Two newbies get a “Pemotongon Notis” (and hurry off to pay the ‘bil electrik’!)

•July 29, 2011 • 1 Comment

It seems that if one is going to live someplace, it’s probably a good idea to learn a little about how the utility billing and companies work. But it’s not the sort of thing you do because it’s fun and intrigues you — like going to the elephant sanctuary or trying Korean food. It’s much more like the sort of thing you are finally forced to getting around to doing when a crisis occurs and you have no choice.

And when the idea of having no air conditioning spells ‘d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r’ to you and your woolly dogs.

So it was that we found ourselves in a big traffic jam on the National Highway headed for a Tenaga Nasional (National Electric) payment office in Petaling Jaya on a bright sunny Thursday morning. On Wednesday, the postman had delivered an envelope which, any fool could see through the clear bit, was on bright yellow paper and not the usual inoccuous white bill that I give to Derek and Derek gives to the office manager and, somehow, it gets sent somewhere and, eventually, someone in Singapore pays on our expat behalf.

Like all good systems with more than one step, something invariably breaks down and whatever system was tasked with tracking such things is prompted to spit out a bright yellow notice to tell someone. Unfortunately, in our case, they were telling us almost too late (it took six days for the letter to reach us) and it was in a language for which we have only a rudimentary understand of works like “parking”, “exit”, “toilet”, “no dogs” and “cash only”.

However, since the first line read “NOTIS PEMORONGAN BEKALAN ELEKTRIK” and it was yellow and had dates and amounts in ringgits which we recognised, it wasn’t hard to conclude that we needed to do something about it. A “notis” about the “elektric” on yellow paper just screamed “Read me, Seymour. Read me now!”

Did I mention that Google translate is our new best friend? It’s a phenomenal tool and it speaks Malay. It didn’t take long to deduce that “pemotongan” means “disconnect” and there’s no point in translating further except to find the date. Phew. We had a day or two to resolve this matter or we wouldn’t have any electricity and Rogue and Solo would be hot dogs looking for cool buns to nestle into–or we’d be checking into the Holiday Inn and smuggling them into our room. Or driving around with them in the air conditioned car till something was sorted.

A quick check-in with Derek’s company ascertained that the bill had supposedly been paid. At the yellow letter stage, however, that wasn’t good enough. So, next morning, off we went to the cash machine to get a big wad of cash since Alaskan Malamutes are larger consumers of ‘elektrik’ and we have electric bills that make the locals gasp and open their eyes wide. Further, since we don’t have a bank account here, we figured lots of cash cash was the best way to do this anyway.

We found the place. That was the first step and Derek’s good about that sort of thing. The second step was navigating our way around a complicated and very crowded little one-way road system that circumnavigated it and into an old-style multi-storey car park (the kind with no elevators).

Down the stairs we went. Up the stairs Derek went when it was discovered that I’d left the “notis” in the car after we’d keyed the address into the GPS. “I meant to ask if you had it,” he puffed, “but I forgot.” Another of the joys of getting older: one forgets, the other forgets to ask. (We trade roles. It’s more fun that way.)

At last, into the Tenaga Nasional (National Energy; in Malay subject and adjective are reversed) offices we went. I’d been trained on the Malaysian version of the ‘take a number’ machine (more sophisticated than the ones in other places I’ve lived) in our local post office so I managed to procure a number, unaided, and we sat down to wait with the other people for 30 bill payment numbers to roll through.There was a separate section, with fewer people, for enquiries and questions. We longed to be in that line-up but weren’t qualified.

Derek helpfully informed me that the British had instituted the system of installing chairs for people to sit on whilst waiting during the Victorian era–and had clearly brought it here during their tenure here. I said I figured that was because of corsets and high collars, particularly in climates like this one. Fortunately, it was air conditioned for us (it was the energy company office, after all!) and we waited coolly and relatively calmly.

Derek’s inimitable curiosity led him to enquire of the man sitting next to him why there was a desk–the fourth of four–where people went and queued, rather than waiting for their number to be called. Turns out it was for “old people”, we were only partially reliably informed. One line on the sign underneath the counter (generally obscured by old people leaning against it) said “WARGA EMAS (60 Tahun Keatas)” and, sure enough, when I translated it, it said “ELDERLY (60 years and above).”

So there was a dilemma. We were sortof in a hurry (on the basis that this wasn’t that much fun and we could be somewhere else doing something else) and I qualify as “elderly”, even if there isn’t a day of my life that I’ve ever actually felt anything remotely resembling “elderly”. Bah! A quandary: I think Derek wanted to get in the old peoples’ line but he’s not old enough and I’m not willing enough. And sometimes, here, when we produce our ID to substantiate our enfeebled state, they tell us we can’t get the senior discount because we’re foreigners (but sometimes we do get it). So we sat.

