Back in the Beij!!

“You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.” -Heraclitus of Ephesus

Finally, (FINALLY!) back in Beijing, where everything feels the same but different at the same time.

I arrived so late at the Beijing airport that the airport shuttle was no longer running. But I’m one lucky gal because my friend, known to me as Anne in NYC but known as Qiong in Beijing, drove all the way across Beijing to pick me up. I met Qiong on Craigslist, of all places, while looking for a Mandarin language partner in NYC. We met at a Starbucks in Union Square and became fast friends. She was still in NYC when I was in Beijing last year, and I always hoped that we’d meet again in Beijing. As soon as I walked out I saw her standing there, and I ran over and gave her a huge hug. This was just the beginning of many, many favors that she and many others would generously give me.

It was too late for me to move into my apartment so Anne, I mean, Qiong, dropped me off to stay with Alex and Garth where there were more hugs and happiness. It actually felt like I had never left. Even though it was late, Alex and Garth took me out for my favorite Beijing meal, chuanr and tsing dao (aka lamb kabobs and giant bottles of beer.) I was practically giddy as we sat in the old hutong catching up on the past year.

My short term goals for thew first few days were to get my apartment, get a bicycle, get a cell phone, and get an appointment with my advisor.

The next day I planned on taking a cab over to the university, but, as much as I hated to ask, I decided it would be best if I had Qiong there to guide me. Again, she drove across the city, picked me up, and took me over to Renmin where my other little hero met me, Lihui. I had only corresponded with Lihui over email. She is a masters student in urban planning who was appointed the dubious honor of showing me around. She had found me the apartment and has been looking after me constantly since we met.

The apartment, by the way, can be described at best as very Chinese and at worst as very scary. The Renmin area has an extremely high demand for apartments. Most masters students sleep FOUR to a tiny room with nothing but a top bunk and a desk below to call their own. So I was technically I’m lucky to have a spacious room with a double bed and a garden balcony despite the water stained 70s tile, shower that requires turning 5 knobs and igniting gas, a toilet with no seat or lid and a kitchen with no over and a stove that’s out on the porch for aeration. (I’m relegated to eating out or cooking instant noodles in my room.) Like I said, I’m technically one of the lucky ones. And on the bright side, the roommates have been extremely sweet to me (which places this apartment ahead of my first one at UCI.)

Qiong looked over the contract and agreed that I could tough it out in the short-term. She also generously gave me bedsheets, pillows, towels, a hair dryer, an old cell phone, and electric tea kettle saving me considerably from buying these things. She and Lihui next guided me through buying my bicycle (it’s also pretty dubious but will be fine for 3 months) and a sim card for my phone.

I’m starting to think that maybe I’m not such a great traveler after all, and that maybe my real skill lies in inserting myself in such desperate situations that people have to help me!

There was one last thing on my to-do list and that was to meet with my advisor. I had been having difficulty getting in touch with Renmin professors via email over the summer, and I was feeling incredibly nervous not knowing that to expect. Would they be very strict? Would they think my project was poor? Would they be too busy? Would I accidentally say something disrespectful? If I hadn’t been renting the world’s sketchiest toilet, I might have made myself sick with worry. Lihui assured me that they were extremely nice and that the professors are like family. This was so far from my own experience with professors and even further from my expectation of authoritarian Chinese professors that I couldn’t take her seriously. Lihui, contacted the professors herself and set up a meeting for me. She told me that my advisor was the nicest of them all.

I waited outside the meeting room when I saw a slightly awkward woman heading right towards me. We looked at each other and she introduced herself as my advisor with a shy smile and apologies for her English. She then said that she read over my proposal and thought that it sounded very important. I somehow resisted throwing my arms around her on the spot as I breathed a sigh of relief. We went into the office and the chair of the department joined us. They said the first thing that needed to be done was to select the sites for the research based on the project, but also based on their own connections since information is very difficult to obtain in China. For the next 90 minutes, I was completely stunned as they looked over maps and books, made phone calls, called another professor into the office, and went online to find a good research site for me. Never in my life had I received so much attention from academics. It actually made me very nervous since I’m still unsure how the research will turn out. By the end, we had some sites picked out and I had my first assignments, to go visit a site and to develop the survey I will administer. The three professors had been conversing in Mandarin and I was struggling to follow them, although I could get the gist since I understood the situation’s context.

At one point one of them asked if I could follow the conversation. I said, cha bu duo, more or less, but there was one word they kept saying, “feng” which I thought meant wind and which made no sense to me. They all started laughing as they explained that “feng” was a person’s name.

In addition to making my way through my to-do list, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the highly developed neighborhood and spending time with the masters students who mostly speak good to excellent English. I attended a lecture by Dr. Ian Hodge from Cambridge on land use economics.. Not only was it a very interesting lecture by a worldclass urban economist, (urban planning geeks should look him up- he explained a lot about how U.S. taxes incentivize development no matter how much we plan for smart growth or UGBs), but it was also fascinating to observe the Chinese students. They were completely unafraid to ask questions, and most of the questions were asked by the women in the audience.

My time here already feels different because I’m spending so much time with Chinese people instead of foreigners like I did last time. It’s actually really cool. One problem is that it’s hard for me to remember Chinese names. Most students have an English name, but I insist in trying to use their Chinese name out of respect and give them my Chinese name. So for the next three months I guess I will be Luo Lan.


September 8, 2010. Uncategorized. 2 comments.

I think I’m turning Japanese

Mono no aware 物の哀れ, literally, the pathos of things, a sensitivity of ephemera; Japanese term used to describe the awareness of mujo or the transience of things and a bittersweet sadness at their passing.

Mom, click on the link below with the mouse to see photos.
TakayamaAfter Tokyo, I headed to the Japanese Alps in hopes of seeing some of Japan’s famous nature and escaping the unbearable Tokyo heat. It was also my first opportunity to ride one of Japan’s famous trains. The train to Takayama isn’t the bullet train, but it’s still far nicer than any Amtrak I’ve taken. But, as mentioned before, I couldn’t believe it lacked wireless.
The Japanese Alps were beautiful, although honestly, they’re not that different from Europe’s Alps. They attract skiers in the winter and lots of hikers in the summer. I was surprised by how many hikers there were, and surprised that at least half of the hikers were in their 50s and 60s. They’re also super decked out in outdoor gear. Everyone seemed to have the latest in camping gear and were overprepared, even sporting gaitors despite the fact that there was no snow.

I, on the other hand, was underprepared. I had brought warm clothes and a tarp for hiking Mt. Fuji, but hadn’t planned on camping out in the alps. Fortunately, there are mountain huts and lodges, like in Europe, so I just planned on staying at one of them. I made a reservation at one, but when the bus from the Takayama train station dropped me off at the alps, there were a few hours of daylight left, and I decided to hike though the valley to a lodge a few miles away. I joined a lovely couple as a hiked, he was a Canadian in the oil business, she was an Indian attorney, they met and currently lived in Dubai, and they had plenty of interesting travel stories and made perfect hiking companions. They were very well prepared and planned on spending several days hiking and camping. When we finally arrived at the lodge where I planned to stay, we were greeted by an attractive, stately looking lodge furnished with antiques. But when I tried to book a room, they were all filled. It was getting dark so I asked if I could rent a tent for the night. They wanted $90 for a tent for one night. I tried to negotiate, but this just seemed to irritate the clerk even more. There was no way anyone was going to try and rent that tent that night, and there was no way I was paying that much to rent a tent for one night. “That’s crazy” I said, and with those words came the first and only time I managed to rile up a local. “not crazy! Not crazy!” The clerk snapped. I’m not sure if something related to mental illness and its heavy stigma triggered the outburst, but i apologized repeatedly. But it WAS crazy he wouldn’t negotiate, and I can be stubborn too. So I paid him $5 for a campsite and intended to sleep under the stars on my mat (despite the lightening in the distance.) I also had planned on eating at the lodge, but they wouldn’t let me since I was only camping. It was definitely my fault for not making a reservation at this lodge, but there was a kitchen right there serving hot food, and it seemed ridiculous not to allow me to purchase some food. (I learned other lodges in the area did not have this policy of barring campers from ordering food from the kitchen.) I finally managed to get an instant pack of ramen noodles from the kitchen, and the Dubai couple was generous enough to cook it on their camping stove for me. Needless to say I was mortified at the situation I got myself in, but this stuff just happens when you travel, and fortunately there are more good guys than bad guys out there to help out.
It was a cold night on my tarp, even with my Mt. Fuji clothing andf a borrowed jacket. Still, I slept well enough, and the next day I went hiking with my new friends for most of the day. Most of the other hikers were Japanese, and they bowed slightly and greeted us with “konichiwa” as we passed. I was clearly not prepared for a few days out there, so at sunset I took the bus back down to Takayama. Again, I lacked any lodging reservations, but I tried my luck at a Buddhist Temple that took in travelers. They had a Japanese room (futon bedding on the floor, rice paper doors, a pretty garden, and a special mediation room. This was the first of many, many, many temples I would soon see. IN fact I had been warned that it would be easy to be “templed to death” in Japan. (so true.) Some of the temples were interactive encouraging you to drop a coin, clap your hands and make a wish, or touch a statue. My favorite was a statue of a bull that if you touched would take on your burdens.The temple that I stayed at in Takayama had a cleansing mediation to teach appreciation for light and sight. I descended down a stairwell into the darkest hallway I’ve ever entered in my life. I felt the hallway narrow, and I couldn’t detect so much as a photon, just pure blackness all around and a sense of claustrophobia. Just as I was about to turn around and possibly scream, I found the lock that you were supposed to find and soon made my way out.

