Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Nor(w)ich Wedding

After having traveled around Europe (and N. Africa) for the past few weeks it was now time for my final destination, Norwich. I'd considered taking a train from Amsterdam to London then to Norwich, but time and money put me on a flight from Schipol to Luton, one of the cheaper Easyjet flights. From there I took Greater Anglia trains all the way to Norwich with one stop in Cambridge. It only took a few hours, not bad really and the trains were comfortable enough. Once I got to Norwich I started walking for my hotel. Unfortunately I forgot the map I printed, but remembered the general direction and that I thought I could walk it in less than 30 minutes so I set out. It wasn't too far to get to the Best Western Annesley. I was quite pleased with the hotel, it was a nice little place. Since I arrived at the hotel close to 9pm the guys were already out for the bachelor's night, but I was able to locate them and get a few pints in before the night was over. The next morning I had two missions, haircut and pair of dress shoes. I figured I could get a pair of dress shoes for 20BP or less and that was what I was willing to pay not to have lugged a pair of my own across Europe for the last three weeks. I was in luck as there was a TJ Maxx and SuperCuts. I had my breakie, shoes, and a sharp cut by noon and so had just enough time to get back to the hotel to take a nap before heading to meet the guys at The Assembly House. Long story short the bride said yes, wedding was beautiful, food was great, drank too much, got to bed around 1am. It was cool to see Jon so happy, also very nice to see some of the guys I had known on JET as well and to talk about old times and how things have changed. The next morning I was on the verge of death, but managed to get myself checked out and walk to the train station by 8am, Monday. This began what is probably the longest set of trains, planes, and automobiles that I have ever taken. It took me about 48 hours to train to London, fly from Gatwick to Basel, Basel to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and finally Kuala Lumpur to Penang were a friend picked me up at the airport. I got to my new apartment at 8pm Wednesday, signed my lease papers, and went to sleep in order to face the first day of work the next day. I've been back in Penang for about a month now and this year is running much more smoothly than last. Aya joined me shortly after I arrived and now I could even  possibly see myself staying here for a while, maybe. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013


From Brussels I moved on to Amsterdam by Thalys train. For the first night I had booked a hotel out by the airport and so spent the evening in town walking around but not doing much else. People were very laid back, but a big difference I noticed right away was the smell of marijuana wafting through the streets.
As I was walking through a shop I noticed that they had a bottle of absinthe, which is illegal in the US. So I grabbed it and headed back to my hotel room. Green in color this drink is often associated with green fairies and is rumored to lead to mild hallucinations, so I had to try it. It is also very strong at about 75% alcohol. I had a couple of glasses of it and I must say that it was disgusting. Hopefully the maid liked absinthe because I ended up leaving almost a full bottle when I left the hotel the next day.
The next couple of days I stayed closer to the downtown area in the King Hotel. Amsterdam has plenty to do and I spent most of my time just walking circles around the streets near the train station enjoying the canals, the people in the squares and street performers, and window shopping. I went to a store that had over 1000 varieties of beer (otherwise known as heaven), ducked through the red light district a couple of times, and enjoyed all sorts of street foods most notable fries with gobs of mayo. I did some constructive things too, the first being going to the Amsterdam Dungeon. About 5 years ago I had visited the London Dungeon and really thought that was fun so I would give the Amsterdam Dungeon a try. Basically it is like an informational haunted house. As a group of 30 or so you get shuffled around to different rooms where there are different stories told and things to scare you. Just like in London the characters interacted with you, frightening you and generally making people laugh with discomfort. It was really fun and at the end the Amsterdam Dungeon had something that the London Dungeon didn't, a roller coaster!
Later that afternoon I went to the My Dream Exhibition, which honestly at first I thought would be kind of lame. About 200 Van Gogh paintings had been retouched to show their original color and 7of them had been rendered in 3-D. Unfortunately I have lost all my pictures from this experience, but it was very cool. Besides seeing the bright colors of Van Gogh the 3d booths were neat. They looked like large photo booths so you would pull back the curtain and step inside. Once inside you put on your 3d glasses and view the painting with soundtrack  which would play in a 2 minute or so loop. I found this video, but it doesn't do it justice. Van Gogh's My Dream Exhibition
After having seen the exhibition I thought I would then go and see the real Van Gogh paintings. I have been a fan of Van Gogh for a very long time and kind of felt like I was going to a concert where my favorite band was playing. The paintings at the museum were beautiful and I was very glad to spend the rest of the afternoon just shuffling from painting to painting.
As the museum would soon be closing I thought it best to move on to the Heineken factory. I joined a tour group and they showed us how Heneiken was brewed along with a couple of beers at the end. There were lots of neat things like a 4D experience of how Heineken makes their beer, an area where you could customize your bottle, where they keep the horses (apparently Heine has horses?)The experience was enjoyable and since I have recently started home brewing myself it was neat to see the industrial version of the 7 gallon buckets I use.
Having had a few beers it was time to go see Anne Frank's house. Unfortunately by the time I got there the line was very long and I didn't think it worth it to wait to see what would basically be an old house. Sorry Anne Frank, you were a brave little girl but there was a dinner/beer special around the corner from your former house.
More or less that encapsulates my time in Amsterdam. I really enjoyed it and would like to go back again some day to see a bit more of the city and perhaps take some day trips to the surrounding country side. Onward to Norwich, England!

