Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Bribes & Battery Hens

I am now fully live and writing to you from the comfort of my own home. I was planning on writing this much sooner although clearly I am operating on Malaysian time now which is a much more ‘relaxed’ (just as long as you don’t want anything urgently) way to be.

In the end it took 6 men 2 months and 4 separate visits to get us connected with telephone and Internet.

Chinese New Year.
We were invited to Chinese New Year celebrations at a friend’s house (lost again), which was great fun except for my disappointment at the lack of fireworks (they are illegal here). One dish with jellyfish had to be tossed in the air with chops sticks as high as you could for good luck for the coming year. We were told that we are a good match (a Goat and a Boar) and given several ang pow packets (money) traditionally for children but because we aren’t married, we got them. Next year we have to give ang pow. We also tried the infamous Durian (for those intrepid travellers who may have tasted the fruit in Thailand apparently this is somewhat stronger than the Thai version of the fruit - I can’t comment at this stage). Anyway Durian is very popular in Malaysia and is notorious because of the smell – I say smell I mean stench. It is very overpowering and not the kind of smell that would make you curious about wanting to put the source of the smell in your mouth. It is graded here by numbers, the stronger the smell the more desirable the fruit, the higher the number. The version we tried was in the form of a cake – very misleading, it all looked cake-like; light and creamy and sweet. Once you have tasted it you wonder why you would think of flavouring a cake with something that smells rotten with a very strong garlicky oniony, very very bizarre. Unfortunately there are two seasons when the fruit is available and the next one doesn’t start until June so I’ll have to wait to try Durian a la naturalle.

Police and anyone in a uniform on a bike/scooter i.e. parking attendants like a little extra money for the holidays (Chinese New Year) so the moral of the story is drive exceedingly carefully around any holidays. First they will get out the ticket book and hover the pen in a threatening manner as though about to write something.
Man in uniform: ‘It will be $500 for insert traffic offence just committed’. Apparently the maximum fine for a traffic offence is $100 (200FRF)
GM: ‘How can you help me?’ (To be translated as ‘OK how much will it take for you to let me go?’).
Bargaining commences but basically what they want to know is: ‘How much do you have?’
So we paid out $50 the first time yet by the second time (feeling a lot more confident about the whole procedure) got away with $30, only to discover the guys whom we paid off probably can’t issue tickets anyway. A couple of days after this we were coming back from water-skiing with some friends and were in the emergency vehicle lane. The GM and I were both so nervous after the multiple bribe incidents that we kept checking in the rear view mirror and sure enough along came the police; luckily we had pulled over in time. S & M in the car ahead were the only ones who got pulled over and as we drove past the policeman had his pen poised to write the ticket. They caught up with us about 10 minutes later - no fine. M had showed the police his wallet; no money and S had got hers out as well to show it was empty. The policeman threw M’s driver’s license back in the car in disgust – no money, no ticket. S and M had been caught previously for some minor traffic misdemeanour and S had been so scared she got M to give what money he had in his wallet too. So I amend the moral of the story to: drive around with 2 wallets – the one you use and the one you show to the police.

Battery Hens.
When you buy eggs there is no such thing as organic free-range eggs here as the hens are so happy in little cages. They even have a photo on top of the egg cartons of happy (I’m not kidding, they are smiling hens) battery hens all lined up. We actually saw one of the egg farms and sure enough there they all were lined up in little cages, on top of a hill with a very nice view of the jungle and natural air- conditioning (being on top of the hill there was a nice breeze) so I have felt a lot happier since then. As soon as I have a scanner I will send the photo of the smiling hens.

Flora and Fauna.
I have recently started landscaping the terrace and so far have several orchids (including a vanilla scented one) and a Hibiscus. I was aiming for a white and green theme so I bought the hibiscus only after I had been assured it was a white one. Naturally it flowered a week later with red, and then a week after that with white so I think I’ll keep it. The plan is now to get lots of lush green jungle plants though it’s hard to stick to the green and white theme when you see some of the amazing plants and flowers, I have so far resisted a Bird of Paradise but I’m not sure for how much longer.

