Category Archives: Travel

Foreign lands and cultures, and what it’s like to greet new people and places

reflecting on India… now that we’re home in Malaysia

Eric and I found some downtime last night to watch a DVD we got at a tea plantation in India.  Watching it brought back so many of the feelings we had during our time there.

We had been told that with India, you simultaneously love it passionately AND want to tear your hair out in frustration.  True!  The food, the generosity of people, the ability to go anywhere on trains or buses, all great!  But getting a non-spicy pizza, even at Dominos? Can’t.  Ask someone to do something in their work that they don’t do everyday? Forget it, they won’t even consider trying.  Want a train ticket?  Get onto the waitlist and the afternoon that you leave for the 14 hour train ride you find out IF you have a seat.  We loved lemon rice and curd, we loved playing cricket and badminton every day with our neighbors, we loved the first train ride.  And, we burned a lot of calories being frustrated and lost.  It was almost always BOTH love and despair.

The video we got was supposed to be about a tea plantation, but it turned out to be an intro to all the tourist spots in the state of Kerala, with a voiceover that we could understand about 30% of the words (though many people spoke English, we could understand very few), and the last quarter of the video had no audio at all.  Seriously, the state-sponsored tourism video forgot the audio file???  So we watched it in silence, still enjoying it, and marveling at our experiences in India.  We’d love to go back, and we had to shake our heads.  That’s the India experience in a nutshell.

DSCN2020.JPG

Hands-on exploring of temple built on coast of the Bay of Bengal over 1,300 years ago

Gallery

A Gallery for 2014

This gallery contains 1 photos.

Greetings, friends & followers!  It has been a long time since we posted but are glad to be back.  Currently Eric is in a marathon 27-consecutive day stretch of teaching, travel, preaching, and trying to stay healthy through it all.  … Continue reading

Image

Images from Islamic Arts Museum

A poetic explanation of the role of natural elements in Islamic Art

A poetic explanation of the role of natural elements in Islamic Art

Ceramic Wall at Museum of Islamic Arts, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Ceramic Wall at Museum of Islamic Arts, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Mosque at Mecca - miniature plus description
Mosque at Mecca – miniature plus description

 

On visiting a Mosque

After nearly a year of living here, I finally made it to visit a mosque. You would think that it would be easy, that a house of worship would welcome someone coming to learn and be open (to whatever degree) to the best parts of your faith tradition. But, it’s not so easy. If you imagine that you wanted to tour a church in your town, you might have to plan to attend a service, which you wouldn’t want to do if you’re not open to converting or being on their mailing list forever. Or you could drop by and hope that the building is unlocked, and that you could find the right door to an office, so you could explain why you’re wandering around, and even better, have someone walk with you and explain things. Now imagine that you are willing to make the phone call, but you have no idea what language you should use on the phone.

In my case, I was a tourist and only had so much time, and had read different guidebooks that all said, “just don’t go on the Muslim day of prayer (Friday) or holidays.” So when I showed up on a Tuesday and the sign said “No Tourists” except between 8-9, 11-12, and 3-4, I was bummed. It was not easy to get there, and it was at that time 12:15. Also, I approached the wrong door – it was the school part of the mosque – and a mom there sneered at me and said, “You are looking for the toilet.” It felt wrong to say, “No, I’m looking for a house of worship.” So I just said, “visiting this mosque?”

My point is not that mosques are inhospitable. Not at all. Once I made it past the very strict nun-like women (who lent me one of the bright lavender robes – marking me as a non-Muslim tourist – plus a hijab) the mosque felt like a wonderfully open place. Architecturally, it had a courtyard area, like most mosques, which lent a feeling of openness yet a solidity, a groundedness. But there was also a sense of spiritual openness, if one wanted to see it. There were plenty of groups there, ticking sights off of their list, and there were many young adults who were taking boisterous photos (they were wearing bright lavender robes, after all). But one could pause and sense the purpose of the place, which was ultimately worship and community.