Sunday, September 08, 2013


From Tanger I took a flight to Paris, arriving around 9 at night. I booked a budget hotel for the evening and got up early the next morning to catch my train Paris Du Nord station to get to Brussels. I used Thalys and the train was fairly nice and fast. In Brussels I was a bit early for checking into my hotel, but I thought I would give it a try anyways. I had booked the Max Hotel with no real thought for what type of hotel it was, just that it was fairly central and cheap with fair reviews. Since I was too early the receptionist told me I could keep my baggage in a locker on the 2nd floor. After I put my bag in I looked around the corner where there was a large sitting area and a computer terminal. There were also a couple of vending machines. Some of these had normal things like beer, candies, and some personal products in them. However, I was very amused to see another machine selling 24 hours of wifi, maid service, extra towels, etc. There were many plastic cards that you could buy which would then drop out of the vending machine and you could use for the service. For example the maid service card had a slot nearby where you dropped it with your room number on it and a maid came at a later time to clean your room. I bought a wifi/satellite tv card and was very satisfied to have control over what I was being charged for in terms of a room. Most hotel rooms have things I never use like a hair dryer, safe, or slippers. I hate that because I am being charged for the service that I don't use. 
So, first impression of Brussels was pretty good. I then bought a can of Hoegarden from the adjacent vending machine and my impression got even better. I had a few hours until I could check in, but basically was free to roam the city and so I headed to what I thought would be a cool sight, the museum of modern art. I didn't get in the first day because it was closed, but did on the next day and was very disappointed. Most of the artwork was of the 15-1800 paintings of Christ and the saints variety. I did a tour of the whole place in about 30 minutes. I'm sure the other patrons must have thought me mad to be walking about so briskly barely looking at most of the work, but I had already paid the sunk cost of the ticket and wasn't about to additionally waste my life looking at what bored me. 
There was one particular painting I enjoyed though, Jacques-Louis David's painting of Marat, one of the martyrs of the French Revolution. The story behind it is interesting. 

There were a few other points of interest for me in Brussels. I visited the famous Mannekin Pis and the Grand Place. One of the most interesting places I visited was the Atomium which was built for the world's fair in 1958. I can't say that the inside itself was too interesting, but certainly the building was. Plus, I got to ride what was the fastest elevator in 1958 (which was super slow) and realized why elevator music was invented. I enjoyed my time in Brussels, from the beer to the waffles and all of the very friendly people. Someday I would like to go back again, but this time with my chocolate loving wife. 