I translated the rest of the sign. Payment line #4 was ALSO for people with disabilities and pregnant women. Actually, I thought that was pretty civilised, having a separate payment line for people who might really benefit from not having to sit and wait a long tiome.

In the end, our number was called and the nice Indian lady at Counter #1 was very helpful. We went ahead and paid every “sen” (one hundredth of a ringgit, which is worth about US$0.0003) of the outstanding bill because there is already a new company process being put in place to deal with our utility bills, thankfully. So this would clear it all and start at 0.00 with the new process. At least that’s the plan.

OK, we admit it: it was easy enough. Like most things everywhere, once you know how it works, it works. Until you do, blissful ignorance is an enjoyable way to spend one’s days. And for everything else, there’s Google Translate.


The Monkeys of Bukit Melawati

•July 21, 2011 • 2 Comments

I have fallen in love with the silver leaf monkeys at Bukit Melawati, a hill fort on the coastline which remains from the 18th century Dutch occupation of Malaysia. It’s a bit under 90 minutes from where we live and I went yesterday for the second time to hang out with the monkeys. I could spend hours there, just watching them and taking photos of them. Well, I guess I have.

There is also a museum, a lighthouse, a royal mausoleum, the surviving Dutch cannons and several other interesting thing to see and learn at Bukit Melawati but, for me, it seems to be about the monkeys.

An adult female Silvery Langur.

There are actually two groups of monkeys living together there: the silver leaf and a smaller number of macaques. There are probably about forty monkeys in total, though mostly they don’t stay still enough to count and there are always a dozen asleep in the tree.

Aside from humans (that’s us!), the macaques are the most widespread primate genus, ranging from Japan to Afghanistan and, in the case of the barbary macaque, to North Africa. There is a family of macaques living in the trees just outside our housing estate — and they’re the ones we see along the roadsides–everywhere, in fact, where civilisation has encroached and they’re trying to feed themselves.

The Silver Leaf monkeys, on the other hand, are classified as “near-threatened”. The black monkeys in my photos  is perhaps more correctly called the “silvery langur” (Trachypithecus cristatus) and also known as the silvered leaf monkey. It’s also an Old World monkey. It lives in the trees in coastal, mangrove and riverine forests. Of the two sub-species, one if found only on the Malay Peninsula so I’d guess that’s what I’m so crazy about–the subspecies Selangorensis.

An older juvenile with his mother.

There is a magnificent, truly gigantic tree they all seem to occupy near the top of the hill (“bukit” means hill in Malay) and they eat mostly leaves, though at Bukit Melawati, they also eat the bread, green beans and other things that people bring them or purchase from the very nice man who’s always up there and will sell a bundle of long beans or bread for one ringgit (about 20p or 30c).

The social structure of silvery lutungs is matrileaneal and harem-based.  Wikipedia, ever helpful, tells me that the females remain in the group for life, while males leave shortly after reaching adulthood, living in small groups of their own until they can take over an established harem. That matches what I’ve seen. There are lots of lady monkeys taking care of the babies and juveniles together, often pairing up to teach the youngsters to climb or swing–but there’s only one adult male within the whole group (there is also an adult male macaque). The baby silver leaf monkeys are born a bright orange and are stunning. There are a number of them in the album if you want to take a moment and aren’t afraid of melting your heart.

An adult female macaque.

The silver leaf monkeys at Bukit Melawati are incredibly tame and don’t mind human contact; they seem innately curious, ask for food rather politely (if insistently at times) and seem very content to be in the company of the groups of people who come to visit and feed them. They aren’t particularly aggressive toward each other and I haven’t seen one be aggressive toward a visitor, either.

The macaques, on the other hand, tend to fight more amongst themselves and are less approachable by far. Overall, the two groups seem to get along quite well and have mechanisms for sorting out their squabbles which seem to work for them — and, fortunately, for their visitors.

For me, spending an hour or more in the company of these monkeys is a lovely experience. Nothing happens and it isn’t particularly dramatic (except when three or four of them end up on some tourist who doesn’t know what she did to get them there and isn’t quite sure how to get them off). I can’t stop taking photos. It’s hard to choose 20 for an album; ok, this album has 25 photos. I’ve taken hundreds of them so I like to think of paring down to 25 as moderation.

They are remarkable, these monkeys with their pointy hairdos and endearing heart-shaped faces. There is something very Dr Seuss-y about them to me. I find their wise old faces — particularly the silver leaf monkeys — wonderful to look at and being able to watch them interact with each other, tend to their young and survive nicely in the middle of a tourist spot is, while perhaps not very natural for them at all, still wonderful to be able to experience.

To see the album of my photos from Bukit Melawati, click on one of the highlighted links or on the photo of the silver leaf and young macaque (below) sharing some dried peas…it’s was lovely to see the older female silver leaf let the macaque youngster come politely along and help himself to a pea from the clutch she had in her hand.

