!" Ya gotta love her spontaneity!

This luscious location costs literally only a few dollars to share our cottage on the beach with roommate, the lovely and best listener in the world, Katherine. While Marjie and I read and drink fruit smoothies in the shade, Katherine prepares for her triatholon by swimming in the high waves. The wind not only rips the pages from her book, but over 50 well-built guys are also kite-boarding with gusto. Bad timing not to have my own camera for close-ups.

So much to say, so long is this post.

But, I've left out the amazing cheap massages, the excellent coffee or tea that D'Arcie, art teacher from MHS and I
discovered one morning, or the
lucious market meal prepared by her two Vietnamese friends, the tour to Cu Chi tunnels - an underground maze of Vietnamese families and Viet Cong living under the U.S. army base in the late 60's, and of course, the amazing food we had every breakfast, lunch or dinner!

But, that's Marjie's bag, I mean blog.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Explanations and Sweet Students

I haven't given up on blogging, but blogging has kind of given up on me. "Vietnam" has blocked Facebook - we can only use it at school because they have "found a way around it" - and Blogger almost never works through Internet Explorer anymore. Sometimes it works through Firefox, like now, but most of the time, it is unaccessible.

Anyway, that's why I haven't blogged lately. Rita is going to write one now that she is back in Seattle, so she can tell you all about her/our fantastic time... I don't think any of my 18 guests have utilized their time as well as Rita did. She MOVED all over this place during her 8 days. But she can tell you all about that (and about how her camera got stolen during the last two minutes at the wedding to explain why there are NO pictures of the day or of me wearing my ao dai in 100 degree heat).

I am going to just take this opportunity to post pictures of my students. Rita came in one day and taught all five of my classes - of course they loved her. In the picture, she is reading to my class filled with stuffed animals. The best athlete boys started to bring their stuffed animals to school, so then they all started...sometimes I call on their animals to answer (I was born to teach 6th graders, I know).

Anyway, here you go:

My class with glasses

My class of six...that's right, six. We take turns bringing treats for the "whole class."

This class wants to be known as "the studious class."

There is one more class that is undocumented here...they can't think of a theme for their picture (other than tatoos or earrings - mostly boys). After two years of teaching sixth grade, I have not had one discipline problem. A few turn in late work, one doesn't turn in any work.

But all of them, when I returned from my Dengue Fever stint and was exhausted after teaching for one hour, allowed me to lie down in the back of the room and they kept each other quiet while practicing their skits. "SHHH! Ms. Marjorie is sick! Be quiet!" I heard all day. Talk about sweet and spoiled, that would be me. I truly look forward to every day of work.