Thankfully, I had just visited the Museum of Islamic Arts, and so I had some specific questions to ask, and a volunteer there received my questions, taught me a great deal about the practice of his faith, and even took me on a walking tour. I think the thing that most fascinated me was the combination of practical architecture and history. For instance, mosques usually have large domes, but this one had a folding umbrella-shape, because mosques are encouraged to adapt to local culture, and the V-shape is very common in roofs of large buildings. Within the worship space were 16 columns – one for each state in Malaysia. This was the State Mosque and was built after the independence of Malaysia from British colonial rule. However, shortly after it was built, Brunei left being a Malaysian state, as did Singapore, and they both became their own country. So the 16 columns remain, but Malaysia has only 14 states. People still shake their heads over the way the Federation was originally set up, and these 16 columns keep that conversation going. But architecturally, the rains here are part of the local life – and so the folds in the umbrella roof actually channel water down, through the columns, and into the ablution rooms in the lower floor of the mosque. When 21,000 people need to do ritual washing, that is a lot of water needed. So it matches the needs and gifts of this place.

Ultimately, it was a reminder that welcoming guests is a holy enterprise, one that is often set behind many layers of difficulty. I think every person of faith should visit not only the houses of worship of other faiths, but to go visit congregations in their own faith, in their own area. See what it is like to be a guest. See what you can learn in one short visit, and see what questions you walk away with. It will inform you of your expectations and it may open your eyes to how others express (or don’t) faith and hospitality. And who knows what God may do when you enter a holy place.

(Each of these columns – in both the open courtyard (right) and the enclosed sanctuary/prayer room (below) – channel water from the roof to the lower levels. That is a lot of water!)

More images from southeast Asia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above is Eric’s receipt from buying me a lovely batik fabric painting (below)

Note #1 here… apparently pressure tactics are used enough to require tourists to sign this? Eric said that the sales pitch took over an hour (Eric was mainly practicing speaking Malay) and involved tea and a lesson on how batik painting is done (quite an intensive process). They told him to hand-wash it before hanging it to get any residual dust off of it, but I am terrified to do that! The colors are so rich and bold, I don’t want to harm them even an iota.

I noticed on our Uno box that it is fully Malaysian – in that it has 3 languages . English, Mandarin Chinese, and Malay. I’m not sure why there are two versions of Chinese – some of the characters are more intricate versus the simplified version (I assume that’s the difference). And the British spellings, like “Colour.”

Each day we discover more things that are different. It’s nice when we start absorbing things that suddenly seem normal, like Dante saying to me, “Pick that up, lah.” (“Lah” is used in both Malay and English to give an emphasis to a sentence.) I don’t think Dante noticed what he was saying. Second nature in a 3rd culture?

Travel notes from Indonesia

Greetings all,
While Wendolyn and the boys are continuing to have adventures in Malaysia, I’m in the midst of my own 17 day adventure in Indonesia. If you are like I was, you can probably pick out Indonesia on a map, but not really say too much more about it. In fact, in the past couple of weeks I have read several books about Indonesia, and they all begin by saying something along the lines of, “Despite being the fourth largest country in the world and possessing a rich and vibrant culture, Indonesia remains little known to much of the world.” So if Indonesia seems a bit mysterious to you, don’t worry. You are not alone.
Here are a few interesting tidbits I have picked up about the country:
– It is made up of 17,500 islands. It includes parts of the islands of New Guinea and Borneo, the second and third largest islands in the world, respectively, and the entirety of the islands of Sumatra and Java, which are huge islands too
– Java is the world’s most populous island, with 58% of Indonesia’s population living there. In land area, it is slightly larger than the state of Mississippi.
– Jakarta itself has over 28 million people in its metropolitan area. That’s like combining the metropolitan areas of New York and Chicago (together estimated at 29 million people)
– the distance from one end of Indonesia to the other is larger than the span of the Atlantic Ocean; in fact it is close to the same as the distance between London and Baghdad.
– The country has some 235 million people from over 300 ethnic groups, speaking over 360 different languages.

I am staying on the island of Java, and yes there is more here than coffee (in fact I’ve come across a lot more jasmine tea than I have coffee so far). I’ll be in Jakarta, on the western end of the island, for a few days at the end of my trip, but mostly I am in Yogyakarta, in central Java. Jakarta is the largest city and capital, but Yogyakarta (called Jogja by everyone) is the cultural and intellectual center of Java, as well as the number two tourist destination in Indonesia, after Bali. Jogja has thousand year old Buddhist and Hindu temple, unique styles of batik, the long and continuing history of the kings of Yogyakarta and Solo, and is probably Indonesia’s biggest university town.