Oh, please, just one...? And she said "OK".

Four Fishermen…and a book.

•June 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

We had a wonderful holiday to the East Coast of Malaysia in April. We took the dogs to a fantastic (and dog-friendly!) place called Ruby’s Resort. I’d heard about it through the on-line Siberian Husky forum here in Malaysia. Everyone swore that both the Resort and Ruby, kinda funky and friendly, respectively, were great. And they were right.

It was a lovely weekend filled with lovely dawns and evenings, when it’s coolest. Our cabin was air conditioned–a godsend with Alaskan Malamutes. Being able to have the two woolly beasts with us and on the beach, where they’d never been, was an experience. It’s difficult to find pet-friendly lodging in Malaysia, to begin with. To find it air conditioned and welcoming to dogs was indeed a treat. You can read about Ruby’s Resort here. To see more of my photos, click this link.  There’s even a malamute photo–Rogue,  leaving her footprints on the edge of the South China Sea. Imagine that!

One of the outcomes from the weekend was the hours spent with Photoshop playing with the pictures. At the same time, I was taking an on-line ‘Writing Our Way Home’ writing class that focused on Eastern styles of writing, and especially “small stones”, as a pathway to spiritual exploration.

Below is one of the photos and poems from that weekend. After the online course (and another that followed it in May) ended, I decided to put some of the poems and various photos I’d taken in Malaysia into a book as a gift for my parents and so created my first “blurb” book using BookSmart software. You can read it online here. Or simply click on the photo of the orangutan at the bottom of this post.

Here, then, a poem and photo from the the book…



a father and his sons
with nets and sacks
walk the sands
as men have done
since time began
laughing and talking
and watching the sea
they stop
they confer
they cast a net
(if ‘yes’)
or walk on
(if ‘no’)
as men have done
since time began
laughing and talking
and watching the sea

Here’s what the book looks like; click on it to read it.

A morning out in Shah Alam…La Bodega and the UCLA Bruins

•March 19, 2011 • 1 Comment

On what you don’t know you don’t know…

We went to La Bodega Tapas Bar and Bistro in the Empire Shopping Gallery for breakfast this past Saturday with the idea that we’d have a ‘western’ breakfast for old time’s sake, run a couple of errands there—pet shop and chemist—and then collect Christie as she alighted from her bus and was dropped off at the local Carrefour supermarket.

I’d been to La Bodega earlier in the week for a latte and noticed that they had a breakfast menu that would tempt any American or Brit who was hankering for a “full English” or “the big breakfast” or even Eggs Benedict. 

It was a momentous morning in at least one respect: I drove both ways. This was a big deal because, to date, I have (a) resisted driving or (b) reluctantly agreed only to drive home from some places. In a word, I’ve been a chicken. So this was my first return trip.

I was glad I did though because there was a bonus: in the process, we discovered how to get into the premium parking spaces at the Empire Gallery.

Provision of a premium parking place had eluded us so far; there was a magical entrance somewhere which would deposit us in these coveted parking places and we simply had not found it. But then, usually it was Derek driving and me not having a clue how the parking lots and entrances and lanes were arranged. It’s entirely possible I never spotted it because my eyes were closed tight in stark terror at the way people crowd each other and somehow turn one lane into three, two lanes into five…and so on.

This is worth a digression. In truth, it’s a national travesty. There are complaints about it in the newspaper all the time. Nineteen people die every day on the roads of Malaysia. I’m quite certain they are either the people on scooters running red lights or the people who crowd into other lanes. There’s enough anger and frustration in the country to write sixteen blogs on that and I’m certain many Malaysian bloggers already do.

Suffice to say (easing out of the digression reluctantly) that there are things about driving here that have made me reticent to dip more than three toes into that angry sea of cars. I’ve been observing the bathers on previous trips as a visitor, but, like it or not, it’s time to dive in. Derek is an excellent coach and has been driving here for months. He commutes daily. I sit at home and think about driving—but then go lie down until I feel better. OK, I’m on board now. I drove both ways.

In spite of Derek’s whinging about the addition ‘ringgit’ or two that premium parking would cost us—that’s perhaps 20p or 30c more than the underground carpark—I thought it made sense since we were saving the 10 ringgits we would normally pay for Christie’s cab fare to the house because we were picking her up. OK, so it seemed like a really good idea to me and I was driving. Tah dah! And, since he had the luxury of surveying the surroundings, Derek was at last able to spot the mystical curtain in the parking space continuum through which we could leap into the universe of premium parkers.