Sunday, September 01, 2013


His name was Mohammed, which was no surprise. I was beginning to feel like the people here in Tangiers were very friendly as this was the second man to chat me up within a couple of hours. The first had helped me to find dry cleaners and as we walked away I expected him to turn and ask for money or a favor. My experiences with cultures such as these in the past had taught me what to expect, but it never happened. So I thought this second guy might be on the level. It was evening and the streets were jammed with people as dark was coming in a couple of hours and everyone would break the fast. People were scurrying here and there try to buy last minute meals or get home to family.
When Mohammed first approached me I thought he would just want to ask where I was from, but the more we talked the more he divulged his story. Nearing 40, no wife, out of work for a couple of years but starting work at a hotel next week. He asked where I was going, to the Kasbah, and offered to show me there. As we approached all I could think was that he might try to get me down a dark alley so that he could rob me, so as long as we were in crowded streets I was ok and kind of enjoyed talking to him. We entered the outer market and made our way up a steep hill. During this climb he asked me if I smoked, honestly at first I thought he meant cigarettes because we were both starting to breath hard and so I said, “Not really, but once in a while I might”.  He then said, “Yes, sometimes it is good to smoke with friends to calm down, but not too often. That is bad.” And then I realized what he had really meant.
So now I am thinking that Mohammed is going to rob me for sure so that he can go buy some hash and get smoked up before the evening meal. His eyes seem to tell that story, but he still hasn’t made any really aggressive comments and we are still on the crowded street so I don’t bother to cut this off. Eventually we reach the top of the hill and are going to where we can see over the harbor across to Tarifa. It’s a beautiful view and I would stay to sit for a while, but its beginning to be odd having Mohammed at my side. More or less I have run out of things to say to him. So we stay a couple of minutes and then start making our way through the back streets down to where we started. At one point there is a fork in the street and Mohammed asks three teenage boys something, and they say "prison, it used to be a prison" pointing to a rather nice looking building which Mohammed steers us to the right of. I may mention that the back streets of the old city are very narrow, windy, full of people and character. It’s a maze more or less, but we navigate very well and are soon back to where we started. At this point there must be about 30 minutes to sundown and I press Mohammed about getting to his family to break the fast. He tells me that I should come, asks if I am truly sure that I don’t want to get some hash, and then we exchange numbers and he says goodbye.

So now I am on my own, by the Kasbah and with about 30 minutes to dark so decide to go back the same route to the top of the hill to sit and look at the harbor. Everything is fine, besides the two men who approach me to sell me hash on the way up. I get to the top and sit for a bit, then decide that I better get going as now the sun is setting fast. As I leave the wall and make my way back down to the market I decide to take a different route. I take a left instead of a right by the prison assuming that I basically just have to go down and to the right to get back to the main market. Sooner than I realize I am deep down a side alley that has no exit so I turn around and see the boys who were at the top of the wall by the prison, but in the darkened alley and on my own they seem more menacing than before. To avoid them I take a left which turns out to be another dead end and run into another group of young guys. This time I try to ask them in Spanish, where is the Medina? They are helpful and point me in a direction which I go, but 5 minutes later I am facing another seemingly unending maze of alleys. So I ask again and get pointed in another direction again leading to confusion and an ever darkening maze. By this point its right on the verge of darkness and the streets are thinning of people as they are all breaking the fast. Eventually I see a sign for a pension deciding that this might be a good place to go as they will probably speak English and definitely will know how to guide people to the Medina. So I enter and find no one but a young girl who I attempt to ask in Spanish and English, where is the Medina? I guess she does not understand and runs to get her father who after a few confused moments points me down another alley. Now it is dark and as I emerge into a small square I recognize where I am, back in the Medina. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


In Madrid we didn't do as much as we could have. For instance, we could have seen the royal palace, but we weren't terribly interested in seeing some old furniture with gold flake so we didn't. The big thing we did do is go to MoMa to see some Picasso and Dali paintings. I can't say I was very moved by Dali and even Picasso isn't my cup of tea, but standing in front of Guernica and thinking about what the painting represented and its impact on the world was something special. unfortunately pictures were not allowed, but we did get a few other good pictures. 
From Madrid Aya was going back to Japan then on to Cyprus so we said goodbye the next day and I was a one armed man again. In the afternoon I boarded a train to Algeciras where I would eventually make my way to Tangers in Morroco.

Monday, August 19, 2013


In Granada Aya and I enjoyed evenings of tapas and sangria then watched flamenco dancing in the square. This was very enjoyable, but of course the big attraction in Granada is Alhambra, the Moorish palace built/occupied from approximately 700 to 1491 when the last ruler signed it over to Isabella and Ferdinand.
When we went it was evening and there didn’t seem to be a large amount of people there. We were advised to get tickets beforehand which we did, but people that queued up to buy tickets got in just as quickly as we did. The sprawling grounds have a good number of gardens and beautiful views as well as some of the most ornate architecture I have seen. I could get used to living in a place like that.

The next day we were to take a train to Madrid so we thought we had better do one more night of bouncing from bar to bar for tapas and drinks. We each had a couple more drinks and felt like we had a full night so went home. Aya wanted to use the computer in the business center so I went up to the room alone. About ½ an hour later there was a frantic knock at the door and Aya brushed past me when I opened the door. More or less we determined that Aya’s threshold is about 1 drink and anything more might be trouble. 