I’m not actually seeing much of these sights, though. I am spending pretty much all day, six days a week, in language classes. The Indonesian language is very similar to the Malaysian language, so this turned out to be the best place to come for me to do an intensive language class. It is important, worthwhile work, but honestly not much to blog about. Knowing the right time to use “bukan” instead of “tidak” feels like quite the victory to me, but I am not so sure I can convince anyone else to get passionate about it.

Still, hanging out in this little suburban neighborhood twenty minutes out from the town center by motorbike has its own charms and adventures. For instance, there are thousands of motorbikes here, streaming all over the place. I had never ridden on one before, but I’ve needed to a few times here to get out of the neighborhood, andi it is a bit hair-raising weaving in and out of traffic and all of the other bikes. What really made things interesting, though, was that this past Saturday was graduation day – for everybody from junior high through university. It seems that it is a tradition that for junior high graduation all of the kids get to ride a motorbike for the day, even though they are not old enough to have a license. Usually an adult leads the way, carrying a big colorful stick and the whole class forms a procession riding around town, and then afterwards the youth drive off in packs with their friends. The roads seem nerve-wracking enough for me with experienced drivers out there!

Oh, and of course I must mention that this is my first trip south of the equator. Yes, water in the toilet does flush the opposite direction. Don’t spend too much time watching, though, because you have to fill up the toilet again yourself – you get a big tub of water beside the toilet and a scoop. Makes you appreciate how much goes down the drain each time you flush.

Calling this area a suburb might be a bit misleading, although it is a well-to-do neighborhood a ways out from the city center. There are plenty of big busy roads around so that you know you are in an urban area, but then turn off to the side and you find yourself in a maze of alleys and trails. There are plenty of big nice homes along the alleys, but it also has chickens everywhere (the rooster across the street from my bedroom sounds just like a police bullhorn – I woke up the first morning thinking that I was being evacuated!). Turn any given corner, and you might just find yourself in a rice paddy. I was even walking down the street the other day and a runaway cow still attached to its plough came running at me. Everyone along the street came out to watch and laugh about that one, so I don’t think it is a normal occurrence, though.

I am staying at a homestay just down the street from the language school. I don’t actually see the family that much – life is busy enough for a family with three kids; they don’t need to be looking out for a clueless foreigner. They do put home cooked food out on a table for me three times a day, and the kids frequently go running by me. I don’t think people normally stay this long with them, because the first few days the meals were quite elaborate, but the last few have been quite simple – a soup of leftover vegetables, a bit of fried meat. It actually makes me feel a bit better to have the simple food – a busy family of five shouldn’t have time to make such elaborate meals every night. The mix is much more real. Anyway, I went to worship with them on Sunday. They go to a Catholic church up the road a ways. It turned out to be First Communion Sunday. I don’t really have much sense of what the church was like or too many details of the service, because we got there right before the service was scheduled to start, and on First Communion Sunday, that means we were sitting with about 150 other people outside the church building, listening over loudspeakers. Really, beside the change in language, a Catholic mass has a pretty recognizable form anywhere in the world, and after not being to a liturgical service in several months it was comfortably familiar.

I’ve got another week to go here in Indonesia, so if I have other adventures I will pass them along – as web access allows – before I return to Malaysia.

Field notes from a day at the Asian mall

Last Friday was a public holiday here – Malaysia, being as multicultural as it is, has the most public holidays of any country in the world, because everyone allows time for others to celebrate (plus, the workday is assumed to be 6 days, with an “off day” instead of a weekend – so holidays are needed to balance that intensity out). Here is a link to what public holidays are: http://publicholidays.com.my/ And here is a link to what holiday we [weren’t] celebrating – http://publicholidays.com.my/wesak-day/ . There are relatively few Buddhists here that would have had religious requirements for that day, so many people were out and about, having a festively free day.