To begin with, I am not a fan of the typical multi-storey carparks here. They may have three to six levels of ‘down under’ parking, many hundreds of spaces and may be the best thing since sliced bread—but they are stifling, close and, more importantly, I get lost in them. By the time I follow arrows around and around, down and around, down again and around some more, it’s unlikely I will have any sense of where I am in relation to anything else. I have little enough on the surface of this planet. 

Don’t get me wrong. The underground carparks are ok if I am with Derek and he’s navigating them (and he is brilliant at this) and he can lead us back to the precise spot which we left the car (a feat I am unable to even closely approximate) but for me, on my own, an alternative is more than a ‘nice to have’. It’s an “Oh, yes please!”

But if someone says to me “You can pay a few pence or a quarter more and park on the street level, covered, with glossy painted and numbered spaces and be on your way in seconds when you’re finished with your shopping, and it’s mere steps from the restaurant you’re going to on an 85-degree morning, do you really think I am going to park anywhere else? No. I am not.

So, there I was, in space 28, which was a salmon coloured space on a field of grey painted concrete, bordered in shiny white. A concrete upper deck shaded it. This was a spot of parking heaven in a cosmos of unfriendly carpark death stars.

All that is to say that we went to La Bodega and had two lovely (turkey) ham, cheese and mushroom omelettes. They even had rye toast, which I consider a treat as it’s hard to find outside the US or Germany, it seems, and it was all very good. I mean really good.

We each had a latte and discovered that the “small” latte, which they call a “mini” latte, is actually larger than the regular latte, which costs more. The waiter was kind enough to point this out just as we were noticing that my latte (the small one) appeared larger than Derek’s latte (the regular). Why was that? we enquired. It turns out that the cost differential was because Derek’s latte was served in a fancy footed mug with a handle, whereas mine was in a foot-and-handle-less drinking glass.

Very curious but something worth noting, I thought. It probably cost about as much more as the difference between premium and regular parking. I shall have to check this. I’m sure the logic of premium parking will be clearer to my beloved when he realises that he can get a bigger latte for less money next time. One can hope.

Breakfast done, I went to the chemist across the way and Derek went to the lower level to the pet shop. As I emerged from the mall, between to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and O’Brien’s (the globalisation is indeed global here) there was Christie, just walking from her bus stop.

We went to the car—mere steps away—to wait for Derek. I noticed that Christie was wearing a pretty pink t-shirt that said, in large arched letters across the top, “UCLA BRUINS” and then had the University’s emblem and some other text about sports supremacy or something.

“Oh,” I said, “you’re wearing a UCLA t-shirt. Do you know someone in Los Angeles?” Of course, having grown up in Southern California, I assume that everyone on the planet knows about the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the school mascot, the Bruins (a bear).

She looked at me quizzically. I pointed at her chest, trying to be modest and careful where I pointed, where it said UCLA. “It says U-C-L-A,” I said.

“Oh, you mean “uck-lah,” she replied, “I don’t know what is.”

And so we had a lovely conversation about my home state  (of course, she DID know California since pretty much the whole planet does know that, probably because of Hollywood), universities and whether or not I went to school there (I didn’t), where my parents lived (Southern California), how I’d come to know Filipinos while living in the US, and so on. It was very sweet.

Unfortunately, I didn’t fare too well when it came to explaining why universities have mascots or what they are, why they might be bears or not, or even why a bear is called a ‘bruin’. There are some things I’ve definitely forgotten along the way. So getting to the ‘bruins’ explanation really was a bridge too far for a bright Saturday morning and here came Derek, anyway, back from the pet shop so the conversation was finished. I really must look up “bruin” though all I can think of at the moment is that it has something to do with the word “brown” in some language.

There really is far more that I don’t known than I knew.

The New Straits Times and other adventures in paradise

•March 10, 2011 • 9 Comments

Optimistically, and on reflection somewhat naively, I estimated that it would take one week or so to ‘get things sorted’ after we arrived ‘permanently’ in our new Malaysia home and the dogs arrived. In my simplistic and hopeful calendar, by this past Monday (March 7th) everything would be in place for our new life in Glenmarie Court and the days would be flowing along, all tickety-boo, and I’d be working on my novel at least three hours a day. In Yateley, our house would be rented and all the renovations and decorating completed.

There would be a newspaper, two happy dogs, electric gates that worked correctly in place of ones that didn’t, a water cooler, a ‘new’ and improved PC with all my applications and documents migrated, a part-time maid, the larder stocked, a broadband line on its way if not already installed, and a rented house in Yateley with all renovations completed.

We get the newspaper. The maid is wonderful. We’ve had great progress with the dogs — so long as there are no thunderstorms. But that’s another story.

It did take a week (“It only took a week!” I sing out in jubilation) but we are now receiving the New Straits Times delivered to our doorstep. Or, more correctly, left outside the big electric gate — unless it rains, in which case it is pushed into the streetside letterbox, a large galvanized aluminum (or galvanised aluminium, if you prefer) affair inserted into a six-foot high column of brick and concrete that also houses other things, as yet undetermined. Suffice to say it usually ends up in one section of the front wall of our little fortress in Glenmarie Court.