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Basilica La Sagrada Familia

First order of business in Barcelona was to visit the Basilica Sagrada Familia, also known as that awesome church that Gaudi built (disclaimer, he didn't actually build it but designed it). Unfortunately the architect Antonio Gaudi, whose wonderful architecture is all over Barcelona, died when hit by a tram. This was well before the basilic was finished, since it still isn't finished and Gaudi was unlikely to live to be 174 to see its completion in 2026 anyways. Work has carried on and continues to, some of which can be seen in the lower levels of the Basilica where there is also located a museum to the history of construction. The designs within the building are mad by today's eye and I am sure they looked like craziness 100 years ago as well. It seems like much of the designs were brand new and people weren't even sure they would work, but they have.

I joined the 2.5 million people who visit this UNESCO world site each year and by that I mean that I started by standing in line for 1 hour in the Spanish sun because I hadn't reserved tickets in advance. The line curved around the front of the building and down the block threatening to reach right round to continue on to the next block. Many people saw the line and turned around. Babies cried and women fanned themselves with cheap Chinese fans bought from Chinese street hawkers taking advantage of the line (the Chinese are everywhere, seriously everywhere). Eventually we got in.

Amazing. I don't know how else to describe it as its not really like anything I have seen before. For some reason I felt like it had been built by lizard people. Columns rocketed to the ceiling in a curvy fashion, stain glass colored the faces of passersby in green, blue, orange, and gold. The depiction of Christ, hanging and yet covered by some kind of canopy was strange. It made me think that there was Christ, under the big top, and this was all some circus. We didn't stay too long as we had little time in Barcelona and wanted to see other things, plus were a bit tired from standing in line so long but this set a nice tone for the rest of our sight seeing in Barcelona.  

100 Flights

A couple of years ago a friend had commented to me that his wife had just taken her 100th flight and I joked if she wrote them down in a book or something each time she flew. He had said that they had a flight delayed and so to pass the time started to count the flights realizing that she was about to make her 100th.

I can't say for sure that Basel to Barcelona was my 100th, but I think so. Flying 100 times doesn't feel like a lot, but I guess it is. When I first started flying I was nervous each time, especially when taking off. I still get a bit nervous during take-offs, but more so during landings now as I know that about 2/3 of all crashes occur then. Not a happy thought, but learning more about air travel also has lead me to realize that commercial flying is incredibly safe: by most estimates I have somewhere between a 1 in 25 million and 1 in 50 million chance of being involved in an air crash depending on which airline I am taking. Compared with train travel flying is much safer though travel by train is pretty safe.  Its much safer even then driving and way more safe then walking or biking. It seems odd to think of walking as dangerous, but walkers and bikers are subject to being hit by cars, who kill them.
I guess it is the lack of control that most people fear. Is this pilot trained sufficiently? Likely so. We should really be asking that question each time we enter a vehicle.
In any case, I made it through 100 and I will likely make it through 100 more. Here we go, into the wild blue yonder! 

On Germany

I finally made it out of Penang for the summer. It was a relief from the heat, montony, and living alone. It felt great to watch Penang drift away in the clouds. After a long series of flights from Penang to KL, KL to Amsterdam, and finally Amsterdam to Basel I was greeted by my uncle, wife, and in laws. As my aunt and I would later find out, it was my 5th (I think) time to visit them. Since I had rested pretty well on the flight, and on the floor in Siphol in Amsterdam, I was able to spend the first evening up with them. Over the next few days my uncle drove around the 4 of us (mom in-law, dad-inlaw, aya, me) to various places and my aunt made delicious meals for us at all times of the day. It was very relaxing and they were great hosts. We had just enough time to visit Neuschwanstein, the reference for the castles at every Diseneyland, and to go to Interlaken (actually not, but a village close to there whose name I can't remember) for a nice view of the Alps and to see one of the coolest waterfalls which carved its way through the mountain from glacial run-off. We also spent some time in Bad Sackingen wandering around and the town and the Rhine R. On the last night we had my favorite meal and then my uncle, dad-in law, and me got excited looking at a book of maps. After 4 days my wife and in-laws were off and I stayed on for another two days spending time with the family before heading to Barcelona to meet up with Aya. I really enjoyed my stay and can't wait to see them all again, whether in Germany or somewhere else (come to Japan Nielecks! I will meet you there!)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Out With the Old. In With the New.