The next day in Takayama, I wandered around a long walk filled with many, many temples, and then biked around the town. Takayama is a bit touristy, but all the tourist shops serve local foods and pass out samples and I enjoyed trying the different sweets and meat skewers. The area is especially famous for its beef. Up until now, I must confess I was actually disappointed in Japanese food. It was good, but honestly, it wasn’t that different from sushi or noodles I’ve had in New York or California. But Japanese beef is another story. I had been warned that eating beef in Japan pretty much ruins you for beef elsewhere, and I hate to say that it’s true. The local Hida and Kobe beef are simply amazing and unlike anything that can be obtained in the U.S.
Takayama and the alps are also famous their onsen (hot springs) which are probably heavenly in the fall and winter but seemed hellish in August. So sadly I missed out on the outdoor onsen experience. Still, Takayama was a welcome respite from the city and I was ready to head to Kyoto.


I must confess that until I came to Kyoto, I wasn’t really feeling Japan. The food wasn’t very different from Japanese food I had elsewhere, Tokyo is cool but it’s not terribly different from New York or any other big city, (an American teaching in Japan told me Tokyo is Japan like Tijuana is Mexico.) Kyoto is my kind of city. It has posh restaurants, hip neighborhoods, mixed in with working and middle class homes. It had hypermodern architecture, traditional architecture, and ancient temples literally everywhere throughout the city. I had a wonderful wandering through old temples, hanging out in the hip Gojin area, biking along the river, and shopping at the market. I stayed at a tiny ryoken which are kinda like Japanese B&Bs. An absolutely adorable Japanese grandmotherly type woman ran the place I stayed at. It was a very old home and I stayed in a small room with the special bamboo mats, futon bedding on the floor, a Japanese style bath, Japanese robe and a view of the Tokyo tower from the window. I couldn’t have been happier. By now I was really liking Japan which brings me back to my previous point about appreciating Japan is more about appreciating the subtle nuances and beauty in the architecture, in the presentation of the food, in the fabric of the kimonos. Its this simple elegance that has inspired so many artists, architects and even the deisgn of the ipod. I spoke with an ex-pat who lived in Japan for several months, and he confirmed my impression. He said that after living there he just felt more relaxed and peaceful since people and the city just seem to flow. Even after just 10 days in Japan I felt that sense of zen relaxation and peacefulness.

I’m glad I saw Japan, but I felt a little sad that I really only skimmed the surface. I’ve been to other cities and countries for short trips, but still felt like I could get a good feel for a place after just a few days. I don’t feel that way at all about Japan. The changing of seasons is extremely important in Japan, and I’m a little sad that, at least for now, I can’t experience an onsen in winter or cherry blossoms in spring. Part of the Japanese love for cherry blossoms’ fleeting bloom comes from the “mono non aware” aesthetic which finds sadness and happiness in the ephemeral nature of beauty. And so, as I type this on a plane that just whisked me away from Tokyo, I’m trying to appreciate the beauty of too short trip to Japan.


September 6, 2010. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.


Amae, which can be roughly translated as ‘depending on the benevolence of others,’ is a key concept for understanding Japanese.” -The Japanese Mind

(Typed on train from Tokyo to Tamayaka, but not posted on train. Why not? Because this “futuristic” society has less wi-fi than the average American coffee shop or Greyhound bus. So I had to post in the Buddhist Temple I stayed at, which was equipped with wi-fi.)

I’ve forgotten how difficult it is for me to blog on the road, especially since I tend to suffer from serious bloggorhea because I want to share every single detail from my travels with everyone who reads this (which, let’s face it, mostly consists of guys who typed in the search term “china girl” expecting very different results.)

So after three days in Tokyo, I can safely say that I’m no longer afraid of Japan. I forgot how a very large part of travelling is really just throwing yourself at the total mercy of total strangers, and the kind and overly- polite Japanese have risen admirably to the occasion giving me directions, waving me through subway exits when I lost the postage size exit ticket (yes i should have known better), or needed medical attention (more on that later.) I’ve had locals jump out of their restaurant chair, step off the subway onto the platform, or stop dead in their tracks to help me in the best English they can muster (which in Tokyo has been fairly impressive.) Once I’ve been rescued, there’s no probing questions about where I’m from etc. Instead the good samaritan bows out (often literally) of my life. I think this is a function of the general harmonious nature so often ascribed to the Japanese. Which leads me to my next massive generalization about an entire nation based on three whole days. Japan feels far less like some postmodern technological nightmare and more like a zen garden. From the architecture to the people, harmony reigns here. People who notice only the flashing neon lights and crowds of Tokyo might disagree. But to me, everyone seems to walk at a steady pace; I’ve yet to hear one person raise their voice to scream or even to laugh loudly. Many apartments– outside the dense, neon lit Tokyo downtown– surround the ground floor with often dozens of green potted plants (theft is extremely rare here I’ve been told), and tiny little temples are scattered throughout the city for quick prayers. I didn’t realize until I rented my own bike, but of Tokyo’s many, many cyclists, I never heard a bike bell ring once!

So what exactly have I been doing? Stepping into a new city for the first time is one of my favorite experiences, and my travel styles tends to be more semi-aimless wandering around than major site-seeing. I tend to delight more in little details like the exquisite department store bento boxes or all the gorgeous shoes that EVERYONE in Tokyo wears or the impressive subway that has yet to leave me waiting for more than a few minutes. So here’s my itinerary.

Day 1
Woke up at 6 am and decided to walk a few miles to the famous Tsukuji fish market (tourist destination #1 and the world’s biggest sea food market). I’m staying in Asakusa which is a little far from the city center. It’s very quiet with narrow streets perfect for bicycling. At this house, I had the streets almsot to myself I passed a few tiny temples where one or two people bowed their head in prayer. And I even stumbled upon Lego’s headquarters. The Lego logo hung from an otherwise indistinguishable building. To my delight, when i peered inside I saw at the front desk two life size Lego figures. I walked for nearly two hours until I hit the fish market. It’s a mucky place on the water where fresh catch is auction off wholesale and loads of Japanese workers zip on mini carts to transport the catch to be packed inn styrofoam boxes. The market is also the top rated tourist destination because in the early morning you can stop by any of the teeny tiny restuarants for the freshest fish you can find. By 8am there was already a line and I waited about 15 minutes to sit at a counter big enough for 10 people. I had salmon and fatty tuna, and while it wasn’t the very best sush I’ve ever had, it certainly tasted fresh. Next I wandered over to Ginza, which is sort of like Tokyo’s 5th Avenue. The skyscrapers here are amazing and I must have seen the headquarters for most any famous Japanesec company you could think of. I stopped by the Sony headquarters where there latest gizomos are on display. AFter that, I headed to Senso-ji shrine, which is a big, boring temple. But behind the temple I discovered some prettty crazy-looking floats which I later learned were for Tokyo’s Carnivale (apparently japan had a big presence in Brazil and the parade is one of the biggest celebrations on Tokyo.) By
the temple was a touristy but fun market. As I wandered, a Japanese news crew poked a camera and microphone in my face and asked if the strength of the yen was affecting my spending. (Currency traders have been snapping up the yen making it extremely strong which sucks no only for tourists like me but for the Japanese who already have a hard time exporting their electronic good with the economic downturn.) Affordable accommodations and cheap meals can be found in Tokyo. Still, this is a city of world-class luxury and it is a bit of a pitty that most of that luxury is out of reach for me and probably 90% of the planet.
Afterwards I went to a little neighborhood of Kagurazaka which, according to Lonely Planet, “conjures up visions of geishas turning down cobbled alleys to tucked away ryotei.” Not quite. Still it’s an adorable neighborhood of tiny streets and chic shops and restaurants an gorgeous residential architecture that was fun to meander through. Finally, I went to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is one of the busiest metro stations in the world and it didn’t take me long to get lost. The station is connected to a department store and Japan’s department stores are known for the excellent food they sell in the basement so I went downstairs and witness all kinds of gorgeously prepared bento boxes and pastries. Japan’s pastries are on par with France’s which is shocked since most Asian countries have horrible pastries. I had a cream puff that in and of itself may have justified the trip. Once I made my way out Shinjuku station, I went to the government district on one side to look at some pretty impressive building, and the seedy “Time Square” like side on the other.