Two electric gates, small and large, postbox in between.

Or it could be, as this morning, rolled up in a rubber band and hurled over the (newly repaired) big electric gate about forty feet up the drive to land against the big wooden door with a gigantic ‘thud’ which panics both dogs and startles me into slopping my coffee and going to calm the dogs and see what crashed against the door so early in the morning.

The dogs haven’t wanted to go out since. On balance, after all the thunder and lightning yesterday afternoon, I’m not sure I blame them. It’s all still pretty new to them.

Did I mention that it wasn’t simple to get the newspaper started? No? Well, it wasn’t. At  least not for me. I know I don’t always do things the simplest way possible. That’s been pointed out. Like most things here in our new home, what appeared easy on the surface in fact took just a few more steps and a bit more understanding of ‘how things work’ than might at first have been imagined. The newspaper story was quite typical.

We had read the New Straits Times when we stayed in Kuala Lumpur in November and January — but then we were in hotels and helpful people provided it to preferred guests. It’s an English language newspaper with a long and illustrious history in the region so it’s a logical choice for expats to want to read a lively newspaper.

The New Straits Times is Malaysia’s oldest newspaper still in print, though it wasn’t the first newspaper published here.  First came the The Prince of Wales Island Gazette, which made its début in Penang in 1805. [Yes, I just had to look it up.] In its defense, the NST was, however, Malaysia’s only broadsheet format English language newspaper, though now it is delivered (or hurled) in the much more covenient tabloid format.

The first article I ever read in the New Straits Times — and I have the clipping somewhere — was the tragic tale of a 20-something man who jumped, fell or was pushed to his death from an sixth storey apartment building wearing a red brassiere and yellow polka-dot womens’ underpants. Or perhaps it was red polka-dot underpants and a yellow brassiere. Whatever it was, those details formed the central part of the story even though they weren’t, if that makes sense. It was interesting journalism. I really must find it and re-read it. I’m sure there was more story there than any reader could know.

Bottom line: we wanted that newspaper.

The very helpful Mr Goh, our landlord’s estate agent, had given us a list of useful numbers in a Word table on a single sheet of paper when we moved in. It contained a number for “Newspaper” which said to call “Amy” at this certain eight-digit number.  I did notice that the number didn’t look like the other numbers on said phone list but duly called it anyway. Why should it be different? I didn’t know. A recorded intercept informed me that I had dialled a non-existent number.

It’s true. I should have sent Mr Goh a text message or an email and asked for the correct number but of course that would have been too simple. I decided I ought to be able to get the information on-line and, in fact, might actually be able to order the newspaper itself on line. Given my general feeling that people don’t understand me on the phone here — they are either Malay, Chinese, Indian or Nepalese and I no longer know what I speak to begin with — dealing with a lot of phone conversation seems to prove difficult and often non-productive. It’s about me, not them. Hence the decision to try on-line.

It was easy to find the website for the New Straits Times. It’s a nice website and I even read a little news whilst I was there to get myself even further excited asbout having a daily newspaper delivered — particularly one with the occasionally titillating stories such as I had already seen.

Oh happy day, I quickly thought, they DO have a subscription link and you CAN apply via an online form and an agent will call you. Progress!

I dutifully filled out the online form, by then having our address and my mobile telephone number memorised. I was very proud of myself as I hit ENTER. Alas, my pride was short-lived as the site immediately transformed itself into:

“Site Error
An error was encountered while publishing this resource
Error Type: KeyError
Error Value: MailHost”

Undaunted, I filled in the form again, with the same result. And again, with still the same result. As willing to go the distance as ever, and with a notion that I am more savvy than I actually am, I quickly went to the “Contacts” tab and found the email address for contacting the newspaper: Great, I thought, I’ll send them an email, report the problem, ask them to forward the information to Subscriptions and All Will Be Well. An agent will contact me. The site had promised as much.

I did just that, complete with a screen grab which I edited in Picasa for best effect, and sent it along. In no time at all came a reply. Alas, it was from “” and said “Your message  Subject: SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION REQUIRED  was not delivered to: because  User general ( not listed in Domino Directory.”

Even I know that’s a dead end. Whatever a Domino Directory is. Only slightly daunted, I pressed on.

Next I sent an email to Christine Chan, She Who Knows All at the Glenmarie Court Homeowners Association (GCHA). I asked if she had a phone number for “Amy” the newspaper contact and quoted the one Mr Goh had given me. Back came the reply: “The phone no. give by Goh is correct; perhaps, you have to add 03- to 2052-8547? Yes, Amy is the GC paper vendor.”

