Monday, October 24, 2011

The Place with Orangutans and a Scantily Clad Woman

One weekend, we decided to take our first road trip to Tai Ping on the mainland, about a 90 minute drive from Penang. "What are we going to do there?" asked the kids.

"You know. We'll all get out keyboards and typewriters and type," I replied. Hilarious, right? I bet you're laughing as much as the kids were. Which is to say, not much at all.

Our first stop was the Bukit Merah Laketown Resort. It was a long holiday weekend celebrating Malaysia Day which commemorates the formation of the Malaysia Federation in 1963. So, the local tourists were out in droves, and Andrew was pretty much the only white person I saw all weekend.

The kids can barely contain their excitement. Or not.

The 3-acre Eco Park was small and contained a few native Southeast Asian animals. This way, I can accurately tell the doctor what bit me if I encounter the animal in the wild.


Next, we dragged the kids on the Skycycle much against their wills. "It will be fun!" I kept insisting. "We're hot," they kept repeating. Perhaps embarking on this journey after a morning of baseball games and birthday parties wasn't the best idea.

When I originally read about the Skycyle, I assumed it would be pedaled by foot. Silly me. It turns out that 200 meters feels like a long way to hand pedal, especially the uphill parts.

After that, we visited Orangutan Island which is actually the whole reason why I wanted to come here. I first heard about it from an Australian tourist, and it immediately landed on my Malaysian Bucket List. Did you know that "orangutan" is a Malaysian word? It's a portmanteau of "orang" (man) and "hutan" (forest) meaning "man of the forest." We boarded a small boat to make our way across the lake to the island. Once we arrived, we were ushered across a bridge into a caged tunnel. Unlike a typical zoo where the animals are in cages, and the humans wander around, the situation was reversed on this island.

The highlight of the island is the Orangutan Nursery. They care for babies who are suffering from maternal neglect or an illness. With the diapers and the cribs, it seemed very much like a human nursery. Imagine what it would be like if your baby could swing around and use their feet and tails for gripping things. What's the babyproofing in there like?

So very sweet! I think my kids were having fun at this point.

After leaving Bukit Merah, we headed towards Tai Ping for our hotel and a visit to the Night Zoo. Due to an overly long dinner and the 2 busloads of tourists that arrived just before us, we weren't able to board the Night Zoo tram until 10 p.m.

Kernel Corn is a BIG snack food in Malaysia. It's even an ice cream topping.

By this time, I think we were all rather tired. I actually fell asleep. This is what it must be like to be a toddler napping in her stroller. I'd momentarily wake up, look around and see an alligator or porcupine or whatever and then fall back asleep.

Okay, I know this picture isn't very good, but it represents my brain fog at the time.

The next day, we returned to Bukit Merah to enjoy their waterpark and chairlift. At first, I declared that chairlifts were useless if one didn't have skis strapped to their feet and snow on the ground, but the kids kept begging. After I caved and rode it, I'll admit that it's actually a pleasant way to see the sights. This was probably the best part of the trip for my younguns.

The waterpark was small but had enough activities to entertain us for a few hours. The kids seemed to enjoy the Giant Wet Bubble which was an inflated 20-foot-high bouncy dome with a water mushroom on top. The most memorable part for me is that I was the one and only woman in a bathing suit. The crowd was predominantly Muslim, so all those women had on headscarves, shirts that reached down to their wrists and pants that went down to their ankles. No, there were no burkas since I imagine that would be rather hard to manage in a waterpark. There were a few Chinese women wearing shorts and T-shirts. And then there was me as the most scantily clad woman around. Me in my Lands End one-piece that I selected because I thought a small child could hang off the front and still not reveal anything was the one showing the most skin. Fortunately, no one seemed to be gawking at me or else I would have been even more self conscious. Note that there is not an accompanying picture for this part of the story.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cue the Bollywood Music: Part 2

"We need to go to Little India," my friend, Jenn, declared one evening. "I know a place where we can get our eyebrows threaded." I had been dying to return to Little India, so I jumped at the invitation. Fun with friends and tidying up my brows? I'm in!

It has been such a blessing that a bunch of families from hubby's work moved here at the same time. We started gathering together in Austin last year to get acquainted with each other. Our households were packed and shipped at the same time, so when I was missing all my Stuff with a capital S, they were literally in the same boat. We met for playdates when we arrived here in Penang, and the kids already had friends when school started. Best of all, it's taken away my angst over, "Who will I hang out with when I move?"

That's how a group of former Austinites ended up exploring Little India one September day. The Bollywood music still blasted from the stores, but many of the tourists were gone now that summer break was over. Jenn was familiar with the area and acted as our guide. Plus, she had no fear of parallel parking against a left curb in a teeny tiny spot.