Day 2 I rented a bicycle, saw some great sites, and became hopelessly lost. I biked to Hama-Rikya Gardens which was a popular spot centuries ago for Japanese shogun. The tiny teahouse in the center once served Ulysesses Grant (randomly enough.) I absolutely adored it. The room had nothing but floormats and clear windows that opened up to the gardens. The matchka tea was served by lovely women in kimonos. It could have been touristy, but it felt so peaceful and perfect, it was definitely one of the trip’s highlights. Next, I biked to the Imperial Gardens and then biked through party-central Rongogonji and on to Shibuya. Shibuya is another extremely chic neighborhood where beautiful people in impossibly gorgeous clothes traipse around tiny streets lined with boutiques and restaurants. I was already several miles from Asakusa so I thought I turned around, but apparently I kept heading west. I ended up biking around almost the entire city for ten hours and not getting back until dark. I was exhausted, but on the plus side I got a good overview of Tokyo.
Day 3
So after biking around for ten hours, I returned, exhausted, and then spent the next 4 hours trying to get a contact out of my eye. I could feel it in there but it was suctioned to my eyeball, and I was having a complete meltdown while just wanting to go to sleep. I finally gave in and fell asleep with it inside. When I woke up the next morning, my eye was red, swollen, and worst of all, I couldn’t find my contact. I looked online and saw that sometimes contacts can get inside your eye. This was my absolute worst nightmare. Even scarier than going to Japan! I had the English speaking girl at the front desk write a note in Japanese. She directed me to an eyeglasses store where they sold contacts. There they referred me to an eye clinic. The language barrier should have made all of this impossible but with the note I had from the clerk, and the map I had from the eyeglass store, I eventually made it to the eye doctor. I was handed some forms to fill out (in Japanese of course. My Chinese actually helped since I could figure out name, date and some other things from the similar characters.) The doctor peered into my eyes ,and I tried not to hyperventilate as I imagined having to get a lobotomy to remove the contact lens which clearly had migrated to my frontal lobe by now. After five minutes, the doctor, in near perfect English, announced that there was no contact lens in my eye, just a corneal abrasion that he would write a prescription for some drops. I felt so relieved even though he charged me about $10 a minute for the five minute visit. (I had secretly hoped he had seen me on the evening news being interviewed about the exchange rate.)

I spent the rest of the day at Ueno park and Tokyo National Museum checking old Samurai swords and kimonos and such. And ended the day with a bath. The Japanese are crazy about their onsens (or hot mineral baths often pumped from far below.) Their are all types onsens everywhere. Unfortnately for me, Japan is disgusting hot, around 90 degrees. I’ve been srving but the last thing I want to do is go to a hot spring. But there is a very nice one in Tokyo that is very popular with the locals that is indoors. I gave it try.

Before entering, you need to select what type of bath you want from a vending machine. Onceyou get your ticket you present it inside. The baths are gender segregated. I went it a locker room and stored my clothes. Next,you clean yourself off in an open shower before entering the bath. Most Japanese are concerned that foreigners won’t clean themselves. In fat, a Japanese woman approached me and cheerily reminded me to scrub! I finally entered the bath an felt instantly relaxd. On the wall was a mural of Mt. Fuji with cherry blossoms. There were hot baths, and baths with jets and a cold bath. Women of all ages came and and just relaxed. Eye contact is avoided, so I was surprised when a woman and her adult daughter approached me. They said that in their english class their teacher asked for a photo of themselves with a foreigner. She laughed at my look of utter horror. She said that it would be OK if she just said where I was from. The onsen would have been perfect if were a cold night, but just the same it was a wonderful experience.

I decided not to climb Mt. Fuji upon the advice of multiple people, both Japanese and foreigners. I’ve heard that it’s super crowded with people, that there’s nothing interesting to see but volcanic ash, that even from the the top the view is obscured by clouds. So instead, I’m on a train heading to the Japanese Alps which are supposed to be lovely this time of year.

September 1, 2010. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Little Japan Girl

“I’m a mess without my little china girl. Wake up mornings, where’s my little china girl.” -David Bowie

(Typed on the plane, but posted in Tokyo)

It’s almost a year ago the date since I left China. I spent a fair amount of the past year talking nonstop about China to anyone and everyone and trying to figure out a way to get back. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have the opportunity to live out my dream of studying urban planning in Bejing. For the next few months, I’ll keep this blog so I can continue to talk nonstop to you about China even while I’m gone. But first… Japan.

While purchasing my ticket to Beijing, I fiddled with dates and discovered that for paying only a little bit extra I could stop over in Tokyo for ten days. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the chance to go, but the truth is, I’m actually terrified of Japan.

For some reason, it seems that everything I have read about Japan created a picutre in my mind of a futuristic nation of digerati with avant garde haircuts and wardrobes that could be awesome if it weren’t for the fact that they were all married to pillows.

And what if I starve to death because the Japanese are too busy feeding fake people instead of real people (like the Japanese couple who were too busy feeding their digital baby to feed their real baby.)

And what if when I do eat, it’s fugu, the Japanese delicacy of poisonous blowfish that makes your lips tingle if done rights, and kills if you prepared wrong.

And despite the fact that Tokyo is so safe that you’re more likely to be stomped by Godzilla than a victim of violence, the Japanese invented the vending machine costume so you canhide from your attackers. And if you’re not careful you might be able to hide next to one of Japan’s most notorious vending machines of them all.

Don’t even get met started on Haruki Murakami whose 600-plus page Wind Up Bird Chronicle can be summed as: a man can’t find his girlsfriend and then gets stuck in a well.

Sure America has its own weirdness. (Millions of armed citizens is arguable way stranger than a vending machine costume.) But I still think Japan beats us out. Our slovenly hipsters look practically button-ed up next to the creepy cute Japanese Gothic Lolitas. And our slacker twentysomethings (as chronicled in the recent, provocative NYTimes piece that villifies a generation who respond to the economic downtrun by eschewing adult responsibilties like marriage, mortgage and kids for other things, like grad school and extended excursions to Asian countries) pale in comparison to the Japanese hikikiomori, shut-ins who just give up on life and never leave their dark rooms. See! Even the Japanese are scared of Japan!

The list goes on. Still, I think doing things that scare you is really important, (unless you want to spend ten years of your life in your dark childhood bedroom on your parents’ Tokyo apartment.)

Plus, my trip has begun auspiciously. I was bumped to a direct, nonstop flight, given passes for breakfast and lunch, and switched from a middle to aisle seat. (Yay Delta.)

I’ll update more when I get a chance!


August 29, 2010. Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Malaysia Marathon Part 3: Little Borneo Girl

“A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.” -David Foster Wallace

I had a bad feeling.

My friend believes that when this happens to me, I am just setting myself up for self-fulfilling prophecy. But I like to think that I’m simply prophetic.

Perhaps my bad mood was also in part because the Malaysian cab driver ripped me off with a faulty meter on the way to the airport that morning, and yet still smiled and tried to shake my hand as I forked over the outrageous fare. (If you ever run into a Nur Zaidy driving a taxi in KL, do yourself and wallet a favor and wave down another cab.) Regardless, I had been worried about the trip since I booked it. I didn’t like the idea of traveling with strangers, and I had no idea what to expect. And even the sunny, unspoiled look of Borneo from the plane window failed to assuage my anxiety.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It consists of Indonesia, East Malaysia and the tiny country of Brunei. I felt like I wouldn’t really have seen Malaysia if I didn’t make an effort to see East Malaysia. I chose to go to the Malay state of Sarawak instead of Sabah for the soul reason that the flight was cheaper. Sabah is supposedly more isolated, but both are known for their incredible wildlife and native peoples.

I only had a few days in Sarawak so I signed up for a tour to stay with Native Iban people in their longhouse and a jungle hike. I was nervous signing up for a tour group alone, and, as I said, I couldn’t shake my bad feeling. I had a day to myself in the city of Kuching before heading out to the jungle, and I felt disappointed in the city. I suppose I was getting jaded of traveling around Malaysia so quickly. Kuching is reputedly a nice city, but to me it looked like every Malay city I had seen with a Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Quarters. With the exception of an interesting museum, I felt bored and irritable walking around the same sites all alone.

I searched for an internet cafe when a young, hip Chinese man invited me into his cafe. I stepped inside and was greeted by a cafe made to look just like the inside of a Longhouse with bamboo and ratan walls and floors. The other travelers there were young and friendly, and I spent an afternoon relaxing, drinking tea, and watching The Simpsons and Chinese soap operas. It was exactly what I needed.

The next day, I was picked up at my hotel by a minivan and was greeted by my guide, Valentine, a short Native fluent in English, Malay and Iban, who had grown up in the longhouse and jungle, and who would serve as my guide. We drove to another hotel to pick up the two other travelers who would be joining me. I saw a man who bore a striking resemblance to Hulk Hogan with his daughter who looked like Barbie. Later, I found out she was actually his girlfriend who was younger than half his age. They were Dutch, and they were charming and friendly in that particularly Dutch way, (ie. not at all.) To be fair, they were nice enough and polite, but nothing more, which contrasted sharply with the Malays’ gregariousness. They both spoke English well, as they had to understand our guide’s accented English, but at our meals they conversed in Dutch while I ate my food in silence.

Our first stop was the Orang Utan rehabilitation center for the morning feeding. We trekked for a few short minutes along the center’s rain forest trail before encountering a small crowd of people peering into the jungle. In the distance, an absolutely enormous Orang Utan was perched on a platform eating bananas. Behind him we could see a few orangutans swinging from the trees. The sight astounded me. I felt I had seen orangutans in the zoo or on The Discovery Channel, so I wasn’t overly excited to see them at the center. But in their natural habitat, they were very different. They gracefully maneuvered through the vines and limbs of the canopy. I was glad I had purchased the binoculars in KL so I could watch their facial expressions as they leisurely gnawed through their fruit while dangling upside down from a vine. We watched for half an hour until the big one left the feeding area. It was an incredible site to see the behemoth scale the tree into the canopy, and I could understand how orangutans were once mistaken for men. As we walked back, our guide said what I had been thinking, that orangutans in the wild look completely different than the ones I had seen at the zoo. Here they looked alive and engaged, the ones at the zoo just looked bored.