Oh. I have to add “03” to the number! Looking again at the list, all of Mr Goh’s other numbers were indeed prefixed with “03”. Could it be that simple? I hoped it was. Taking up the trusty mobile phone (we’re also waiting for a landline but that could be another blog post closer to Christmas) I tapped out the entire series of numbers, including the mysteriously missing zero and three. It rang!

A man answered. We all know what they suggest when a man answers. But I didn’t. I asked for Amy. I gathered she wasn’t in. And thereafter ensued a five-minute conversation with me waving my arms about as I tried to explain why I was calling, where I was, who gave me the number and so on. Why do we wave our arms when we’re on the phone and having language difficulties? I do not know. I had absolutely no confidence that the man spoke any more English than I did Chinese but we both pressed on in some sort of international phonics dance and, in the end, I felt I’d given him enough information that Amy might call me back.

Amy never called me back.

Instead, three days later a copy of the New Straits Times — the previous day’s edition, in fact — appreared in our massive post box. Derek looked rather baleful when he asked whether we were going to get the newspaper a day late. I probably wasn’t very kindly in return and, no, I had no idea what it was going to cost or even if that was part of a subscription. After all, Amy had never called me back so none of the detail of this proposed transaction had ever been shared or recorded…much less agreed.

The next day, nothing. The day after that, nothing.

On the third day, a newspaper appeared outside the big electric gate! Could it be ours? It must be. Imagine our joy. Of course, since the small electric gate wasn’t functional at that time (and is still waiting for the subcontractor to the first electric gate repair company to show up and replace the ‘mechanism’) opening the large gate to get the paper dragged and crumpled it. But who cares? It was, after all, that very same day’s edition of the New Straits Times. It was my first Malaysian success. Well, if you don’t count the bookstore discount card.

Now the NST arrives every morning, sometime between 7:00 and 7:30, as if on cue. A young man zips up to #57 on a motor scooter and either lays it down, stuffs it or hurls it, depending on the weather conditions of the moment. I still don’t know how or when we will be billed, how much it will cost or whether I will ever actually speak to the lovely and surely charming Amy but, for the moment, we are happy with our newspaper.

Given that the cover price on each edition equates to less than 25 pence or 35 cents, it’s not likely to be an issue. And it surely did teach me a lot about how to get things done here: just keep doing stuff and have faith.

Oh, yes, the water cooler and 12 5-gallon bottles of water were delivered two hours ago. I think we’re on our way.

It’s January now and we’re back, still eating our way through Malaysia…

•January 17, 2011 • 1 Comment

Well, here we are, back in Malaysia for much of January (Derek) and part of January (me). This is our last few days as touristas; we get to move into our chosen house shortly, depending on when the cleaners and repairers get finished with it.

We fly back to Malaysia “for good” (we already did ‘for better or worse’) on February 25th and, if the nice Airpets folks and Malaysia Airlines get it right, then our two Alaskan Malamutes, Rogue and Solo fly out of London on the 27th and into our waiting arms and air conditioned everything. One nice thing about Malamutes is that they’re always glad to see you so we’re pretty sure they won’t be mad at us for doing this to them.

At the moment, we’re at the Holiday Inn, Glenmarie Golf Course, Shah Alam, Selangor, and it’s more than pretty OK. We’re not golfers but we’re spoiled rotten. The Executive Room plan that we’re on — including Relina and Rosie and two others whose names I haven’t got memorised yet — leaves little to be desired. I dial ‘1’ on the phone and request whatever I need and it’s there withi 5-15 minutes. Light bulbs are changed (though the same light bulb burns out the next day and is changed again in our case), laundry whisked away, a blanket for my nap is brought. Don’t like something? They’ll fix it or bring a different one.

We pop into the executive lounge and there is someone to wait on us — a beer or glass of wine at the end of the day, a tall glass of mango juice after the long hot walk back from the spa, our own buffet breakfast away from the droves of other people…whatever. It’s not like we sit down and wait, either. They see us coming through the big glass wall and doors, leap up and open the door and then bustle off to fulfil the order.

They’re all beautiful and perfectly groomed and coifed, as pleasant as can be. Derek has observed that they seem to have one size uniform — and on most of the ladies, it’s one size too small; on one of them it’s two sizes too small. Given it’s a tight mini-skirt and very fitted blouse, and worn with 4-5″ heels, and they all have lovely figures, I have to say he’s right. Those skirts are tight! But it works because the women are such personable and caring individuals. They are definitely getting a letter of recommendation from me.

I am also enjoying the Holiday Inn ‘services, rules and regulations’ book. Such things are endlessly fascinating to some people and I guess I am one of them. Who puts these things together anyway? This is a very deluxe custom-sized binder, with very expensively printed pages. It weighs about two pounds and covers everything from ‘bailment’ (don’t ask me–I don’t know what it means but it’s on my list to find out) to durians. And on the subject of the durian, it reads:

Durians: The Hotel management regrets that no durians are allowed to be consumed or brought into the hotel premises.