The only animals spotted are monkeys (at a friends house although I am sure there are monkeys here) and geckoes (little lizards). Despite numerous reported sightings I have yet to see a monitor lizard (one friend claims to have seen one swimming in the sea at Pangkor). The only thing I see around here a squirrels, more on them later and, a warning for visitors, rooster.
Birds spotted: amazing looking Hornbills and bats (not sure which category they come under but which I always mistake for birds). I have heard many very strange birdcalls and have not yet identified any of them. You may have heard how squirrels are just rats with good PR (the ones in Hyde Park are fairly cute), here they are without the good PR – these squirrels are definitely very close cousins of rats, the only distinguishing feature is a slightly busy tail. I thought they were rats until someone pointed out a squirrel to me when I thought I was looking at a rat. I was relieved however that the many little rat- like things I had been spotting have now been defined as squirrels.

Tour de Malasie (so far).
The roads are great once you get out of KL, you are right in the jungle, and it’s all very lush and green. A lot of time and effort goes in to the landscaping of motorways and they are all beautifully planted and well kept.
The concept of not stopping on motorways has not really taken off – there are too many stalls selling satays and sugar cane juice on the sides of the motorways, so cars tend to be stopped randomly to enjoy what the stalls have to offer.

I really liked Melaka, it had a charming atmosphere and it was nice to see some old buildings. The old Chinese houses are really beautiful. A lot of the old houses are now antique shops, although the ‘antiques’ are made recently and locally.

Pulau Pangkor (Island off the west coast).
Beautiful Island with golden sand beaches very laid back – we were there on a weekend during Chinese New Year (peak time) and it was amazingly deserted. We saw lots of Hornbill birds and I now know how Muslim women go swimming – fully clothed (including the veil). I also learnt what a bad idea bicycles are on a hilly island in the middle of the day.
Useful information for visitors: The arrow on ceiling in hotel rooms is not indicating where the fire exit it is which direction to face when praying (so obvious when you know).

Kuatan (on east coast).
Beautiful drive to get there through jungle (of course) and the sea was completely different to the west coast. Cool beach with big crashing waves and the temperature was almost chilly in the evening. Very disappointed not to see any monitor lizards swimming.

Another strange thing.
Manchester United is very big here – people were the shirts have the stickers on their cars and watch a lot of English Football; there is even a Manchester United merchandise store. They are also big fans of the All Blacks. At first I just thought there were a lot of New Zealanders here as there were so many cars with All Black stickers but have gradually come to realize it’s just like the Manchester United thing, though I haven’t yet seen an All Black merchandise store (there is a great business opportunity idea).

And finally.
I have just found out I am insured on the car, so officially I can drive here. I am currently still absorbing this wonderful information and will be venturing out soon – just as soon as I build up the necessary confidence and have fully charged my mobile (it could be some time).

P.S. We have had our first visitor.
And I am quoting directly from our Visitor Book:

I came (first)
I saw (a lot but not enough)
I fell in love (with Malaysia)
NB. Try the jellyfish at the Steamboat @ the Sunday night market. Mmm!

Paul tried everything (possible in 3 days) and I know he would have tried the Durian if it had been the season.

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The Good, The Bad & The Taxi Drivers

The first 30 days.

Good stuff:

Our apartment.
It's fabulous, though pretty Zen right now. The furniture that looked so big in Portobello Road looks a lot smaller here, and we have more rooms to fill. My project at the moment is to look for furniture - I have a digital camera so I can pictures of things I like then show to the GM for approval. We have found really great Indonesian furniture - the Malaysian furniture philosophy seems to be leaving no piece of wood untouched - carve it up, it's all very 'decorative'. We went to Hong Kong for Christmas, which was brilliant & amazing for furniture, I may need to go back once I have honed my bargaining skills something I definitely need to work on. Bargaining is the GM's skill area at the moment.