We chose to go to Centre Point Mall – a mall that has a nicely organized western area and a haphazardly laid-out eastern side. We were looking for school shoes for Dante, and knew that the better deals were to be had on the eastern side. However, there are trade-offs: to buy shoes in the more haphazard area, you have to get someone to help you because the boxes are all jumbled up – you can’t pick a shoe and see what sizes they have. If you want to look at a pair of shoes and see what sizes/colors they come in, you have to go to the western department store, where you pay at least double for the privilege of wide walking areas and items that stay where you expect them to.

We were looking also for a DVD movie to watch at home for our family movie night. Almost everything here is pirated, and most movies come 8-to-a-disk. So you don’t look for a movie, you look for a collection. When I found an 8-movie collection I liked, it was 15.90 RM (about $5); I know to ask, “little discount?” But I am always surprised when they give a deeper discount than I expect. Usually it’s on an item I already consider to be a good price, too! So when I asked for a discount, willing to pay the 16 RM, I had to hide my surprise when she offered “10 RM?” Ummmm, yes, thank you. (The issue of pirated movies is one that isn’t really even in conversation, which is another surprise, given how interconnected our world is. I would think that Fox or Disney would have acted on this already.)

Incidentally, as we sifted through the children’s DVD’s, I saw a disk that contained a mix of movies – including, side-by-side, the South Park movie and “Barney & Me.” Priceless.

Then we went to wash up before lunch (though it’s BYO soap, TP, and you dry your hands on your clothes), and saw this sign:

“No dish washing in the toilet.” Whether that means “toilet” as in “facilities” or as in “commode,” I don’t know (there is a hose & spigot in every stall to wash down whatever needs washed down). As this was near a favorite lunch spot, I tried not to think on this too hard.

We also saw this sign: Which cause me to make a severe mistake: I read it aloud. Later, when we were about to head home and Cade was tired and yet did not want to leave, he knew just what to do: he leaned over and spit several times, right on the floor. Sigh.

While there we did get a great lunch – Dante loves a big bowl of noodle soup, though he asked Eric and I to eat the noodles so that he could get to the broth. After walking around, we returned for an ice cream dessert. We ordered at the main counter – the boys wanted what was in a picture there, the “Colorful Sundae.” Ironically, when we ordered, they shouted across the restaurant, “Orang putih – colorful sundae!” (meaning, “the white people want a colorful sundae!”) They knew just who to deliver it to. The “colorful” part was having sprinkles, but the ice cream flavors were yam, sweetcorn, and vanilla. Purple, yellow, and white – colorful flavors to our western palatte.

They were having a Harvest Festival display at the mall – the Festival is actually today and tomorrow, but the mall set up handicraft vendor displays, like many huts. The Harvest Festival celebrates the many tribes and indiginous people (“Bumi Putera” – which is beautiful to say, too, “boom-y Pooterah”).

Hopefully everyone knows not to buy souveniers at an inflated price here; on the other hand, the vendors here are real people seeking to earn money for their families. There is a large Handicrafts Market on the waterfront in KK – a much better place to shop and bargain. There is not much of a market for fine art beyond woodcarvings, but hopefully that will change as tourism increases here by leaps and bounds.

The biggest thing we did at the mall was to try – for the first time – family karaoke. For 8 RM (under $3) you get a room to yourself for ½ hour, with microphones and a karaoke machine. What was the first song that Eric picked out? “500 miles.” “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone… Lord, I’m five hundred miles from my home.” Which made me remember that while doing karaoke when I studied in China, the song I was landed with was Edelweiss – “bless my homeland forever.” Singing about home is a pretty vulnerable moment. The next song that we recognized on the song list was “O Come All Ye Faithful” – we figured, that would be fun to sing. There was a video screen that played scenes associated with the song, and, inexplicably, the video footage was of Buddha statues from around the world. (???)

Our big purchase from the day was finally finding a Chinese Checkers set. I’ve been looking forever because it seems Dante is ready for that level of game. I did not expect it to be so hard to find Chinese Checkers in Asia!

On the way home I was delighted to find that I knew several different ways to navigate downtown to get home, and that I knew which lanes did what. When moving to any new place, that is an accomplishment; I’ll count it as double because of driving on the opposite side of the road and reading signs in Malay!