For those of you looking for how to get your passport both through documents and directions skip down to the last paragraph. 
Its been 10 years now and that guy on my passport doesn't look too much like me anymore. I took that photo in a Walgreens on the way to Chicago with my mother. I was apply for my first adult passport because I was traveling to China to meet my friend David. Soon after I got my first visa, a big one page Chinese tourist visa was inside. By the end I think I had four of those one page Chinese visas, plus a few more 1 page visas. 
I love  my old beat up passport, but it was time to get a new one and so I had to get one here in Malaysia. Malaysia, the 22nd country I visited/lived in with this passport. In all there are 23 countries logged in this one. 97 flights under that passport, about a dozen motor car border crossings. I love to look at the stamps and remember each journey. Even though I had to get more pages a few years ago I was reaching the end of those as well and would have had to get a new passport sometime soon, time to say goodbye to my old friend.
So in order to get a new passport I had to fill out some documents online (then print them) from the US embassy. Passport renewal is pretty straightforward as you need only those forms, a form of ID (old passport will do), some cash, and a passport photo. Unfortunately citizen services is only open from 9am to 11am weekdays, so it was hard to coordinate a day to get there. In Malaysia you can't send in your passport by mail as you can in other places/ if you are of other nationality. You have to physically go there.  If you have the proper documents and such the process is pretty quick. It took me about 20 minutes to wait, be called on, and get the documents in. Then they give you a slip of paper, green, as a receipt for your new passport. You do not need to go in person to collect it, anyone who has the slip can get the passport. I ended up going myself to retrieve it as well and that was even faster. Getting to and from the embassy can be tricky, but it need not be. I've posted a map google gave me for walking from my hotel in Bukit Bintang. It took me about 40 minutes to walk that distance and it was easy to keep to the correct streets. If you drive, as I did the first time, just keep on Jalan Tun Razak. Initially you will likely be driving under an elevated highway. Just keep going until the road starts to rise and there is no highway above you. At this point you will see an elevated walkway going over the road. Just after this is the embassy. Pass the embassy and take the next left. This will lead you into a residential area where you can park for free and from which its less than 5 minutes to walk to the embassy. The embassy has no official parking, so this is likely your best option to get your shiny new, American passport. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Betel Nut

The island where I live is named for the tree which grows here, Pinang. This tree has a unique feature as many people chew the nuts from the tree. Before coming to Penang I researched the island and discovered this fact, which peeked my interest. A couple years prior I first heard of betel nut from a co-worker who had lived in Yap for many years. He said that everyone there chewed betel nut, even kids in his classroom. Earlier this year I tried to locate some, thinking Little India in Georgetown was the best place to find it, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about. Thankfully I have recently made friends with a local and when I told her that I wanted to try it she brought me all the ingredients the next day! Not only that but a few days later we did a little "walking tour" and she showed me a few hole in the wall stores where I could buy more.
Taking the meat from the center of the nut, you wrap it in a leaf, add some lime/chalk, chew until gooey and then put into the pocket of your cheek/teeth chewing gently until there is nothing left. It turns your mouth red as the nut is ground down, a sure sign of someone who is using it.
I had read that it would give you a slight buzz and I found this to be true. I felt a light headed feeling, but nothing too severe. Perhaps a bit of a general good feeling too. Now that I have tried it, I don't think I will do it again soon. The nut is bitter and for what it does, I don't feel that it is worth using, but a nice experiment none the less

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Sepilok Orang-utan Center

On the last day we left camp early and headed back to Kopel’s main center in Mengaris. We had a nice breakfast there then boarded a bus heading for the Orang-utan rehab center  near Sandakan. This for me was the highlight of the trip. At the center we were going to watch a morning feeding time for orang-utans, but on the walk to the feeding platform we encountered two orang-utans on the walkway and so at once frightening and exciting were able to get within just a few feet of them. The feeding was also interesting as we got to see a small group interact. Apparently orang-utan numbers in Borneo are on the rise. A good sign for nature conservationists.