I do not regret that durians are not allowed to be consumed or brought into the hotel premises. Phew! Though I haven’t been to Thailand for well over ten years, and I lived there over 35 years ago, my memories of the durian in Thailand remain strong enough to convince me that this is indeed a good policy and one with the hotel guests’ best interests at heart.Wikipedia says that the durian is distinctive for three things: its large size (up to seven pounds!) its formidable thorn-covered husk (it’s definitely an armoured fruit) and what I remember most of all: it’s “unique” odour.

Makes one wonder, though: Why does the hotel have “Durian Pancakes” on the menu — for dessert? I did have the mango and sticky rice pudding one night but haven’t even considered the Durian Pancakes.

Wikipedia also notes that some people regard the durian as fragrant. I would not be one of them. I’m definitely in the group that finds the aroma “overpowering and offensive”. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation, they say, to “intense disgust”, and has been described variously as smelling like rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. I can describe it in one word–much more succintly. It smells like —-.

Want to try durian yourself? Be my guest–but let me know when you’re going to do it so I can leave the general vicinity.

We are slowly working our way through learning about Malaysia food. Derek complains that it is all chicken and rice (well?) and that he can’t get a decent piece of fish. All Malaysian fish is boney. I maintain it’s a matter of learning what to order–and where to order it. So I keep trying. I did get a fantastic piece of cod from the hotel room service–but it was served Western style with garlic mashed potatoes, a basil cream sauce and lovely zigzag-sliced vegetables.

A few nights ago we went into what we presumed to be a Malaysian restaurant, of the ‘local’ persuasion, and then discovered that the bewildering choice of foods was actually Indonesian and we practically had to start all over. I can invariably find bitter melon (which I like) on the menu but also generally end up with some sort of chicken and rice curry combination so far myself.

Never mind. We’ll get there. I bought a dual-language cookbook called “Racik Tradisi” or “Traditional Malay Cuisine” the other day when we were out on another leg of Derek’s endless hunt for the perfect road map of Malaysia. I figure that way I can learn what we’re eating and how to order it as well as what to buy to make it and what the ingredients are. At the moment, we just as for something and wonder.

Like most cuisines about which one knows nothing, this book is filled with things about which I know nothing and have never eaten, much less cooked with (or even imagined cooking with).

Banana Flower Acar? Goodness, it’s not at all what it sounds! I’m in the main dishes section and Banana Flower Acar is prepared with onion, chilli and shallot (“grinded”, the book instructs). There is also an Acar Vegetables and what they seem to have in common is that they are cooked in a ‘dry’ gravy. Well, ok, there’s another new term. What makes a gravy dry anyway?

The typical ingredients listing is nice and there are a comforting number of things with which I am familiar: fenugreek, galanga (from Thai cuisine), lime leaves, turmeric, aniseed, cumin, coriander, clove, cardamom and star anise, for instance. And I shall definitely look forward to preparing something with Candlenut (Buah keras) and Averrohoa Bilimbi (Belimbung Buloh in Malay) as those two are completely new to me.

I’m also pretty excited about the coconut pancake (lemping kelapa) but, no, my version won’t have the durian option.

Everything you ever wanted to know about eating from a banana leaf. And other things I learned last month.

•December 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

It was a surprise when we made plans to go to lunch with “JJ”, Derek’s colleague, and I happened to learn that the date chosen was his birthday. That made it all the more special. JJ, an expat American who’s lived in Kuala Lumpur for more than a decade, has been a real help to Derek in getting him oriented–particularly to the unlimited number of seriously multi-story malls selling hectares of electronics goods in Malaysian capital. If there’s something you want, and it’s not in one of the seven-story mega-malls specialising in electronics, well, my thought is that you don’t need it.

Anyway. The very helpful JJ had loaned us an old Windows Mobile phone he wasn’t using so that we could talk to real estate agents and so on. This was enough to cause me to do a happy dance since it was actually an operating system I was familiar with and a file structure, calendar, contacts and whatnot that I could manage.

Given that it was a new country code, most things came in the Malay language until we found the right menu command for ‘English’ AND everything about everything else was quite different, it was comforting to have a phone that seemed somewhat familiar. Fortunately, most vendors recognise this and the nice young woman at the phone company store had scribbled directions on a scrap of paper which enabled us to set the default language to English.

So. Next steps. We got a pay-as-you-go card and worked our way through the various difficulties of sorting out how telecommunications works in a new country, got the thing initialised, made a few calls, sent some text messages and then made this date to go to lunch with JJ. By that time, of course, it was time to get a a pay-as-you-go top up card. Unfortunately, you cannot do that on-line in Malaysia with this carrier (or at least we can’t) so it was off to yet another mall where we would find shops, kiosks and news agents readily selling them.