When we got home we were all exhausted and overwhelmed from so many experiences. Of the above, which surprised you most? Which would you most like to encounter?

Going out to Eat

One of the things we miss most here is going somewhere & being handed a menu that has several viable & understandable options. (For instance, how spicy is it *really*?) Yet how wonderful it is to discover the special places that we never would have found otherwise. Today we re-visited one of our favourite places – we asked the boys, “do you want to go out for lunch?” …naaah…. “Do you want to go to the Curry House?” And they have their shoes on & are out the door almost before we know it…(when they both remember to go to the bathroom, because the food can be spicy and they want to con us into ordering soda as well as the drinking water we bring along… are the kids well-trained, or the parents?)

To get to the Curry House we walk the 150 steps down through the jungle hillside, and suddenly we are in downtown KK.

In this picture you can see part of the neighbourhood where the curry house is, as well as the area where the hillside stairs go up to the Seminary (just over that wall of jungle)! It’s only a 10 minute walk and it’s fun to have jungle, city, and neighbourhood all in one short walk.

When we get to the Curry house there are 2 options for food: the “set” that comes with veggies and you choose your meat (they have the most amazing slices of lightly fried fish…), in which case your “plate” is a swath of banana leaf. Dante and I are seen here, with our empty banana leaves soon to be filled by the lovely young ladies who work there and shyly smiled for the camera.



Cade chose to get Roti (thinly fried bread) instead of a set, which he quickly devoured. It comes with two sauces – mild (today it really was mild – but some days the cook gets a little less mild and more wild with the chilies) and spicier. You can also notice the A&W root beer he picked out. My plate has one of our favourite Malaysian drinks – lemon tea. Hot tea, toss in lemon slices, maybe sugar, then ice. Thankfully, we can have the ice here – KK’s water supply is good and since tourism is a main source of income here, everyone takes good care of tourists, including having filtered water for ice cubes.

We recently discovered a new fun fact about our curry house: except for the meat, everything is all-you-can-eat. You can see the set in front of Eric: rice with mild curry sauce, and from left to right: metal cup of soup, kind of spicy pumpkin, richly flavoured green beans (coconut milk probably), slightly bitter greens, and pickled bean sprouts. You never know which veggies they will have or what flavour combination you’ll get, but they’re always friendly and the place is usually at least a little crowded. We usually spend about 40 ringgit there – about $14 US. The boys invariably ask about Hinduism, as they have a small display of icons with LED lights around them. Each time, I think “I need to read up on Hinduism” but forget when I leave… maybe writing this will help me to follow through!

Then from the walk home: this is a view from in front of the 7-11 (yes, there are a lot of them here; we rate them by whether they have Slurpee machines, and we recently found one with *two* flavours!!!!) From here you can see the taxi stand (these cars are all taxis)and the way the trees hide what is one of the bigger roads in downtown. We also went by a park that is under construction – it’s neat that every construction site here has a sign with the contact info for the various project heads as well as an estimated date for start/completion. They seem to be rebuilding a small stadium there – concrete steps/seats with a rooftop cover and loudspeakers.

So there’s a little insight into life in Kota Kinabalu, and a Trozzo Sunday afternoon. Hope your Sunday afternoon is beautiful, wherever you are!

Wow… did we really just see that???

What is it that makes a travel moment really special?

Is it crossing something off of a list – a bucket list, a wildlife guide, a guidebook index?

Is it seeing something that none of your friends have seen – like getting bragging rights?

Is it collecting experiences?

Is it the thoughts and emotions of that moment?  The *being* there?

Today Eric and I wandered into something really special.  We had no high hopes, no list at hand.  This morning we had gone as part of a tour – usually groups of 500-900, but because of a rare mix of circumstances, only about 100 people attended seeing the morning feeding of the orang-utans at Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre.  That itself intensified the experience.  We had been telling our sons about this since the day we broke the news that we were moving to Malaysia.  But their attention spans didn’t last even an hour.  It was nice, and then on the way out a staff member mentioned that we could come back that afternoon at no charge.   The timing just worked out that our boys were in the pool with Eric’s mom so we could wander over at 3:00.