After a quick lunch in Sandakan we boarded flights for KL where all but myself and one other teacher flew back to Penang. There was another mix up with the tickets and the long story short meant that we would be taking checked baggage via bus back to Penang, a 5 hour ride, while the others flew on.  Wearily we arrived back at the school around 130am and deposited the bags for students to collect the next day. Later on as I was taking a hot shower I thought about how marvelous it is that I get to have aircon, hot running water, a ready supply of clean clothes, a soft bed, and an apartment with space and a nice view. I don’t often think of myself as being rich and I think by relative standards I am not rich for the society I come from, but by absolute standards I have it pretty good.  The best part of this trip was seeing and hearing the students complain about the pit toilets, the bucket showers, the work and the grime. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Kopel Eco Camp

The next morning we packed it all up and took boats down river to the Eco Camp, another part of the Kopel Community Eco-tourism. Here all students would be staying for the next couple of days, mostly in A frame huts, but some going all out sleeping in the jungle with only hammocks. I must say though that by this point I was very tired because of lack of sleep and hard working days. I decided to take the morning to visit a local museum and then head out with the lunch delivery later in the day. In the village there is a museum, whose name I can’t seem to remember or find, where 50 or so wooden coffins have been found in the caves of a limestone escarpment. It is a bit of a mystery what these coffins, date 600-900 years old, are doing in the caves as by that time locals in the area had converted to Islam which dictates no coffin or adornments at burial. It was an interesting place and from the top there is a lookout area with great views. After spending some time there I and another teacher rode out with the lunches to where the students were planting trees. Portions of the forest near the village had been illegally logged and so the Kopel group was replanting those areas. More work in the sun and the dirt planting and then we headed back to the Eco camp for the night. After a delicious dinner and a couple of hours of charades most everyone headed for bed. I was looking forward to a good night of sleep as there were no highways, chicken coups, or mosques in sight and my mat had a mosquito net over it. Unfortunately I had stupidly left an empty package of peanuts on the floor next to my bag and so was awoken at 4am by what I think was a lizard trying to lick the inside of the foil.
Day two at Eco camp I again decided to take the morning to rest, this time learning some local fishing techniques from the guides and chatting with them about their lives. Thankfully the other teacher with me was Malaysian and so could communicate with them very well. Not that they didn’t speak English, but the English was limited. I learned that most of the guys had 6-10 kids and earned between 200-400 ringgit (about 70-125usd) per month. To supplement their income they fished, hunted, tended vegetable patches, and grew small plots of palm for palm oil production. It was an interesting morning.
I again rode the boat out with the lunch and joined everyone else planting trees. By 4pm we broke from work and took a couple of boats down river to see some wildlife. That trip was rewarding as we saw some crocs, various hornbills, and proboscis monkeys. That night back at camp we had another great meal and prepared our bags for an early departure the next morning.

Miso Walai Homestay

This past week I was a chaperon on a week long school trip for the students CAS week, which is community service. Many groups of students worked at places like homeless shelters and orphanages here in Penang, but others went further afield to Kuala Lumpur and Thailand. There is even a group that will be departing this week that is going to Kenya to build sink/toilet facilities at a local school there.
The group I was with went to the eastern (Borneo) part of Malaysia, a 4 hour plane journey that landed us in the city of Sandakan in the province of Sabah. Another larger group was heading to climb Mt. Kinabalu first and would join us later in the week. Due to some mix up of the plane ticket bookings my small band of 6 arrived late at night. From Sandakan we had to travel 2 hours by bus to the village of Mengaris where we were paired off and sent to stay with local families through the Miso Walai home stay program. Since it was so late, I can’t say that our family was brimming with excitement to see us, but they quickly made us comfortable and we tried to sleep. I found this extremely difficult as my bedroom was 5 meters from a highway, right above a chicken coup, and with no mosquito net.
The next day we headed to a local school to begin work on a covered walkway which kids from our school had started in previous years. Here our real adventure began as we began to see the village in the daylight. About 100 houses spread over roughly 5 square kilometers. The village had no gas station, no grocery, no mini-mart, and no hospital, but they did have a mosque conveniently located about 10 meters from my bedroom which is perfect for the 4am call to prayer to wake you up, whether or not you would like to pray at 4am.
Unfortunately on the first day there was a problem locating the proper tools for work on the walkway, but the pta had another project going on building some walls for a storage room so we helped with that, mostly getting in the way. At the end of the day, very tired and dirty, we decided to take a short ride across the river to where there were some shops, a couple of restaurants, and a gas station.
We perused the shops and had dinner at a Chinese place, then reluctantly headed back to our home stays. The home stays themselves were not terrible. People were nice enough, the food was fine, and there was an effort to make us comfortable, but I couldn’t help but feel like the family I stayed with wasn’t thrilled to have us there. At one point I asked how home stays were decided and I was told it is on a rotating basis so that all families have equal chance to earn some money from the home stays. I imagine that is the overriding objective, to make some money, in household decisions to become part of the home stay program. I can’t say that I blame them, but it didn’t make for very lively evening interactions.
By day two we had the proper tools and so on that day and the next worked on the covered walkway. The students and I would work in bursts of about 40 minutes, then take a break in the shade with water as the heat of the day was too much to bear continuously. Often my students would interact with the local students, which was nice to see. I think overall the home stay was good for them and me as we are used to living in comfort with aircon, flushing toilets, hot water, etc. and it makes us appreciate them even more to be reminded that most people don't have those things. 