Our next stop was a market for supplies for the jungle and longhouse. It’s custom to bring a small gift for the Iban families in the longhouse. It looked to me as if there’s a small cottage industry built around longhouse gifts bought by tourists. There were several stores with gigantic bags filled with 30 or so individually wrapped packages The longhouse were were heading for was a large one with several families consisting of about 100 people. So it was custom to purchase a bag in individually packaged items so the families could easily divide the gifts. I sympathize with the families’ poverty, but I felt uncomfortable being dropped off a store by my guide and being told that I HAD to buy a gift (especially since the tour package wasn’t exactly cheap.) Still, I bought two large bags of candies for the families.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at a river where a handful of Ibans waited for us with longboats. The hand-carved longboats were quite long and narrow with a large hole in the rear for the motor. The government was slowly building more roads into the jungle, but river was still the primary form of transportation for the more isolated longhouses. I sat alone in a longboat while a man powered the motor and a small but tough-looking Iban woman stood in the front with a long pole to steer and push the boat out of shallow areas.

We sped quickly down the river for about 20 minutes until we slowed down in front of some dilapidated buildings which were to be my home for the next two nights. In the river, a few Ibans were washing clothes or trying to retain a bit of modesty as they bathed.

We exited the boats and ascended a steep river bank to reach the longhouse. This particular longhouse had actually split in half a few years ago. The families that did not want to entertain tourists left and built their own longhouse downstream. The longhouse that wanted tourists, or at least tourist dollars, stayed and built a special tourist longhouse with electricity and showers. Travelers looking for a more “authentic” (whatever that is) experience can elect to go to longhouses further away with no electricity and sleep on the longhouse floor with the Iban families. I was perfectly OK sleeping in a guest longhouse.

We were fortunate in that the rain had held off until we arrived, and then suddenly it poured. I was shown to my bed which was on a long platform sectioned off on three sides with wood paneling and mosquito netting in the front. The Iban people worked in the kitchen and prepared us an absolutely delicious dinner, left the plates out for us and then left. I was disappointed I didn’t have the opportunity to eat with them.

There were also four other travelers staying there that night. Two more Dutch people (of course) and two stylish Spanish travelers who didn’t speak a word of English accompanied by their translator, the only other person there willing to speak English with me, but couldn’t since he was hired to speak Spanish. At dinner I sat in the middle between the Dutch speakers and the Spanish speakers, breaking out my rusty Spanish to try and converse. They were much nicer and more interesting than the Dutch couple, and remarkably tolerant of my slow Spanish peppered with the occasional Chinese word or phrase.

After dinner, we were invited into the main longhouse where the Iban lived. The Ibans present that night were mostly the very old or the very young. The children were sent away to government boarding schools to be educated, and many families had children studying at prestigious colleges on scholarship or working jobs in the city. The entire front width of the longhouse is one giant room resembling a unfurnished wooden work shed. Women sat on the wooden floor weaving ratan mats. Some of the old men sat in a circle playing games or smoked by the doorway watching the rain. On the back wall, doors led to the families’ private quarters, which we were not allowed to enter. Judging by the size of the longhouse, the back quarters were quite large. And judging by the occasional glimpse caught by an opening door, some of the rooms were quite modern with sports posters on the walls, couches, and tvs.

As we toured the long front room, and our guide pointed out the chief, a wiry, old man of about 88 who inherited his position (although some tribes elect their chiefs.) He also introduced us to the shaman, another wiry old man who smiled and gave me the thumbs up when I said I was from America. I asked the guide to ask the chief if he knew who Barack Obama was. The chief said no. He watches tv but cannot understand the language. I told the guide that perhaps the chief would be interested to learn that the president of the U.S. was educated in Indonesia. The guide replied that he couldn’t explain that to the chief, and that he wouldn’t understand it if he tried.

The chief took out his large heavy earrings for us to hold. (They were quite heavy!) The elongated earlobe is desirable and some women are considered more marriageable the longer their lobes are stretched. Finally, the chief took out a symbol for which the Iban’s have gained worldwide notoriety- a knife used by his great grandfather for headhunting. It was (allegedly) covered in human hair, and our guide pointed to a human skull hanging from the ceiling. (As I said, I was jaded by then, and I’m not really sure what to believe.) The guide then embarassed me by saying that once a bunch of Americans backed out of a tour at the last minute, because they were genuinely afraid of losing their heads. Headhunting arose as a way of resolving territorial disputes and hasn’t occured for over a century.

After the tour, it was time for the native dance. The chief, another man, and two women dressed themselves in native costumes and stood before us. A few women entered the main room from their private rooms, some in pajamas, to play the instruments.

I had expected tribal drumming and was surprised to hear a gorgeous haunting melody of bells. The Iban chief stepped forward and performed a slow strange dance, twirling his arms and hands slowly in the air and stepping gingerly along the floor. Next the other man danced alone for a minute. Then one of the young women stepped forward to slowly dance, and I heard the Spanish guide whisper that she was in “el tranceo.” Perhaps she was. But to me, her face had the same bored expression of an animal in a zoo.

After they danced, we were, to my utter horror, “invited” to get up and dance. I informed my guide that I don’t do dancing, but I was told it would be rude not to. A feathered hat was placed on my head, and I danced in a circle while my guide took pictures and I suppressed a nervous laughter at the sheer absurdity of it all.

One the dancing was finished, we were told to present out gifts to the chief and pose for a photo, and, finally, the ceremony was over. We sat down with the chief and some other Ibans while the women took the gifts and divided the candies into small piles so that every family had an equal share. Most of them then went to bed, finished with their “work” for the night.

While we sat, bottles of homemade rice wine and rice alcohol were brought out, and we all began taking shots. I had been informed the local brew was quite strong, but after several drinks I didn’t feel a thing. Our guide kept pouring me shots, and while it clearly had an effect on him, I must have been less sensitve than the Ibans.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Hulk Hogan had brought a few six pack of Tiger beer and was challenging the chief to a “Tiger juice” drink off. I was once again doing my best to muster up all my Spanish skills and insinuate myself with the Spanish speakers while our now utterly wasted guide thought it was an appropriate time to inform me how attractive he thought I was and kept touching my shoulders and knees, reminding me where his mosquito net platform was and generally repulsing me.

The next day, I really wanted to to go off with the Spanish group, but it wasn’t really an option. I was feeling annoyed by my Dutch traveling partners and extremely annoyed with my guide, but I had no choice but to head into the jungle with the trio.

Our guide continuously referred to the jungle as the Iban’s ‘Supermarket,” which sounded silly but I came to realize was quite accurate. I was actually incredibly impressed as our guide stopped every three steps to point to a plant or pluck a leave and explain its medicinal or culinary purpose. He made it look so easy, but at a certain point I fell behind the group, and without the guide, all I could see were green leaves. At a certain point in the jungle, someone had set up traditional Iban hunting traps which were right out of Indian Jones. They were made with simple materials but a demonstration proved that they were incredibly effective at capturing and killing prey.

I had hoped to see more wildlife, but many of Borneo’s animals are quite rare and require some deep trekking with no promise that you’ll see anything. Borneo is home to the world’s largest flower, and the sun bear, which I would have loved to see, but even our guide had never seen one.

After the jungle trek, we took a boat to another longhouse. This one was not equipped for overnight visits. It seemed poorer and was constructed without a single nail. Again, we sat in the longhouse awkwardly while our guide spoke Iban and caught up on local gossip. He also recruited a few Ibans to prepare our lunch, which was probably the highlight of my trip (as food always seems to be on my travels.)

We took the longboats to a small rocky island in the middle of the river, and I sat quietly while the Ibans prepared the feast. They began preparing a large fire and hacking giant bamboo. The hollow bamboo served as cups for us for more rice wine. Other pieces of hollow bamboo were stuffed with rice wrapped in a leaf, or with meat seasoned with freshly picked herbs wrapped in a leaf. They were then filled with water and placed over the pit to steam in the bamboo.

I would have liked to interact with the Ibans, but they stayed together and largely ignored us, so I continued to sit quietly. My guide, who seemed quite nervous that I wasn’t enjoying myself kept pestering me and asking me if I was OK. He then launched into a pedantic lecture on how you need to enjoy life and every moment, which is the last lesson I wanted too hear from a man I was paying to guide me. If I had wanted to merely enjoy myself, I would have stayed home with my friends and not ventured to the Borneo jungle.

Lunch was served to me, Hulk and Barbie while the Ibans sat to the side and talked among themselves. I finally realized that they were waiting for us to finish so they could eat our leftovers. I appreciated the lack of waste, but it continued to set up the awkward dynamic between foreigner and Native.

On the ride back, Valentine continued to ask me how I was doing and generally annoy the heck out of me singing “Hello, Is it me you’re looking for? ‘Cause I wonder where you are. I wonder what you do. Let me start by saying, I love you.” Sitting in a longboat in the middle of a river in the jungle with an Iban singing Lionel Richie is one of those absurd travel moments that can send you down a spiral of self-doubt wondering why you didn’t just stay home with friends and instead chose to hang out with headhunters in the middle of the Borneo jungle for the soul reason that it sounded interesting.

We returned to the longhouse, and more guests (German and, of course, Dutch) had arrived. The evening repeated itself. Dinner in Dutch and Spanish with no Ibans followed by dancing in the longhouse, although I managed to avoid a repeat dance performance. This time I turned down the rice wine and headed to bed early.

