Saturday, September 26, 2009

Kuala Lumpur, In a Nutshell

I've been wrestling with what it is precisely that I like most about Kuala Lumpur and there isn't a neat and tidy answer. It is not the cleanest city. The streets form no particular pattern and it's easy to get lost. It's hot. I mean the kind of wet, humid heat that makes you start sweating at 8:00 in the morning and not stop until you take a cold shower at night.

But there's something that makes me incredibly happy here. I find myself walking down a street, soaked from the humidity and all of a sudden a blast of cool air-conditioned wind flies out of a storefront. Or I think I'm on the brink of passing out, and I find a street vendor selling ice-cold coconut juice for 29-cents. Or the way traffic rushes by, but the people on the street can't be bothered to walk faster than a snail's pace.

Like Singapore, it's a place where East meets West. Muslim mosques are perched beneath corporate high rises. Chinatown is home to Burger King and McDonald's. Veiled women shop for Gucci and Prada.

In fact, the most notable buildings in KL are the Petronas Twin Towers, designed by an American Architect. These towers rank 9th in terms of the tallest structures in the world, but held the record as the tallest from 1998 to 2004 stretching 1,482 feet into the sky. Like the Sydney Opera House, I found myself astounded by their beauty and magnitude. Check out the photo link to see more.

I'll leave this post short and sweet as I have to wake up at an ungodly hour tomorrow to catch a flight to Kota Bharu, take a 40 minute bus, then an hour jetty to finally arrive at the paradise island of Perhentian Kecil. 5 days of snorkeling, reading, and working on my "tan" should peel the layers of dirt and sweat right off me. Oh and people, please, step up to the plate and leave a comment dammit! I'm starting to wonder who's reading this besides my wonderful, supportive, slightly worried parents. Love you mom and dad :)!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stranger in an Even Stranger Land: 2 Nights, 1 Day in Singapore

I left Cairns, Australia, and arrived in Singapore 2 days ago. Cairns has a population of 158,000 people. Singapore has a population of 4.86 million people. Cairns is a small beach town. Singapore, a bustling city. There are no high rise buildings in Cairns. There are no surfer tans in Singapore. Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore. Clearly.

After 46 days spent in New Zealand and Australia, where life is relaxed and familiar, it was a bit of a jolt to arrive in my first Asian destination. The night I arrived, I decided to stroll through Little India and find a bite to eat. Easier said than done. I didn't recognize most of the food on the menus and it all just seemed so... well... foreign. After walking in a huge circle, I decided to dine at the Beach St. Scissor Cut Curry House. For $3.20SGD (i.e. about $2.50 US) I got a plate of chicken, rice and curry. Since this restaurant is set up almost buffet style, you need to get your own cutlery. I sat down with my food, a drink and a fork. Apparently I was also supposed to grab a spoon, which I missed, and ended up getting a few sideways glances as I picked up my chicken wings and ate them with my fingers. Social awkwardness aside, the curry was delicious!

Today was my big sightseeing day as I leave for Kuala Lumpur in the morning, so I tried to pack it all in. I started with a Mr. Bean Cheese Pastry, hit the shopping Mecca of Orchard Rd., meandered through Chinatown, snapped a few photos of the famous Raffles Hotel and cooled down in the icy air-conditioned National Museum of Singapore. I'm fairly certain that I learned a semester's worth of history on this fascinating city-state in a little under 3 hours.

What is most striking about Singapore is its lack of a singular identity. There is virtually nothing known about the "native" people who inhabited the island before the Europeans showed up. The only thing that survives from pre-15th century is a 6-foot piece of stone with some incomprehensible writing and a few shards of pottery. What this means is that Singapore did not really exist in a sense, until the British decided to set up port here. Once the Brits got the trade industry moving here, the population grew tremendously with Indians, Chinese and Malays. There was the British colonization, a period of Japanese rule during WW II, a period of independence followed by a merger with Malaysia, then another period of independence. Sorry to bore you with the history lesson, but there really is a point coming. Or maybe, rather, a question.

So who are Singaporeans? There are 4 official languages and 6 commonly practiced religions. It is a mish mash of cultures and yet they all seem to live in harmony. At a single restaurant you may see a Sikh in a turban, a Chinese family speaking Mandarin, an Indian stock broker on his blackberry and a European tourist all eating Singapore noodles and drinking Tiger Beer without feeling the slightest bit out of place.