On our way in, I chatted with an official fundraiser from the UK.  We went back out to the same feeding platforms as this morning – this time there were only 30 people (yes, instead of 900).  The fundraiser came out for the feeding and reconnected with us, telling us about the personalities of the different orang utan.  She told us of the secretive alpha-alpha male, named C.I.D, seen only 3 or 4 times a year.  Huge, she said.  Aggressive, she said.  She had been waiting since January to see him, she said.

Then her radio crackled, she grabbed my arm, and suddenly the air was electric – there, in a tree about 100 metres away, was a hulking brown figure.  Bigfoot, I thought, but couldn’t be sure I was seeing anything at all.  But soon the other apes abandoned the food platform and took off, and before us appeared an orang utan that was truly something else.  Huge, in body and personality.  He came to a nearby platform and stood, his hip jutting out as he stared us down.  I’ve never seen anything like that.  The fundraiser was quaking so much she could hardly take pictures.  After only about 2 minutes, he disappeared back into the rainforest.   All the tourists let our shoulders relax and breathed & laughed together.

What is it about experiences like this?  For any of them, we could check google images or youtube clips.  The Discovery Channel has already covered it for us all.  Yet we want to see, to be a part of it somehow.  My cynical side says, “bragging rights and collecting pieces of the world.”  But the I witness C.I.D. and I think, is this part of what brought me here?

I am so sorry I can’t post a picture – my camera card reader is at home in KK.  But you know you can google “C.I.D. Sepilok” and see those perfectly captured images.  You can see the pristine version of the 2 pics I got before the point-and-shoot camera battery died.

But it can’t be only about collecting the pictures, can it.  This coming to new places – it is about being grateful for what we do see, being open to surprises, and then trying to explain it to our boys by the poolside.  Sharing our adventure and listening for theirs.  I think that today reminded me that this world can still awe a gal with google in her pocket.  Being met by C.I.D. humbled me.  It was not the special moment I expected or counted on.

The question is, can I remain open, and calm, and kind, tomorrow and the next day.  As we sail on the Kinabtangan River, can I still be humbled and ready to be moved by what I witness, and by what witnesses me?

Back home with Internet connection... here he is... C.I.D.  (Can you sense his personality?)

Back home with Internet connection… here he is…
C.I.D. (Can you sense his personality?)

Taking pictures because a visitor came!

I was overjoyed to pick my mother-in-law up from the international airport today.  She had flown all the way from Washington DC – from DC to LA to Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur to KK.  The trip takes about 3 days.  She has the benefit of being a nurse, used to changing her sleep schedule.  We had the difficulty of traveling with two young kids who could not sleep once we entered our new hemisphere.

KK Airport - Terminal 1

KK Airport – Terminal 1

I had not been to the airport since we were picked up there.  I remember very little of that first trip… we were all overwhelmed.  But today as we drove, my mother-in-law was snapping photos and I realized how wonderful it is to have her perspective here, now.  She is not as overwhelmed, she has guides that already know her, and she only has to last two weeks here!  But her response to what she was seeing brought me a lot of joy.  It was the kind of time when you see your life through someone else’s eyes, and realize the wonder and excitement before you every day.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

She took pictures of buildings that I now call ordinary.  She took pictures of palm trees.  She took a picture of me, driving on the right-hand side of the car.  She took a lot of pictures, and now when I see them, I think, these are far from ordinary.

Driving around Kota Kinabalu... tourist snapshots!

Driving around Kota Kinabalu… tourist snapshots!

Each place has its wonder, that doesn’t have to wear off; or at least, it can be rekindled.  An apartment building can be amazing in its weaving of culture, architecture, personal styles, and frankly, laundry.  It’s all there waiting to be beheld.

Yet at the end of the day, it was this picture that captured the spirit of the day:

Family, together.

Family, together.

We all want to come home, somehow, whether it’s to a familiar place, or to the arms of family.  This moment between our homesick son and his newly arrived Nana gave a context, a grounding, for all the other pictures.  Places have meaning because of what they tell us about ourselves or one another, and today this city of ours was a place where we embraced and were embraced.  All the memories we share, the wonders we behold, have meaning to us because they are how we connect to our world and one another.  We aren’t collecting images, we are finding life together.