The morning we were to leave, they had two more activities set up. First, we had the opportunity to use a blow pipe, which, like the orangutans, ended up being much cooler than I had expected. A college professor once blew one in class for us, but using one was totally different. I was embarrassingly bad at it, but I was impressed by how a small puff of air into a pipe constructed completely from jungle materials, along with some highly skilled aiming, was all that was required to effectively kill something or someone.

The last activity was a watered-down cockfight. I might have been more sympathy for the birds if not for the fact that they had woken me up at dawn for two mornings. For perhaps about two minutes, the cocks’ feathers were ruffled and they leapt into the air at each other as the Ibans goaded them. But the birds didn’t seem very interested in fighting and in a short time went their separate ways.

I had, fortunately, scheduled a flight that left that afternoon. Valentine handed us feedback forms that could be mailed or faxed, and he kept asking me if I could give it to him to hand in, and kept asking me if I had a good time. I didn’t. But that was never the goal really. I can safely say I had a very interesting time, which in the end is what I really wanted. Although for anyone heading to Borneo, I would recommend the overnight hike in the national parks over the longhouses.

Fortunately I can end this post on a positive note. As soon as I stepped on the plane, I felt relieved and excited to be returning soon to my beloved China. On the flight from Borneo to KL, I could tell the young Chinese Malay boy was curious about the foreign girl sitting next to him, but I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. About midway through the flight, he finally asked, “Where are you from?” We stared talking, and I practiced a little Chinese (although two weeks in Malaysia and two days speaking Spanish really killed my Mandarin.) He was actually very sweet and helped me with my bag as we left. I told him I was taking the bus back to KL for the night, and he told that it was a long ride and to wait a minute. He had been in Borneo on business and he asked his boss if I could ride in the company car back with them to KL. The boss, dressed in business casual, eyed me with my backpack and clothing fresh from the Borneo jungle, and said, “Sure, no problem.” Yay Malaysia!

July 30, 2009. Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Malaysia Marathon Part 2: Little Singapore Girl

Days 6-7 Singapore

“There is no dearth of talent on this Treasure Island which is Singapore, and compared to other less fortunate areas of Asia, we are favored children under the sun with our comparatively high standard of living and working freely in a stimulating multiracial society and cosmopolitan atmosphere of relative peace.” -Chendana, from “Woodprints in Singapore,” 1996

So I don’t now about you, but up until recently, when I thought of Singapore, I thought of an impeccably clean city that where you can’t chew gum but you can ge t your butt caned. This image changed somewhat for me after I read a New Yorker article on Singapore street food. The author writes that Singapore is renowned for its ‘hawkers,” small street food stands throughout the city. When he arrives in Singapore he tell his cab driver that he wants to sample Singapore street food, the driver offers to take him to all his favorite places throughout the city. The driver proceeds to take him around to all his favorite places every day for an entire week, and at the week’s end, the driver says there were still so many places they hadn’t tried. An absolute must-read for foodies!

I was intrigued by the article, but I had trouble picturing a city full of hawkers. Were they on the street corner or sidewalk like a hot dog stand? It wasn’t until I arrived and quite foolishly attempted to recreate that experience for myself, that I really understood Singapore street food, cab drivers, and, finally, that no matter how prepared you are for an impeccably clean and modern city, it still surprises.

After a short flight from Langkawi, I landed in Singapore and woke up just in time for the flight attendant to announce sternly that drug traffickers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (re: death. So don’t say you weren’t warned!) I took the impeccably clean subway to Little India, but couldn’t find my hotel. My pack was heavy, it was hot, and finally out of frustration I hopped in a cab. The driver asked me where I was from. I asked if he was from Singapore and he said, of course, that legally cab drivers had to be from Singapore because they all knew the city so well (which I found funny since in the U.S. it’s practically mandated that cab drivers are not American.) After a few minutes, we arrived back where he had picked me up. I felt a little better knowing I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find it, but the driver was mortified. Amazingly, he shut off the taxi meter at $4 and vowed that he would get me to my destination no matter what as it was his “duty.” We took a few more turns around the block and passed a large market under a tent. I asked the driver if locals ate there, and he said they did. Bingo!

The driver got me there and refused to charge me more than $4. (A Malay later told me that the Singapore government rewards taxi drivers if people write in with enough compliments. Bloomberg, are you listening?)

After some more freakishly nice service at my hotel, (grabbing my bag from me as soon as I walked in and pouring me water and generally falling over themselves to help someone who wasn’t paying more than $15 her room,) I headed straight for the market I passed in the cab and got my first glimpse of food hawkers.

I walked in and there were little stands selling all different types of food including Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Korean, Chinese, and Muslim, and people ate at tables in the center. Honestly, it didn’t look unlike a mall’s foodcourt without the Pizza Hut. After only a few steps a man approached me and asked if I wanted to try some 1) Fish Briyani $2.50 SPD, a traditional Malay dish. Sure, why not. The drink attendant rushed over and took my order for ginger tea $1.30 SPD while the first man dished some out for me and sat down with me.
Hello, where are you from?
I’m American.
Oh, do you know Michael Jackson?
Um… no.
Awkward attempts at conversation aside,, the fish briyani was pretty good. He showed me a newspaper clipping by his stand of Singapore’s president eating some of his fish briyani.

I gradually figured out that certain stands had famous reputations and would often display articles or awards on their stands including the Singapore Live to Eat Award and the Green Book Award. I have no idea what these awards really mean except that the food must be good, and so I began a game where whenever I saw a stand with an award for Best something, I would order it.

I next ordered what turned out to be one of my favorite Singaporean dishes, a 2) banana prata $2.00SPD from a stand with a Best Pratas award and washed it down with a mango lassi. And I couldn’t leave without sampling the award-winning 3) Soto Ayam $3.00SPD- a light and spicy noodle soup with buttery, melt-in-your-mouth fish. It was the best fish I’ve ever had in my life.

I was full. Uncomfortably full. Like the first five minutes after Thanksgiving dinner is over and you kinda want to puke full. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I vowed that I would spend my time in Singapore walking so I could see the city, get some badly needed exercise, stumble on some more hawkers, and continue to eat Singapore’s award-winning food.

Like KL and most Malaysian cities, Singapore has a Little India, Chinatown, and famous mosques. I wandered around Little India which the NYTimes dubbed too touristy, but I loved the colorful sari shops, the Indian food, and the hindu temples. Little India is also known for being the “bad part of town,” but I found that absurd. I tried on a sweatshirt in an inexpensive store and stupidly left my camera behind (it was only a matter of time and it’s why I won’t buy a really fancy digital SLR even though I badly want one.) I didn’t notice until half an hour later. I was certain it was gone, but when I returned the clerk cheerily reached behind the counter and handed it to me. Yay Singapore.

I next walked to the Arab quarters which the NYTimes pronounced more hip and authentic than Little India, but which I found to be overly touristy. (Seriously, NYTimes Travel section has steered me wrong one too many times.) And I was annoyed because I was denied entry for the the THIRD time at a mosque because it was prayer time yet again, but again I was transfixed by the sound of the prayers chanting over the loudspeaker.

I stopped for some award-winning 4) Mee Robus $3.00 SPD another famous and very delicious Malaysian noodle dish. The sun had set but I continued my rambling past the largest fountain in the world in time to catch the light show and down to the super-touristy, overpriced, and generally nightmarish Quay, which I escaped through an alley that led me to more hawkers and some award-winning 5) Dry Mee Sua $3.00 SPD I walked to Singapore famous Chinatown and ate some warm, crumbly, and of course award-winning 6) Prawn Crackers $2.00 SPD which were delicious except they were made with the entire prawn and the little eyes peering at me from the cracker weirded me out. The Chinatown was quite big and had tons of hawkers, but my stomach couldn’t handle anymore so I went home to sleep and digest.

The next day, I continued to eat my way through Singpore including.
7) Da Lian Traditional Noodle $3.00 SPD with coffee
8) Cheese Prata $2.00SPD
9) Mutton Currry $3.00 SPD
10) Ice cream sandwich $1.00 SPD (It was actually ice cream served between two slices of bread so I had to try.)
11) Hot and Spicy Ban Mian $3.50 SPD
12) Kok Kee Wanton Noodle $3.50 SPD

In total, I ate some of the tastiest dishes I ever had for about $20 US.

Day 8-10 Melaka (aka Malacca)

“If you haven’t been to Melacca, you haven’t been to Malaysia.” -Malaysian saying

I made a planning error. I should have spent an extra day in Singapore instead of three days in the small town of Melacca. But in travel as in life, you win some and you lose some. There are definitely worse places to spend an extra day than a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it was probably best for my stomach that I got away from Singapore when I did!

Melacca is a large city of over a million people. As the bus pulled in, it looked like a generic Malaysian city full of cars and strip malls and looking generally unexciting. I was disappointed until I took the cab to the old city, just a few streets that constitute the World Heritage site and some of the most interesting architecture and history in Asia.

I arrived in a town of narrow cobblestone streets lined with Portuguese style buildings with old traditional Chinese characters written on them. It’s a unique architectural style from Portuguese and Dutch and Chinese Malays. This unique culture and people is known as Baba Nyonnya. The town has become quite touristy, but the architecture remains impressive. As I walked around I felt like I was in some bizarro European village with Chinese signs populated by Malays.