The phenomenon that is Singapore fascinates me. It is a confluence of people, culture, business and beliefs. I can't say I would ever want to live here, and probably don't even need to visit again, but I'm glad I've seen it.

The culture shock of arriving in the East is starting to wear off and I'm getting my bearings. I ordered my $3.20SGD curry dinner again tonight with conviction and even remembered to grab a spoon on the way to my table!

Next up: Kuala Lumpur and Pulau Perhentian.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Raising the Bar on Beauty in Fraser Island & the Whitsundays

“The sun. Yellow stars like the sun, to give off so much steady heat for ten billion years or so, are balanced like on a knife edge between the inward pull of gravity and the outward push of thermonuclear reaction. If the gravitational coupling constant were any smaller, they’d balloon and all be blue giants; any smaller, they’d shrivel and be red dwarves. A blue giant doesn’t last long enough for life to evolve, and the red dwarf radiates too weakly to ever get it started. Everywhere you look, there are these terrifically finely adjusted constants that have to be just what they are, or there wouldn’t be a world we could recognize, and there’s no intrinsic reason for those constants to be what they are except to say God made them that way. God made Heaven and Earth. It’s what science has come to believe. Believe me.” (a passage from John Updike’s Roger’s Version by a character named Dale)

Dale is a scientist who attempts to prove that God exists through mathematical equations. His argument is that there are so many variables that if even the slightest bit different, would negate the possibility of life on Earth. He goes on and on about how the expansion rate in the Big Bang theory, the strong force, which binds atomic nuclei together and the mass of neutrons had to be precisely what they are in order for Earth to exist. He reasons that so many finely tuned variables could only be managed by a Higher Power, since it is too unlikely all of these variables would miraculously fall into place without such a force.

I don’t know much about the physics and statistical probability of all this, but what I do know, is that whoever had a hand in fine tuning the ecosystem that exists on the world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island, or the coral reef systems that give life to thousands of different species under the Whitsunday Islands did something right.

Fraser Island was created entirely of sand moved from the far south-east of Australia and some from thousands of kilometers away from Antarctica over millions of years. Miraculously, plants learned to grow on this island and over time the island gave birth to coastal heaths, eucalyptus forests, rainforests and wallum heath lands, in addition to 40,000 migratory shorebirds.

I spent 3 days and 2 nights in this World Heritage listed magical place, swimming in crystal clear lakes, hiking up huge sand blows that are reminiscent of the Sahara Desert, and strolling through lush rainforest.

From Fraser, I made my way north to the Whitsunday Islands, where I spent a couple days lounging at a luxurious resort (that I wasn’t actually paying to stay at), snorkeling the reefs off Border Island and sunbathing on Whitehaven Beach. The sand on Whitehaven is 99% pure silica, which basically means that it feels like silk and the locals recommend sitting by the water’s edge and exfoliating the skin with it.

The past week has been a slice of heaven: warm weather, turquoise water, vivid marine life and pure relaxation. It’s easy to see why Dale’s theory may hold some weight. There must be Something or Someone at work to create so many astonishing natural wonders.

I only have a handful of days left in Australia. I will snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, check out the night market in Cairns and head to the tropical rainforest that extends to the ocean in Cape Tribulation. The natural wonders ahead may seem even more remarkable than those that came before, if that’s possible. And it leaves me questioning my basically atheistic viewpoints. I don’t want to get all preachy here, but there is something so absolutely stunning and carefully balanced happening within each unique Australian landscape that it seems more than just a coincidence in physics. I ask myself everyday how it came to be that I am so lucky to see so many beautiful places and experience so many once-in-a -lifetime moments over and over again, day after day. Just when I think I’ve hit the greatest height of amazement, something else comes along to raise the bar. We’ll see if the wonders of Asia will hold a flame to the beauty of Australia and New Zealand. If nothing else, at least the food will get better as I don’t think I could look at another slice of flavorless pizza or over-battered fish n’ chips if you paid me!

My next blog post will likely be from a high rise hostel in Singapore. Apparently I can’t bring chewing gum or cigarettes into this country, so not sure how my relaxed Australian attitude will jive of the Singaporean way of life, but I guess we’ll find out.