The food.
Obvious I know, it still has to be said. Everything is here from Italian, French, Thai, Chinese Indian, and Malay to New Zealand Fish & Chips (just franchised to Korea). We have a great restaurant in our condominium that does Chinese, Western and Japanese (finally somewhere that does cheap fabulous Japanese) The most expensive item is New Zealand Steak at 50FRF. We haven't splashed out yet, that would have to be for a special occasion as a meal for two at the roadside stalls is around 40FRF. We tend to eat out a lot - just to try everything and because we didn't have plates in our very Zen apartment, although this has now been resolved. So no doubt I'll spend all day whipping up culinary delights for the GM. The weather. Another obvious one however we have lost an entire topic of conversation. This will be the only time I mention it. I love getting up everyday and not having to think about what I am going to wear. The only variable each day at the moment is what time it is going to rain and making sure you are undercover - it's very dramatic at night with all the lightening although a little scary watching lighting when you are being pulled behind a boat on a wakeboard. Right now it's really pleasant temperature around the high 20's early 30's.
Now I'll never mention it again.

We live in a great area called Bangsar which has a lot of restaurants and bars and a cool market on Sunday nights, fruit vege, fish, food stalls, clothes (Hawaiian shirts are very big at the moment) & VCDs. VCDs are basically videos copied on to CDs that can be played on DVD players - not as good quality - nevertheless they have everything - the latest movies are all here. At first it was a bit of a lucky dip in terms of quality though we have found a good stall now so need never go to the movies again. The censors here chop everything to pieces anyway - Four Weddings & a Funeral was most interesting Malaysian style - all that swearing and all those gratuitous sex scenes - you would be surprised.

And now the bad:

The traffic or should I say the drivers?
I don't know where to begin with this - it is the scariest place I have ever been on the roads. They may not be fast but they sure are random. It is each man for himself - no indication at all; it really has to be seen to be believed. It's not just cars it's also pedestrians crossing motorways and swarms of people on gutless little motorcycles - they are the worst. At the moment I just take cabs and close my eyes. In the news at night they like to give accident statistics: first how many road deaths this year compared to last year, then it gets broken down to where the accidents occurred (which states), then on what kind of roads, urban, country, Federal Highway, Motorway etc, and then whether it was a car, bus, truck, pedestrian or motorcycle (the most likely) - all very interesting. The news is quite an experience all round. There is a 30 minute news in English each night that is 15 minutes of local news (which minister said what at which meeting - generally something about how fabulous Malaysia is) then 10 minutes of business news (the rises and falls in the Asian stock markets) and then 5 minutes for International, this is generally a piece taken from CNN that shows the USA in a negative light, how many obese Americans there are, how many Americans have heart disease how much money the poor health of Americans is costing. So I'm reading the International Herald Tribune, the only international newspaper you can easily get hold of. I got very excited a couple of weeks ago when I found Le Monde in a newsagents, I checked the dates and found one for the 6th which was not too bad until I realized it was the 6th of December, they had copies going back to 3rd November.

Getting Lost.
This is not really bad, it's a learning experience or a chance to bond with the GM - you know how getting lost always brings men and women closer.
Last Friday we were invited to a friend’s house for a meal and we had fairly detailed instructions on how to get there. We got on to a motorway that we couldn't get off for 15km. When we did get off we couldn't get back on the motorway in the other direction due to road works. So we were now completely outside of KL, completely off the map and the battery on the mobile phone was running out. We eventually made it (1 & 1/2 hours later - I am not kidding). It took us 15 minutes to get home. The maps in KL are of limited use as there is so much road building going on all the time that routes change on a weekly basis - so you may have it all planned out on the map - yet when you get there, there is a new road or a diversion. Needless to say we are getting a lot of quality time together within the close confines of the car.

And finally the taxi drivers.
This is the group of people I have had the most contact with (and delivery men). The first thing is each car is like a shrine, mosque or church. There are Buddha’s and incense or crosses or passages from the Koran dangling from mirrors. I have yet to get in to a non-denominational cab.
And then the inquisition starts, this is after they have asked me which way they should go (do I look like I know?).
Where are you from?
How long have you been here?
What does your husband do? (Not being married is worth going there)
How long have you been married? (What?)
How many children do you have? (I have to change my story for this one - see below.)
Why not? (Stop the cab)
Where do you live?
How much rent do you pay?

So what do I miss?
Apart from you all, Parmesan cheese (not Australian - what is that about?). Anchovies - I can find anchovies with everything except just plain anchovies. Strange what you obsess over.
Not having easy access to email.
So 'til the next time - maybe direct from our Zen apartment.