The guidebook said three days was necessary for Melacca, but one was more than enough. I had agreed to meet Molly there on the third day so I had to stay put, relax and make the best of it. For three days I wandered around the small town, indulging in a massage and having my feet treated by “Dr. Fish.” Dr. Fish originated in Singapore. They are little fish that like to eat dead skin cells, and so if you dip your feet in the water they exfoliate them. I had tried this before In Beijing, but this time I actually kept my feet in. And it really worked!

Finally, with the Malays being Malays, I was never alone for long. A number of people around town chatted me up. Some with worthwhile conversations, some that I had trouble getting a word into to excuse myself.

My favorite was a lovely antique dealer named Lee Ching. We ended up talking for over an hour about more than just small talk. She was incredibly smart and fascinating to talk about Malaysian history, and she just seemed like a nice person. She explained what some her antiques were including a fish trap and an opium pillow, talked about her career as a professional baker and as a consultant for Kenny Rogers’s fast food chain (See, “Kenny Rogers is Big In Malaysia.”) She also told me about her American-born Chinese grandfather who who migrated to Malaysia. She said she was grateful he died right before the Japanese invaded, since he would have been tortured for his American heritage. Afterward, I mentioned her to my hotel manager who said that Lily Ching was a very good woman who you could trust to buy antiques from. (And I felt a little better about my instincts. It’s always hard to know who to trust on the road.)

I also met Stanley Ho, a local artist. I waked into his beautiful studio and spoke a little Chinese to him. He was so pleased that he invited me in for some tea and to tell me his life story. He showed me how he had lost most of his teeth because he didn’t sell a painting for six years. He showed me where he had slept on the floor, until one day, his paintings one first prize in a Malay contest. He said he cried whent hey gave him 6000 rinngits because he had never seen so much money. Now his paintings hang in the Petronas towers.

Finally, a group of Malays sitting outside invited me to join them and bought me a beer. One of the guys was particularly chatty and he bragged about the group’s diversity as a reflection of Malaysia. There were six of them including Malaysian, Indian and Chinese descent, as well as Hindu, Christian and Muslim. The Malay told me to tell the world that Malays are more advanced than anyone realizes, and they’re not all living in trees like the rest of the world says. (So here I am telling “the world.”)

He’s right. Malaysia is the forgotten middle child of Southeast Asia. Thailand has tourism, Vietnam has its veterans, even Cambodia has Angelina Jolie. But when I told someone I was going to Malaysia, they asked me if ti was north or south of China.

As illustrated by that group of Malays, Malaysia is know for its diversity and they take pride in being a melting pot. But I came to realize that there’s still a lot of racial and religious tension within the country. There are regulations known as “sons of soil” policy that certain companies must hire 30% of their staff as Malays, in part, because the Chinese are so successful in business. Many Chinese Malays also identify more strongly with being Chinese than Malay, and apparently if a Chinese marries a Muslim, they must convert to Islam under the law (or so I was told.) One Malay man I spoke with said that when he’s with his wife at home he doesn’t drink or eat pig. But when he’s not there he can drink. This arrangement actually struck me as strange, but he said that’s how everyone in Malaysia get along. By minding their own business and opinions.

In Melacca, there is a street known as Harmony street because Chinese temple, a Hindu temple, and a Mosque are all with a few hundred yards of each other. Each was old and beautiful. In the Chinese temple, I engaged in a ritual where you shake a container of sticks and whichever stick pops out tells your future. My future was not a good one, probably because I’m not a Chinese Buddhist. (Later that day, I bought a bookmark written in spectacular Chinese calligraphy by a woman with no hand. She said it was good luck. So take that Chinese temple.)

The Hindu temple was by far my favorite!! I loved its bright colors, the costumes of the temple members, and the wild, joyful music they played when the ceremony began. It was the first Hindu ceremony I had every see and I was completely transfixed.

Finally, I visited Melacca’s mosque when Molly and her coworkers were in town. We walked in and admired the architecture. As we walked out, a Muslim man walked by me, and I stopped and stared completely astounded by what I saw. There on Harmony Street, this man walked into the mosque wearing an Osama bin Laden t-shirt. I froze and then angrily turned around. Molly’s co-worker, a young Chinese Malay who wants to study in the U.S., gently steered me outside and whispered to just keep walking, which I did.

July 17, 2009. Uncategorized. 1 comment.

Maylasia Marathon Part 1: Little Malaysia Girl

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

As the travel portion of my travel blog begins, I’ve been terribly remiss in posting. I’ve been too busy packing as much in as I can in a short time, and jotting down notes on flights and buses when I can. In the past two weeks I feel I’ve had enough new experiences to fill a book. My only regret is that I will never be able to convey the incredible array of experiences I’ve had living in a Muslim country, hiking through jungles, playing with monkeys, island hopping, eating some of the best food on the planet, meeting a diverse population of Malays, Indians, Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians, and mostly just encountering a world I had no idea existed. (And my only fear is that I will succeed in getting it all down, and bore everyone half to death in doing so!)

So, Malaysia in two weeks without a single post. A marathon trip begets a marathon blog post. Here we go!

Days 1 and 2: Kuala Lumpur: Bright Lights, Big City

As I wrote before, my selection of Malaysia as my destination had a lot more to do with the fact that I had a friend living here than anything else, so I had no idea what to expect. When I landed in KL and hopped in a cab to Molly’s apartment, I experienced a bit of a culture shock. I had grown accustomed to Beijing and its beloved grittiness, and KL looked extremely modern and surprisingly western as we sped by shiny skyscrapers, highways, and a monorail. I felt as if I had left Asia behind and landed somewhere in the year 2020.

One line to Dartmouth’s song reads “round the girlded earth they roam, her spell on them remains.” I can’t tell you how many random places I’ve come across Dartmouth alums- Beijing, Alaska, and Honduras, to name a few- and now I was lucky to be greeted in this strange new city with a big hug from Molly. Even though it was was after midnight, and Molly needed to be up at 7, she stayed awake to give me some maps, guidebooks, and advice; connect me to the internet; and basically take far better care of me than a couch-surfing college buddy deserves.

Molly is working in KL with several other MIT B-school classmates for the summer. She lives in a gorgeous modern apartment with views of the Petronas towers. I had been a little nervous about KL, but I immediately felt right at home, curled up on her big, comfy couch, and fell asleep.

The next day I woke up (late, of course) grabbed Molly’s map and just walked around, where I learned my first lesson. KL is not a highly walkable city. I walked along the road as cars zipped by gazing at the enormous modern buildings amid the palm trees. I didn’t feel like I was in Asia at all. It felt more like a city that Florida or California wish they had, if they could only purge all the awful 70s architecture, litter, and bums.

I headed towards the Petronas Towers, although I had little desire to go inside because, first, obtaining ticket involves getting up early, and second, two, a pair of tall towers will always have negative associations in my mind. Still, their stainless steel exteriors loomed attractively in the distance, and I headed towards them.

Before the towers lies a clean, modern park where I learned my most important lesson about Malaysia. Malaysians are freakishly friendly. They have no problem waking right up to you with their quintessential greeting for foreigners. “Hello! Where are you from?!” Now, I generally try to blend in wherever I go, but since a white American girl only has so many options for Malaysian assimilation, I chose to embrace my tourist role and walked around KL that day in a wide-brimmed straw hat. It was perfect for the relentless sunshine but definitely attracted attention. As I walked through the park and throughout the city, people looked at me and said, “Hello! Where are you from?” When I responded I was American and from NYC, many asked me for my phone number and email address so they would have someone to hang out with in case they ever came to America (I generally gave out email and withheld the phone number.) One girl even invited me to her home to talk to her sister who was leaving to study in NYC. This was after talking to her for 3 minutes!

I didn’t know how to react to this friendliness. Generally, it was wonderful, especially for a solo traveler, but after four years living in NYC, I’m accustomed to avoiding eye contact on the subway and the street, and generally distrusting strangers. So often when a Malay tapped me on the shoulder, I’d grab my bag, eye them suspiciously, and then feel bad about it. On countless occasions I benefited greatly from Malaysian kindness.

After the Petronas towers, I hopped in a cab and then, on my first day in Malaysia after three months of living in Beijing, I asked to be taken to Chinatown.

I know, I know. But KL is known for its Chinatown as 30% of Malays are Chinese, and its Chinatown is known for its street food. Chinatown was much grittier and a bit more interesting than KL’s business district. It also had some good bargains, and I bought a very decent pair of binoculars for only $8 which have proven quite valuable in my travels. After Chinatown, I was looking at a mp for the famous National Mosque when a man on the street greeted me and asked me where I wanted to go. He was of Indian decent (as are 15% of Malays) and decided Little India should be my destination and led the way. I followed him for about 15 minutes, and he pointed out hole-in-the-wall where I could get some great Indian food. Then he asked for my email because he wanted to go to American to start his business (which was, as best as I could determine, a not so successful street stand selling souvenir Buddhas, but perhaps I was missing something.)

Anyway, I was excited to see Little India, eat Indian food, and walk among the stalls selling gorgeous, colorful saris. Since Malaysia is largely an Islamic country, they were also selllng Muslim headscarves and most of them women wore them, sometimes with a long gown, sometimes with jeans. In the book store, they sold digital prayer counters (I guess they need to keep track of them? Kinda like a rosary.) One beautiful headscarf in particular captured my attention, and I couldn’t resist plunking down $1 for it. One could always attribute it to mercenary reasons, but I was pleased that the woman complimented the scarf on me and didn’t mind selling a headscarf to clearly non-Muslim woman,

I finally made it to the National Mosque at sunset, but I wasn’t allowed inside as it was time for prayers. A man’s voice chanting prayers played loudly over the loudspeaker and could be heard from a distance. It looked and sounded beautiful.