Til next time, cheers mates!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Blue Parrot: An Unusual Hostel in Sydney

Written and Directed by Miranda Molen

Cast of Characters (in no particular order)

Claire – blond party girl from somewhere in England who is everybody’s best friend and supplier of random groceries (since she’s lived at the Parrot for 6 months)

Henning – German guy, desperate to sell his beat up station wagon after spending the last 6 months driving 30,000 kilometers across Australia, rarely showering

Jean – Frenchie from Lyon who stole 180 bottles of 12 year old whiskey from his previous job in Sydney and was on a mission to see how quickly he could consume all of it (sharing with the fellow hostel guests of course)

William – Dutchman with fitted jeans and a cowboy hat, often seen texting his Aussie girlfriends or planning the launch of his next company from his Apple laptop

Greg – incomprehensible Cockney Brit with shirts so tight they may give Right Said Fred a run for their money

Linnea – Swedish blond with impossibly long legs who found work for a couple days in the strip club down the road only to realize it doesn’t pay much better than cleaning the hostel

Liz – Frenchie who doesn’t actually live at the hostel, but takes the crew out every night for some free drinks and good laughs

Kalston & Tobias – my German roommates who like to debate which is superior: East or West Germany

Random Frenchies – crew that travels in a pack of no less than 3, chain smoking and refusing to speak English, though they all do so fluently

Thomas – 18 year old Dutch guy who spends his days eating chocolate chip cookies and strumming his guitar

The Setting

Back patio filled with tables, chairs and a BBQ that doesn’t actually work (though repeatedly tested).

Kitchen, where all dishes can usually be found in the sink and everyone’s food is stolen at will.

Dining room consisting of a table used for late night card games and a counter covered in a jigsaw puzzle.

TV Room where Hellboy 2 is on the big screen and any number of the cast listed above lay quietly on the couch wishing their hangovers would subside.

Modern, but not quite stylish, home d├ęcor shop 2 doors down with a windowsill ledge used as a bench for late night smoking after the patio is closed.

The Scene

Frenchies sit on the patio smoking, speaking French and laughing loudly.

Claire and Linnea plan which nightclub may suit them best this evening.

William and Greg discuss the awkward morning after conversations they’ve endured with the locals of the opposite gender.

Thomas eagerly takes inventory of everyone’s plans for the night before decided where and when he’ll join.

Kalston and Tobias speak in German while discussing how terrible the sausage is in Australia.

Miranda, Henning and Jean sit at the dining room table and play a card game while Jean tries to convince Miranda to switch from her bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to whisky, unsuccessfully.

The Plot Summary

Short days and long nights are what best categorize my time in Sydney. I did see the sights: Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach, neighborhoods like the Rocks and King’s Cross, shopping on George St., Oxford St. and at Bondi Junction. In terms of the sights, I was completely captivated by the Opera House. It is such an iconic building and one that makes the average person feel dwarfed in its presence. I sat on a park bench and marveled at its beauty for the better part of an hour and returned several more times over the course of my 5 days in Sydney if only to see its glory from a new vantage point or with differing amounts of daylight.

But the majority of my time was spent at the Blue Parrot. There was simply too much fun to be had to want to do much else. Everyday brought new arrivals of crazy characters and new laughs to be had. Every night was spent at the local bars or sitting around the dining room table playing cards and misunderstanding each other’s broken English. By the end I even found myself speaking without verbs so that everyone would comprehend. But it all worked. We ate. We drank. We played together. And by the end, I didn’t want to go. I easily could have wasted another week, or month with this crazy international crew. But alas, the world is a big place and there are many corners undiscovered, many sandy beaches not yet walked upon, many fish yet to be seen through the mask of my snorkeling gear. It’s time to move north.

I’m in Brisbane now, but start making my way further north tomorrow, where I’ll set off the following day to Fraser Island. It is one of Australia’s most wild and untouched nature reserves, where I’ll stroll through a subtropical rainforest, swim in turquoise water and soak in bubbling seawater. Should be a splendid reprieve after a couple weeks of city life and will hopefully help me move on from my fabulous stay at the Blue Parrot!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Signs of Life in Melbourne, Australia

The population of New Zealand is 4 million. The population of Melbourne is 3.5 million. Imagine going from an entire country, spread across two islands, to a city with nearly as many people. The vast openness and barren countryside of New Zealand has been replaced with Melbourne’s skyscrapers and traffic.