By the end of our 4th day the covered walkway was nearly complete and the larger group who had climbed the mountain joined us. All 30 or so of us stayed in home stays for the night and then were gathered to come to the Kopel Eco Tourism center for a community traditional dance performance. I have been to shows like this before and I must admit that I was expecting some corny dance routine, but it was quite good. The best part is that it seemed like the whole community took part. Not only were many of our guides/helpers/drivers adorned in traditional attire dancing and drumming away, but their kids were ambling around all over the center as the performance went on. It was a real community affair. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Penang Toy Museum

Working through the list of places to see in Penang my finger fell on the Toy Museum on a recent weekend. I had heard a bit about it in the local papers as it had moved locations from the basement of the Copthorne hotel to a new location in Teluk Bahang. It was a bit hard to find as I thought it would be right by the roadside, but in fact it was set back from the main thoroughfare. My friend and I arrived around closing time and we asked if we could still get in. The owner told us it would take 30-60 minutes depending on how much we liked the things. We had about 45 minutes to the close so we thought we would go for it. The array of toys and memorabilia was amazing and we had a good time walking around taking photos of different things. It took us about 40 minutes to go through it all. When we finally emerged the owner chatted with us for a bit and told us that some people don’t last more than 10 minutes. I can see why this is. Though the toys are interesting, the best part was associations made to my childhood and toys that I may have had. If you are an American male between the ages of 25 and 40 this would probably be interesting for you. If not, maybe you should budget 10 minutes. At a price of 30 ringgit (about 10usd) for admission I was just satisfied with my experience.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pulau SongSong

A couple of weeks ago I went to Pulau SongSong, located just off the coast of Kedah in Peninsular Malaysia. For the King’s birthday we had a Wednesday off and I jumped at the chance to get off of this rock and onto another one. I went with about a dozen other people and we hired two boats from Batu Ferringi. The ride out was great as the wind was blowing in our faces and the cool clear morning was beginning. Along the way we saw many fishermen and smaller island and each time I thought we might be arriving. It took us about an hour to get there and once we had unloaded the boats took off to find other work for the day. With no agenda we mostly swam, snorkeled, had lunch, had a couple beers, took a nap, played in the sand and relaxed. The beach itself was nice, but littered with debris, mostly plastic. Earlier in the year a group of our students had come to clean the beach and I heard that they had left with 15 large trash bags, but you would have never known it looking at the beach. Still it was a nice day away and riding the swells on the way back was also quite fun. As I arrived home sunburned, tired, and sandy I was happy that I had taken the time to visit Pulau SongSong and thought that I may go back again if the opportunity arises.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Down to the Wire in Malaysian Election

Though Malaysia has a king which follows a line of hereditary ascension AND is elected Malaysia is mostly modeled on a parliamentary system. Despite the availability of Malaysians to elect leaders, more or less the same party has been in power since Malaysian independence 55 years ago. Barisan Nasional formed in 1973 as the successor to the Alliance is the ruling party and it has been that party or say coalition in charge as long as most Malaysians can remember. This party is mostly ethnic Malay and indigenous people which make up about 60% of Malaysia’s population. Interestingly, especially where I live in Penang, there are a lot of ethnically Chinese Malaysians often called the Straits Chinese (at least in Penang). In the last election BN was upset by the winning of other parties on a scale large enough to set up opposition parties in state governments. Penang being one of those as it is ruled by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) which is largely an ethnically Chinese party and part of the Pakatan Rakyat, an alliance between three parties including two others which Islamic leanings. This election is expected to be even more contentious and though BN is expected to win the overall election the margin is set to be close. Penang will almost certainly remain in DAP control, but who knows about other states.
BN has certainly been making an effort here in Penang. Last week they held a free banquet in Batu Ferringi which I heard hosted 3,000 people. I have heard that they are giving away free grain and other goodies to communities, especially ethnic Indians, in the hopes that it will sway voters their way.
Personally I hope the alliance wins more seats. BN has an ok record, but the racism and corruption are too much. I was talking with one of my students the other day, an ethnically Indian girl, who told me she had gotten a scholarship to a local college but choose instead to come pay for our school because after college she had little chance of getting into a university in Malaysia. When I looked up the statistics I saw she was right. 70% of slots are allotted to ethnically Malay while they make up only 50% of the population. This kind of overt racism, touted as a way to help the under-achieving Malay population, hasn’t worked. In addition, I need only look to the efforts on the part of BN to buy votes to see the corruption, but I’m sure that issue goes much deeper.
Last night my friend and I stocked up at the grocery store for what could potentially be a few days at home. The election is contentious enough in our state that our school even put out an announcement that Monday would possibly be a holiday if rioting occurred. I’m hoping that no one gets hurt of course, but it sure would be interesting if that were to occur.  Probably the most interesting thing for me is that the rioting may not occur along party lines, but racial ones. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Siem Reap