That night, I met Molly for dinner. We ate in one of Malaysia’s many, many enormous modern malls. I had avoided Beijing’s mega malls, but in KL it seemed like a pretty common place for people to hang out and eat, especially because of the air conditioning. It was great to have someone to discuss my day with and to tell me more about Malaysia, as well as fun just to catch up with an old friend.

The next day, I had a to-do list, so I utilized the Tourist Hop on Hop off bus, a lifesaver for anyone that wants to see KL. I grabbed some iced coffee (where I the coffee barista was so concerned with asking me where I was from and telling me where I needed to go in Malaysia that he messed up my order,) and waited for the bus while a taxi driver standing with asked me where I was from. Guess, I told him. He failed even after ten guesses. This happens all the time. I will no longer feel guilty for a failure to distinguish between Asians. They cannot distinguish foreigners apart despite my American accent, and the Chinese and Koreans mix each other up all the time!

I hopped on the bus and we headed to the outskirts of town while in the opposite lane, a massive traffic jam tried to get into KL. I mentioned the transit was bad, and it’s even worse for those commuting in from the suburbs.

I gained a decent overview of the city from the bus and some glimpses of its older sections. We arrived at the park, and I hopped off to see the bird park, the largest free flight bird park in the world. An enormous net was cast over the area, and the rare and delicate birds were kept in small cages inside. I spent a really fun two hours there chasing peacocks, photographing flamingos and feeding ostriches. (My favorite was the blue wattled Cassowary from Papua New Guinea which I had no idea even existed.) The park also had an orchid garden I enjoyed as well as a butterfly garden and planetarium that I missed. I walked about twenty minutes down to the National Mosque when the government rained on my parade.

Literally. Molly said that a recent dry spell compelled the government to seed the clouds for rain, and rain it did. Just as I arrived at the mosque, heavy sheets poured down. I began to remove my shoes when a Muslim cleric at the entrance stenrly told me that I couldn’t enter. I didn’t understand since I knew foreigners were allowed in until I realized it was prayer time- again! A Muslim woman gently asked me if I were Muslim (I give her a lot of credit for being so open-minded,) and I felt a little embarrassed to say no. But she was kind and said I needed to wait outside.

So I stayed under the roof at the entrance and watched it rain. At this moment, a walking caricature of a Muslim cleric in a white turban, a crisp white tunic shirt and pants and a scraggly beard and smiling eyes greeted me Malaysian style. He spoke in a soft, heavy accent, and when he found out I was American, he of course wanted my information just in case he ever came to America. Later, he started preaching to me about Islam, giving me the hard sell on eternal paradise. Since its not every day that a Muslim cleric goes to the trouble of trying to convert, and perhaps because I was feeling bored from standing int he rain, I told him that while paradise sounded nice, I tried to be a good person because I think it’s the right thing to do, not for any future reward. Either he didn’t understand, or pretended not to, but he then he left me to pray asking me to meet him later.

The rain lightened and suddenly streams of Muslims were entering the mosque. They all removed their shoes at the entrance and suddenly I noticed to the side was a cavernous, mostly underground tiled shower where dozens and dozens of men washed their feet before entering the mosque. I was still waiting for it to stop raining when yet another Malay greeted me. He was young and nice, and I told him I was annoyed I wasn’t allowed inside and getting hungry. He told me I should go to the food stalls. Did somebody say food stalls?!?! Where?! I demanded. Behind the mosque he said. They are there only on Fridays for the afternoon prayer service. I immediately headed in that direction, and was thrilled to see that he was correct, and that there were two rows of Malay food stalls.

I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder and immediately grabbed my bag and whirled around suspiciously. It was the same young Malay who just wanted to make sure I found it. (Seriously, people, the Malays really are that nice.) He walked me through the stalls, conversing with the vendors for me and telling me which foods were good. One of the food vendors, a Muslim woman, when she asked where i was from and I replied America, suddenly grew cold. I asked if she liked America, and she said she did but, to my utter surprise, said she didn’t like Obama, and was the only person in my travels I’ve encountered who said so. I asked her why but she wouldn’t talk to me anymore.

The Malay told me more about Malaysia, how the cars here are too expensive to control traffic, so many people here ride motorcycles, and how the economic crisis had hit here hard too and how he lost his job. He offered me a ride back on his motorcycle after the service (no way was I getting on one of those things in KL,) and I politely declined. He went off to pray, and I returned to Molly’s apartment where she, her roommates and I hopped on a flight to the Malaysain island of Langkawi on the northwestern corner by Thailand.

Days 3-5 Langkawi: Islands in the Sun

A word about the flight. I took Air Asia, also known as the greatest airline in the history of the world. I had been planning on taking trains for most of my travels, for the fun of it and for environmental factor. But the speed and cheapness of Air Asia’s flights proved too alluring for me. Air Asia has been repeatedly voted best airline. My flight to Langkawi cost $60 (Molly bought hers early and hers was about $40 roundtrip!) They often have free flights to Singapore where you only pay taxes. So this is my ode to AirAsia, who made Malaysia travels possible.

So Molly, her four classmates, and I arrived in Langkawi. Now if I had been traveling alone, I would have just found a cheap bed. But there as many different travel styles as there are people, and after working hard in KL, they wanted to stay at a nice resort with a pool, which was still affordable and which was a break from my travel style.

Malaysia’s east coast islands are reputedly better, but I thought Langkawi was beautiful. It’s known as a popular destination for Arabs this time of year who seek to escape the mideastern heat in a Muslim country like Malaysia. At the resort, woman walked around in scarves and modest bathing suits. There was even a separate women-only pool.

On the beach, usually in the evening when the weather cooled, the Muslim women in the full burkas came out to sit on the beach. I have to admit, the contrast of the women completely cloaked in black sitting next to their husbands wearing nothing but shorts and sandals irritated the heck out of me. I consider myself fairly tolerant, but the double standard was blatant on the beach. But again, I must give them credit for their own seeming lack of judgment. We were walking around in bikinis with beers, and not once did I feel like I Muslim was staring at me or judging or taking pictures of me (all of which I was guilty of.)

At one point, a woman in burka photographed her husband, and reflexively I offered to photograph the two of them. I realized it was the first time I ever actually spoke to woman in a burka. I have to admit the moment felt a little odd since I obviously couldn’t register any facial expression. But she handed me the camera and her husband seemed pleased. The light was quite bright and after I took the picture I started to say that I couldn’t see their faces or face, but I trailed off worrying how that might sound and just returned the camera. They seemed very nice.

We spent the weekend enjoying activities like island hopping on a small, private boat and relaxing by the pool. One of our friends, Hari, befriended a Langkawi man named Emy who organized our activities for what seemed to us to be a fair price. He was barrel chested with long hair, red skin, amber eyes, and a gruff voice with mediocre English. He was Muslim, but could pound a beer in a single swig, as long as his Muslim boss wasn’t looking.

On Molly’s last evening in Langkawi, we went parasailing. I planned on staying in Langkawi and extra night, and making my way back to Kuala Lumpur somehow. Our Langkawi friend found out I was staying on without them and invited me to dinner. Emy was the last person on earth I could imagine having dinner with, but it seemed better than eating alone so I agreed.

While I ate green curry, Emy drank beer and bored me to death in broken English about all the women that come to Langkawi and apparently throw themselves at him. And how he coudn’t handle women not wanting to commit to him in Langkawi. When I asked why he didn’t date Langkawi women, he said that he didn’t like them. I turned my attention to the restaurant manager, a Chinese woman. I spoke wit her in my basic Mandarin and she replied in her excellent English. She represented everything I admire about Chinese women. She was smart, tough, competent and no-nonsense. She asked if I wanted to try some durian.

Did I!!? At the entrance to our hotel was a sign saying NO DURIAN. I had wanted to try it ever since I read about in a Wall Street Journal article Durian is a spiky fruit known for it pungent sulphur smell and taste that attracts a cult following. One Malay informed me that there are even durian buffets where you pay a fee to eat all the durian you can eat, paying a higher fee for the higher quality buffet.

The Chinese woman brought over a durian and carefully hacked it open with a knife. Inside it was divided in sections and you must eat the fleshy fruit around the seed. They say you either love durian or hate it, but I must be one of the few that fall in the middle. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t mind. The Chinese woman called me over to the sink and showed the secret to cleaning the smell form your hands. Pur water on the durian rind and wash your hands as the water runs off. I think it worked because I couldn’t smell it on my hands. She then advised me not to pass gas in an elevator after eating durian, and i assured her that I would take care not to do so.

The next day Langkawi all my own. For $7, I rented a moped. I was scared having never ridden one before, and especially because Malays drive on the left side of the road. When I gunned the engine and lurched forward, the hotel cleaning lady ran screaming and shrieking across the parking lot. But I got the hang out it soon enough, and map in hand, I set off to circle the island as the slowest moped drive in Langkawi.

I know many think I’m brave for heading off to Asia, but I take calculated risks, and I really don’t feel safe on mopeds. But as I said, I drove around slowly, there was hardly any traffic, and it was the best way for me to see the island.