We returned to the same store where I had bought Brad's blanket-sari a few weeks earlier. Upstairs, there were racks and racks of clothing that required much less instruction than donning a sari. After trying on a few shirts, the incomparable Senora Tania performed such awe-inspiring haggling that I am now less amazed by the bargain price on the sari I had previously purchased.

Store: We cannot go any lower. This is already on sale. We have already cut the price.
Tania: I will pay your price, but you will never see this face again.
Store: We  bow humbly to you, and you may pay whatever you wish. (Okay, they didn't actually say that verbatim, but that's pretty much the gist of it.)

Next, Jenn led us to a wonderful spice shop. Barrels of whole spices sat on the floor while bins of ground up spices lined the walls. The air was filled with the aroma of pepper, cumin, coriander, and a host of other scents I couldn't identify. Unlike the musty smelling bottles of McCormick spices at the expat-friendly grocery store, these seemed like they could actually flavor my food. Jean Marie suggested, "Just dump out the bottles and put this in it." I came away with little baggies of the good stuff. Alas, they don't sell Vanilla Extract here either.

We wandered the streets for a bit looking for the beauty salon that some local Penang women introduced Jenn to. I was the third one up to have my eyebrows threaded. The specialist held one end of a cotton thread with her hand and gripped the other end in her teeth. With her free hand, she looped the thread around some eyebrow hairs and quickly ripped them out. Rip, rip, rip...

Then on to the other side. Rip, rip, rip...  A few minutes later, I had beautifully shaped brows plus a few tears in my eyes. Total expenditure for this service was US$1.70. If you want to try it out in Austin, Jenn recommends Hair It Is.

We wrapped up our excursion with lunch at Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant. What a difference this place was compared to my first lunch in Little India. The previous meal was in the open air with a front row seat to the hustle and bustle that is George Town. This restaurant was quiet, dark, and best of all, air-conditioned. I indulged in my love of samosas. (I think the term "Indian empanadas" came up during my attempt to explain them.) We each ordered the Mini Meal which came with a piece of warm chapathi and cups of curd rice (looks amazingly like arroz con leche but has the tangy, sour taste of yogurt), dhall, potato masala, raitha and the deliciously sweet mysore pak.

Laden with spices, stuffed with food, and graced with beautifully shaped brows, we blew off paying for parking (more on that in some future post) and made our way home.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cue the Bollywood Music: Part 1

One day, I woke up and decided I needed to explore Little India. The kids were at school. Our shipment still had not arrived at that point. I had nothing to do. So, I programmed it into my GPS, and off I went. As I made my way into town, the streets narrowed until I found myself in historic George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As if on cue, I heard the Bollywood music blasting from the stores at the same instant my GPS announced, "You have reached your destination." I parked, got out of the car, and all my senses told me I was in Little India.

The rich aroma of curries and spices wafted over me, making my mouth water in anticipation. Silky saris beckoned to be touched. Dazzling arrays of trinkets and jewelry caught my eye. Garlands of bright marigolds hung just outside a flower shop.

I was surrounded by stores catering to the Indian community in Penang. Some places offered to ship packages door-to-door from Penang to India. That only made me think longingly of my household shipment which was slowly drifting towards me somewhere in the South China Seas. Video stores displayed racks and racks of Indian DVDs. While these stores were the source of the Bollywood music, others counteracted with classical Indian music, also turned all the way up to 11. Interspersed here and there were stray Chinese temples and shops. As I was taking it all in, my phone rang. Oh joyous day! The propane delivery man would be by in a couple hours to bring me more cooking fuel.

Brad had been asking for a blanket to cover him while he watched TV. Really??? Who needs a blanket when it's 86F inside the living room? I decided to humor him and ducked into the sari shop where I purchased a 4-meter-long silk sari for only US$8.50.

All the delicious smells were making me hungry. The sidewalk food stand was quite popular with a lot of the tourists. They were so densely packed around it that I really had to elbow my way in to see what was being offered.

Since I wanted to get off my feet while dining, I continued on my way. The much acclaimed Kapitan restaurant was across a busy intersection, but I doubted that I would actually live long enough to enjoy lunch if I attempted to cross the road on foot. So, I ended up at another, less treacherous, open air Indian restaurant. There was so much to see as I sat and ate my meal. The cooks pulled food from the tandoori oven strategically placed on the sidewalk to draw people in. Others were deep frying papadums inside the restaurant. Those looked so good, that I requested some for Take Away. (In this former British colony, people don't ask for food "To-Go". They ask for "Take Away".)

I watched the late summer tourists ambling around the streets. They were easy to spot because they were all carrying their Lonely Planet guidebooks and Visit George Town folded maps. That's when it hit me -- I'm not a tourist here. This is my home. I don't have just a few hours to explore this wonderous place. I can keep coming back and do it at a leisurely pace. Plus, I've dawdled too long over lunch and must now rush home to meet the propane delivery man. That's not something you do on vacation.
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