On the morning of our meeting date, I was fiddling with the phone and confirming the lunch time with Derek, since we would converge on the chosen restaurant at a time that meant I had to get myself organised and find transport from the hotel to said restaurant…when, lo and behold, an alarm window popped up and informed me that it was JJ’s birthday. Well, who would know better than JJ’s own calendar?  He hadn’t mentioned it but what an opportunity to repay some of his kindness.

We stopped for a small gift and a card and then zoomed off in the little Proton Waja* rental car, our absolutely essential tomtom GPS, “Gladys”, firmly tethered and with a destination set in her electronic brain to get us to the Restaurant Sri Paandi P.J., Petaling Jaya. JJ had given us a business card — it’s his favourite restaurant — and we were ready to roll.

It was only about fifteen minutes to the restaurant and there we were at Sri Paandi, searching for a parking space at the clearly popular eaterie. JJ arrived at the same time and parked nearby. All right, we were ready for this new experience.

At last, the banana leaf comes into the picture. This is serious stuff, this banana leaf cuisine. We loved it. Paandi is apparently JJ’s favourite restaurant in the whole wide world and it was easy to see that he was a special and welcomed customer of the Paandi folks, too.

The cuisine comes from South India, by the way, and apparently has variations in all the countries to which its made its way over the centuries. But, esssentially, it’s all the same idea and, wherever you are, whether vegetarian or non-it’s got a banana leaf under it all.

Why eat from a banana leaf? It turns out there are several reasons. Among them are that hot food served on a banana leaf takes nutritional and medicinal values of the banana tree, it is said, and this must be a good thing, right? Also, eating from a banana leaf is like eating on a fresh plate at each meal. It’s bio-degradable, unlike plastic plates and ghee and oil do not stick to the banana leaf, making it easier, they say, to enjoy their flavours. If you live where there are banana leaves, you don’t have to pay for tableware and, JJ told me, where it’s part of the local cuisine, the used banana leaves are fed to the cattle. Finally, it’s just plain fun!

We were each given a gigantic green banana leaf, laid out with the spine of the leaf on a horizontal plane. We had no time to ponder this leaf and appreciate its various qualities (see above) because immediately a cadre of helpful servers made their various ways to us and started piling things on our banana leaves, asking questions (which, fortunately, JJ could answer) and making way for the next server. Within seconds, we had rice, curries, fried bitter melon (which I loved), several varieties of chili peppers, other curries…and so on.

The photo (right) says it best: JJ is demonstrating how to pick up a ball of rice-and-curry with three fingers and the banana leaves piled in front of him are his own and mine. He made the mistake of saying that the Chinese normally ask for a fork and spoon so, after I gave it the hands-in try, I eventually asked for a fork and spoon and ate that way.

More side dishes arrived after more servers, questions, decisions and nods. The little dishes to the right in the photo contain dahl soup, fried calamari and many things I confess I’ve forgotten (though I consumed most of them). JJ ordered a side dish of Tandoori chicken with his meal, too, and it looked quite wonderful.

Yes, we pretty much ate it all. It took a while but we enjoyed nearly every bite of it. there wasn’t anything I didn’t like — and several things I thought were really fabulous. It all felt quite healthy and well prepared. At the end of the meal, JJ taught us that the banana leaf should not be left open after finishing the meal but should be folded with the top half covering the bottom half to signify that you have enjoyed your meal and you will visit again. So we were sure to do that.

As it was JJ’s birthday and he’d done so much for us, we picked up the tab. All this food for three hearty appetites, including soft drinks and a couple of rounds of tea? About £7.20 or US$10. It’s easy to see why it’s such a popular way to eat. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that Derek and I went for ‘banana leaf cuisine’ in the area where our hotel was just a few days later. It was a bit more posh, restaurant-wise, nearly as good, though a bit different in the variety, and cost a bit more. But we enjoyed that immensely, too.

We will definitely go back for more. In fact, we’re headed back to Malaysia in early January to (hopefully) move into the house we’ll live in for 2011 and one of the first things we’ll look for is ‘banana leaf cuisine’ in our new neighbourhood.


*I should add here that the Proteon Waja, a trusty little black sedan in our case,  is the first Malaysian-designed car. Ever. The name Waja means “tough (as steel)” and reflects the strength of the steel used for the Waja compared with the previous Proton models. The “Waja” name was chosen partly to counter the perception in the domestic market that Proton cars were less strong than other cars. Friends in the UK can keep a lookout for the Proton Impian, the Waja’s English cousin. “Impian” means “dream” in Malay. I have no idea about the strength of the steel used in the Impian, however. You’re on your own there.