Saturday, April 5, 2008

Muckin' About Malaysia: Part Two

(For those of you who haven't been following along, this is part of a series on our trip to the EARCOS 2008 Teacher Conference in Kuala Lumpur.)

We spent much of our week in Malaysia either cramming our brains at conference workshops or gorging ourselves on complimentary (read: already paid for) food and booze, but we did have a few chances to get out and about in Kuala Lumpur and its surroundings, and this is what we found.

1. Petronas Twin Towers

(Yes, that's a tiny Nana in the bottom of the frame.)

Until recently, the Petronas Twin Towers (shown above) were officially the tallest buildings in the world (though if you know anything about the criteria used by CBTUH, the organization that ranks the 100 tallest buildings, then you know that this is kind of a fuzzy designation)--that distinction now belongs to Tapei 101 in Taiwan, and some argue it should belong to either the Sears Tower in Chicago or the CN Tower in Toronto, though the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, to open on 2009, will soon put them all to shame. Still, the Petronas Towers are an amazing structure, and the engineering feats that went into building the Skybridge are very impressive. (Koreans will be quick to remind you that it was the Korean contractor working on the towers, and not the Japanese contractor, that designed and installed the Skybridge.) The Petronas Towers are more than just a skyscraper, though: financed as they were by the government-owned Malaysian oil giant Petronas, they were also designed as a kind of national monument, and incorporate many local (particularly Muslim) design elements, most clearly evident in their unique scalloped facades.

Anyway, at the base of the towers is a sprawling city park, where Nana and I passed a morning strolling in the sun and the unfathomable heat. The beautiful morning was only marred twice: once, when a police officer informed us that adults were not allowed to use the swingsets (note: pretty much everyone in Malaysia seems to speak English--they were a British colony for a long time, after all); and then when a giant mutant water bottle attacked the Towers, only to be thwarted when Nana, hopped up Popeye-style on Kickapoo Joy Juice, saved the day.

2. KL Tower

Aside from the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur is home to another of the tallest (or at least taller) structures in the world, the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Tower. Set atop a high hill right behind our hotel (the Shangri-La, which you can see below), the KL Tower offers great views of the city, though the afternoon haze/rain was blowing in when we were up there, and the view of the Petronas Towers is in profile, which is less than ideal. Still, a cool place to go to get a look at the Hard Rock Cafe.


Also: A building with a camel on the side, for some reason, presumably tempting us to smoke.

Anyway, all this towering led to some friendly competition among our intrepid band. Here's Nana giving her very own CN Tower a hug. Paul, whose native Calgary Tower didn't make the World's Tallest Towers cut, claimed Seoul's NSeoul Tower as his own.

And apparently, the KL Tower also has its own resident brace of rabbits. Yes, rabbits. The Tower Rabbits, to be precise.

At the base of the KL Towers, then, is a nature trail down to the subway stop, the entrance of which was adorneded with this forbidding sign warning us about "dangerous species."

Though we didn't find any dangerous species on our brief walk, we did meet an Australian, which was pretty cool.

Here's a view of some city buildings through a gap in the foliage. Notice the gathering rain.

3. Central Market

(Note: I am so done with all these photos. Not only am I sick of importing them into Blogger, which takes forever, I was also apparently sick of taking photos that afternoon--I don't have much worth showing after the KL Tower.)

After visiting the KL Tower, Nana and I (with the intrepid Paul in tow) spent some time at Kuala Lumpur's Central Market, the place to go for local(ish) arts, crafts, and souvenirs. In this large indoor (and air-conditioned!) market, more than anywhere else, was the multiculturalism of Kuala Lumpur evident: rows of jade merchants gave way to rows of batik fabric shops, to authentic cashmere (as in from Kashmir) peddlers, to, of course, stalls selling cheap T-shirts and kitschy souvenirs. Nana ended up buying a red batik skirt, which you will see featured prominent in tomorrow's post on the Batu Caves. (Which, I promise, will include monkeys--or, to be more specific, macaques.)

4. Islamic Arts Center

After our stop at the Central Market, Nana and I pressed on to the nearby Islamic Arts Museum, part of a large complex surrounding Malaysia's National Mosque. Not only is the Islamic Arts Museum a beautiful building in its own right, with a huge glass-walled portico from which we got to watch an impressive afternoon storm, the collection manages to be thorough without being overwhelming, covering Islamic arts and crafts from all of Islam's major ethnic groups (Arab, Turkish, African, Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian). The exhibit texts also feature the kind of moderate, humanistic Islam that's so often underrepresented in the West. For me, the highlight was the architecture hall, home to dozens of scale models of mosques from around the world. I had never before realized that most mosques, aside from the universal basics (worship space, minaret, water, etc.), are really heavily influenced by regional architecture. What most Westerners think of when thinking of a mosque (the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, am I right?) is actually Byzantine, which is basically Roman. But mosques in China, say, are pretty much indistinguishable from Buddhist temples there, and traditional Malaysian mosques look a lot like traditional Malaysian houses. Very cool stuff.

Well, that's all I've got for today. Stay tuned for the last installment of our Malaysian adventures. I promise: monkeys galore!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Plot Twist: NANA Drinks Weird Stuff For Your Entertainment (Malaysia Edition)

(For those of you who haven't been following along, this is part of a series on our trip to the EARCOS 2008 Teacher Conference in Kuala Lumpur.)

Kickapoo Joy Juice.

Nana says: like 5-Alive, or a 7-up or Sprite that's less sugar and more citrus. I can concur--so tasty that we took the chance to drink it again a couple days later, just moments before the monkey attack. (Yes, I will keep you in suspense.)