I decided to throw myself straight into the mix, starting with a trip to the Queen Victoria Market. This bustling market is every chef’s wet dream. Stall after stall is filled with fresh fish, organic meats, colorful and obscure produce and the most fragrant (read smelly) cheeses you can imagine. I had to restrain the urge to buy everything in sight since the kitchen at this particular hostel consists of a couple of hot plates and a microwave. I opted for some pesto/ricotta dipping sauce, a baguette and some fruit.

I then took a tram to the Fitzroy district to see what treasures I may find amongst the thrift stores and trendy boutiques. The neighborhood reminded me of a cross between Haight/Ashbury and Hayes Valley, with cafes on every corner and brightly colored graffiti livening up the back alleys (see Picasa link on the right for some pics). I kicked back with my book and a glass of wine and took in the dreadlocks and combat boots that mistook the Brunswick St. sidewalk for a catwalk.

Other highlights of Melbourne included the Melbourne Zoo, Royal Botanical Gardens and Quentin Tarintino’s new flick “Inglorious Bastards.” But I won’t go into much detail on any of these.

I only tell you this to give you sense of how much there is to do and see here, and why I felt the need to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and get out to the sparsely populated Phillip Island for a day to see the renowned Penguin Parade. For those of you not familiar with this nightly event (i.e. all of you most likely), the penguin parade is the march of hundreds of tiny penguins out of the ocean, up the beach and through the hillside to get their land-based homes. The fairy penguins, as they are known, reach only about 12” tall and typically weigh 2.2 lbs. So basically the penguin is the size of a bag of sugar and weighs half as much!

These penguins spend anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months out at sea, then come onto land for 3 or 4 days at a time to rest, lay eggs or tend to the babies. It is a different set of penguins that come onto land each night and the number of penguins who march the beach vary between 100 and 2,000 nightly. They emerge from the sea in small groups of 5 or 7 at a time for hours starting just after dark.

Of all the things I learned, what really stuck with me about these little guys is that they live in constant fear. When they are out at sea, they are afraid of birds of prey from above. This is why their backsides are dark in color, so that when birds flying high above them look down, they are camouflaged by their dark blue feathers. They also fear the sharks below. When sharks look up, they see the light from the sun creating a white surface to the water, which is why their little bellies are white. Isn’t Mother Nature remarkable!

When they get to shore, they fear just about everything, so they do a bit of a dance as they come in. The first penguin on the beach stands there looking around to see if there might be any predators lurking about. Once the other penguins come up behind him, they usually all turn back and dive into the ocean for cover, even if the coast is clear. They do this anywhere from once or twice to twenty times before they finally muster the courage to cross the beach. There is always a leader and seemingly always the scaredy-cat straggler. I sat on the beach and watched the nervous little ones play this mental game for about an hour in the freezing cold because I was so mesmerized. Sometimes it would take a group of penguins up to 10 minutes after reaching the water’s edge before they dared cross the beach and begin the long trek home.

Their houses are holes in the hillside and can be as far away as 2 kilometers from the shore. Once they get close to home, they make a loud gurgle type sound and call out for their partner. They mate with a variety of partners, but they only breed with one partner their entire life. It’s sort of like an open marriage, but they must use birth control with everyone except their partner. If they don’t find their partner on a particular night, they may find someone else to shack up with and hope they find their #1 when they go back out to sea.

To be so afraid of so many viable threats at every moment of their lives must be so stressful. It makes me think of the Jews during the Holocaust, the Slaves before the Civil War, or any number of oppressed people. And yet, they summon the strength to live their lives in and out of the ocean because they must do both to survive. I think there’s something to be learned from the little ones. Namely, you never know when the death bird or demon shark is coming to get you, so best get your belly full of fish and find someone to snuggle up with for the night while the gettin’s good!

By the way, there were no photos or videos allowed, since the little guys are sensitive to light, but check out this link, or this one or this one for some pics.

Next up: Sydeny Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. Fingers crossed, I will shed this damn scarf and finally don a skirt if the temperatures rise!