A week ago I was in Siem Reap, sweating profusely as usual. Even though my desire to be in a cool climate is quite strong, my practicality in pleasing my wife is greater. 
This was my second visit to the temples of Siem Reap. and being wiser, when Aya and I were planning out trip and she talked about visiting temples for 6 days I knew that wasn't a good idea. Plus, I had been there and done that so I was more interested in sitting around the pool and taking naps. In the end we spent each day getting up early and heading out to view temples, back around late morning, lunching and napping, then getting back out again in the evenings to see stuff in town. A compromise because hey, my wife and I are a good team. We did spend some mornings going to temples, 3 mornings in all. The temples were beautiful. Built over a span of hundreds of years and differing dynasties they all have their own slightly unique designs, but as our tuk tuk driver said after our third day, "Why see more? same same." I remember on my last trip here with my friend Richard we struck upon the idea of being, "all templed out." I've had that experience many times now in different places and the bottom line is that even if you have the opportunity that you shouldn’t push yourself to boredom just because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We took it slow. We napped, had massages, went swimming in the hotel pool, etc. and saw the sights in our own sweet time. We also saw some other sights such as the History museum, did some shopping in the night market, went to the military museum, tried to go to Tonle Sap, etc.
One of the odd things about Cambodia is that USD is used more frequently than the national currency, the Riel. Although I haven't researched it, it would be my guess that the US dollar is stable relative to the Riel. Another odd thing, which I found through a couple of arguments with shopkeepers, was that people won’t take a damaged large bill (US). They all told me that when they bring them to the bank they are charged a couple bucks for the damaged bills. Why is this? An economic mystery emerged and I began to speculate. Is it because the banks are charged for swapping bills with new ones from the US? Is it because they are charged a disposal fee for the damaged bills? Is it to discourage counterfeiting? Still a mystery.
Most things were priced as I remembered them. Tuk tuks were cheap, just 1 or 2 dollars per trip or 7 for a 1/2 day and 15 for a full day driver. Meals were slightly more expensive, but this would be expected as it has been 6 years since I was there and GNI per cap has risen about 30% since the last time I was there. What struck me most was the price of entry tickets/tours which have increased greatly. Our tickets to the temples were about the same as I remember, but at one point we went to check out a tour to Tonle Sap only to find out the tour company in charge of bringing people there wanted 50 dollars each person for the tour. So we turned around and came back to Siem Reap and went to the Military Museum (6 dollars each). This was even after our tuk tuk drivers offered to bargain down the price on our behalf to 40 each AND to loan us however much money we need. Such a nice guy, but we said no and that we didn’t have enough money. He must have thought we were dirty liars because we were staying at one of the most expensive hotels in town, the 5 star Sokra. What he didn't know is that we got a deal at 35 dollars a night compared to over a hundred normally and only because I booked at our original hotel for one day less than I should have. For 100 dollars we could have had two nights in a very nice hotel, massages each, and a nice dinner. Tonle Sap tour, not worth it.

 So I still haven’t seen Tonle Sap, maybe I will have to go back again in another 6 years. Probably the most interesting part of the trip for me was going over spots I had been to 6 years prior and seeing hordes of young college kids frequenting these places. One night sitting at Amigos I watched a group of people in their early 20’s chatting, smoking and drinking. The conversations were brash and timid all at the same time. You could tell that they were feeling each other out and that they always wanted to talk about themselves (who doesn’t?) and what they had done or seen. I am so glad I am not young anymore. Youth is great, but age brings wisdom.