I stopped off at the cable car for a spectacular view from the mountains. When I was at the beach I had badly wanted to be in the mountains, and when I was on top of the mountain looking at the distant white beaches, I wanted to be there. This pretty much sums up why I travel.

At one point, I stopped at a stand for lunch. The woman served me then best chicken soup (with lime and spices) that I’ve ever had in my entire life. And of course it was only $1. Driving around on my moped for hours around the island was one of my best days in Malaysia. I considered staying longer, but i had much to see and little time. And I need to make plans to get off Langkawi, which was not as easy as I thought.

I originally planned to take the ferry and then take trains or buses to get back to KL and to Molly. But I decided despite Lao Tzu’s advice, I did have some destinations in mind. So the next morning, I woke up early, packed my bag, and headed to the airport where I bought a one way ticket to Singapore for $70 for a flight that left the next hour. I love Air Asia.

(This entry was written while staying in the surreally beautiful Ping An rice terraces known as the Devil’s Backbone while staying among the Yao people, an ethnic minority known for growing their hair to their waste (and unwrapping it from their heads for you for a few bucks.) Why this place isn’t as popular as the Great Wall is beyond me, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds, and I’ll write more about it later, once I’m finished with my Malay blogs!)

July 14, 2009. Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Singapore pics

Hopefully you guys can access these pics of Singapore. Promise to have a blog update soon!

Click on this link.

July 5, 2009. Uncategorized. 1 comment.


I’ll write more when I get a chance, but here are some (OK, a lot) of pics. Hope you guys enjoy.

Malaysia- KL and Langkawi

June 30, 2009. Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

88 Beijing

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

I’m re-typing this entry on the plane after the original text I typed at the gorgeously-designed Shanghai airport was lost. I will be so happy when I’m in unblocked Malaysian cyberspace in just a few more hours.

So after three months, I’m finally leaving Beijing to travel. I’m sad to be leaving now, I love my little Beijing life. I have good group of friends, and I really enjoy my Chinese class. But my passport has reached its halfway point, and so I’m required to leave the country for a bit. Often, people take the train to Hong Kong for a quick visa run, but I figured since I had to leave anyway, I should make the most of my time on this side of the world.

I originally considered South Korea, Vietnam or Thailand, all places that have captured my interest. But then I learned that my friend Molly, (yet another Dartmouth grad) was in Kuala Lumpur for the summer. I liked the idea of meeting up with a friend, and I figured that I would definitely see Thailand and Vietnam at some point, but don’t know when I’ll be compelled again to see Malaysia. I emailed Molly, and she wrote back an enthusiastic email very kindly inviting me to stay with her at her place and travel with her on weekends. So I bought my ticket, and here I am!

I also plan on traveling by train down to Singapore for a few days before flying from Kuala Lumpur to Guilin in Southern China. I then plan on traveling around Southern China and up to Tibet if time permits. And if I don’t like it, I can always just hop on a plane back to Beijing.

Beijing is such a small part of an immense country. I’m really looking forward to seeing new cities, trying different foods, seeing mountains and rivers, and encountering some of China’s ethnic minority populations. It’s impossible to see it all, but I’ll have a few weeks for some interesting experiences I hope.

I guess someone would expect me to say that these past three months have gone by quickly. But it doesn’t really feel that way to me. I’ve learned so much since coming here. My time here has felt very dense, and I really feel that I’ve undergone the proverbial mind expansion travel is supposed to bring. I always dreamed of coming to China, and now I have trouble remembering a time when I didn’t know China, even though it was less than 90 days ago when I had not yet laid foot on Chinese soil. Still, I’m going to try and recall that feeling before I came, and contrast my expectations with the realities.

Chinese Government
China is a Communist country and I’d have to watch my big mouth.

China is much, much freer than I had anticipated. I was astounded to see books about Tibet at the bookstore and hear people talk freely about Tiananmen Square. In my class my teacher said that she would like to see video of Tiananmen Square and talked about how her friend had been taken away by the government for two weeks almost 15 years ago.

My expectations were pretty low, and obviously there are still numerous examples of lack of freedom. But, it’s much freer than what I had expected, and many Americans have said the same thing.

And maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I still watch my big mouth,

Split pants
Chinese babies wear split pants instead of diapers.

Chinese babies wear split plants instead of diapers (except when they are wearing split pants AND diapers.) They are called kaidangku, and I’m still not entirely clear on how these things work I had heard about split pants, and I feel a little inappropriate saying this, but it was so cute to see little Chinese baby tushies peeking out behind their split pants. For those who haven’t seen them, basically it’s a vertical slit in the pants of Chinese babies so they can just squat on the street. I’ve only actually seen a kid squat once. (My friend said she saw a baby squat in the Ikea, and while she loves China, it was a bit of a breaking point for her.) I’m still confused if the parent picks up after the child. They must since I’ve never seen any, ahem, “presents” on the street. Still, according to one source, the days of the splits pants are numbered. And I can attest that I’ve seen many diapers peeking out from split pants instead of bare bottoms.

Expectation: Public spitting would be stopped after the Olympics

Reality: In my reality, there is still a LOT of spitting in Beijing. Although I think I have grown accustomed to it, because it doesn’t stand out for me the way it did when I first arrived. Still, I’ll be biking or walking along minding my own business, and suddenly I’ll hear this incredibly loud, revolting sound emanating from deep inside someone’s throat followed by a loud splat on the ground. Honestly, I couldn’t split as loud and as hard as a Beijinger if I tried. I think it’s partially from the pollution, living in hutongs heated by coal, and mostly from smoking.

Still, my pre-Olympic Beijing expat friends said it used to be much, much worse and the the Olympic crackdown actually improved the spitting situation a lot. So I should count myself lucky.

About 2 years ago, the NYTimes Homes and Garden section ran an article on a New York woman who decided to move to a refurbished courtyard home in Beijing with her daughter and dog. In the article, she discusses how she often gets stared at for her pet dog, since pet dogs are still very rare in China.

So my first night in Beijing I’m eating dinner at the Lucky Diner with Vinny and Andrew when a little dog wanders up and snuggles my leg, waving his tail happily. I gave him a pat and announced with an air of authority that pet dogs are quite rare in China. Vinny and Andrew looked up from their dishes and said, Um, Noooooooooooo…. not quite.

And sure enough, the next day and every day after, all I saw in Beijing were people with some of the cutest little dogs I’ve ever seen.

Blame the NYTimes for this one too. Not long ago I had read a NYTimes article on a cheese-eating club started by expats in China lamenting the lack of good cheese. And again, I’m not sure if they were extremely elite about what type of cheese they ate, or if things changed very quickly, but while I arrived in Beijing expecting cheese to be extremely difficult to procure, the expat grocery stores carry as diverse a variety as your average American supermarket. And yes, some of it is expensive, but for $3 I can buy the best Cheddar I’ve ever eaten, imported from Australia.

Ditto for Coffee

I was told that coffee was a rarity here. And again, not true. Perhaps because I have spent time in places frequented by tourists and foreigners, but there has always been a coffee shop in reasonable proximity. True it can be expensive (anywhere from $2-5 US dollars,) because it’s only for foreigners since I have yet to meet a Chinese coffee drinker. A word of advice for China travelers who can’t find a cup and are growing desperate (seriously, I feel your pain.) Try McDonald’s. They deliver a halfway decent cup for cheap in a pinch.

Saving face
From guidebooks, from other Chinese people, from word of mouth, I’ve heard of the concept of “saving face.” Honestly, maybe I just haven’t been here long enough, but I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Saving face, as it has been explained to me, means a Chinese person will react stoically in awkward or tense situations. Not so!

I’ve witnessed countless Chinese lose their tempers, raise their voices and yell. I’ve probably seen more fights here than I have in the U.S. Possible because Beijing is full of migrant workers, possibly less prone to care about saving one’s face so to speak, I have seen countless quarrels between constructions workers. One time I saw a laborer wielding a heave metal shovel at another. Another time a motorbike accident resulted in an exchange of blows, and always a crow of curious bystanders watch, just like anywhere else in the world. And no one seems to be concerned about saving face.

Chinese men don’t harass women; Chinese people dress modestly

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Perhaps this was true at one point, although I have trouble believing it. I can’t imagine where the guidebook writers got the idea that Chinese people aren’t human!

Here I’ve received at least as many annoying whistles, catcalls, and looks as I have in Brooklyn. What’s most amazing to me is how I will be dressed in jeans in a tank top, and it will attract more attention that a Chinese girl in a tiny dress, because tank tops are rare here since Chinese women don’t wish to have their arms and shoulders tan. In fact, removeable long sleeves are sold to attach to short sleeve shirt for sun protection.

Which leads me to my next point. Chinese girls wear the shortest skirts ever! Seriously. I say, if you got it flaunt it. And Chinese women’s slim figures are flattered by most cuts. Still, there’s limits, and some girls here dress outrageously and certainly far from the modesty described in the guidebooks.

These days I have trouble even recalling what I expected, but whatever I imagined, it couldn’t have matched the reality of the large, diverse, interesting, supportive, and well-connected community of expats I discovered in Beijing. One of the highlights of my stay here has been meeting new, interesting, and extremely friendly people happy to be your friend almost every day. The only downside is that I had hoped to spend more time with, you know, actual Chinese people here practicing my Mandarin!

June 25, 2009. Uncategorized. 3 comments.

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