By the way, I've done a little research on Kickapoo Joy Juice, and this stuff gets stranger with every word I read. First, I knew the name sounded familiar: It's a fictional tonic from the Li'l Abner comic strip (the musical version of which I survived in high school). And check out the Kickapoo Joy Juice website: apparently Monarch Beverages started brewing the drink in Atlanta in the 60s, and then it became hugely popular in Malaysia (but NO WHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD) for reasons left completely unexplained. Even wackier: according to this page, the Kickapoo Joy Juice we drank may not even have been the REAL Joy Juice--as a result of a branding dispute between Monarch and a subsidiary in Singapore, the lucrative Malaysian Joy Juice market has been flooded by bootleg Juice in recent years.

I must say, when we bought this stuff at a half-abandoned old train station, in no way did we expect it to be half so darned weird.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Muckin' About Malaysia: Part One

(For those of you who haven't been following along, this is part of a series on our trip to the EARCOS 2008 Teacher Conference in Kuala Lumpur.)

During our five plus days at the EARCOS Teacher Conference in Kuala Lumpur, we scrounged enough free time together to see much of the city and a bit of the countryside as well. Here are just a few episodes from the shenanigans.

1. Chinatown

The Chinese ethnic community in Malaysia makes up a huge minority of the population (nearly 25%, according to Wikipedia) with a long and complicated history in the region. Malaysian Chinese people run the gamut from long-settled, assimilated Malay speakers, to Anglophone colonial-era traders, to more-recent, Mandarin-speaking arrivals. (In fact, Wikipedia's got some fascinating stuff on Malaysian Chinese people--that appears to be the PC term--including the fact that they rarely intermarry with Malays because Malaysian law requires that Malaysian Muslims can only marry Muslims. Neat.)
Anyway: None of this history whatsoever is evident at Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur's bustling Chinatown, a raucous emporium of cheap junk, knockoffs, and counterfeits interspersed with a few decent places to eat. We found one--sketchy, cheap, and delicious--walked about the market for a little bit, then promptly found another for spring rolls and some Tiger, the local beer. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real Expat (with a capital "E"), swigging lager at a plastic table after sunset under neon lights in the lazy tropical heat.
(Cool Tiger Beer factoid, fliched from Wikipedia: The advertising slogan "Time for a Tiger" gave author Anthony Burgess, probably most famous for A Clockwork Orange, the title of the first novel in his trilogy on the decline of British rule in Malaysia, The Long Day Wanes.)

2. The Hotel Shangri-LaOf course, going back to the hotel quickly disabused me of these expat delusions. There, I felt like some kind of high-powered globetrotting executive, sweating in the sauna after a long morning workout, or sipping tea over my complimentary breakfast as I looked down on the streets of Kuala Lumpur below. Only in the morning did reality set in: I was but a lowly rookie teacher, with much to learn and even more to do. But hey! At least we'd be living in luxury for the rest of the week. Swanky pad with a view of the Petronas Towers? Complimentary breakfast? Free evening munchies and cocktails? Man, Dr. Kim really knows how to treat employees right!Bonus: the room even had a Gideon Bible AND a "Gideon" Koran.

P.S. Apparently, McDonalds delivers in Malaysia. Who knew?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Three Cool Things About Malaysia

(For those of you who haven't been following along, this is part of a series on our trip to the EARCOS 2008 Teacher Conference in Kuala Lumpur.)

Still struggling to catch up on work and sleep since arriving back in Seoul yesterday, so instead of the standard itinerary travelogue, let me offer you this brief and incomplete list of reasons, in no particular order, why Malaysia is totally cool.

1. The Food

From the first to the last meal of the trip, I tried to take pictures of the food, only to be thwarted by absent-mindedness (I'm not in the habit of bringing a camera to dinner) and by voracious appetite. Normally, within a minute or two of its hitting the table, most of our Malaysian meals looked like this:

(Those being the remnants of an Indian lunch at the Central Market.)

Just rest assured that Malaysian food (which includes Indian, Indonesian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Thai dishes--that's what you get when you've been sitting across a major ocean trade route for a full thousand years) is utterly delicious. Of all the cities I've visited, Kuala Lumpur was definitely one of the best places to eat. And cheap, too--trustworthy food stalls can over-feed you and yours for about 9 ringgit ($3 US) per head; mid-level restaurants run about four times that much.

Below, you can see some spicy-sweet fried wontons and some beef rendang (a spicy-smoky beef curry thats a signature dish in Indonesia and Malaysia).
The bottom corner of that last photo also shows some pumpkin fried chicken, which Nana practically inhaled. Yum.

2. Teh Tarik

A sweet, spiced milk tea concoction (think mild chai) served hot or cold with just about any meal. Great for taking the edge off a spicy curry or as an afternoon snack.
3. Groovy Multiculturalism

Seriously. Where else to Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists more or less get along? Kuala Lumpur packs a dozen different ethnicities and cultures into one cool little town. (Listen to me, calling 1 million+ little! I've been in Seoul too long!) There aren't only tons of different cuisines, but also different architectural styles, different musics, different dances--at the conference welcome dinner, for example, we ate food from four different countries and watched performances by dancers from five. In fact, this multiculturalism made Kuala Lumpur feel more familiar than Seoul, in a lot of ways--though the blistering heat was anything but familiar.

Well, that's about all I've got for tonight. Stay tuned for more news and notes about the trip. Did Justin eat himself into a coma? Did Nana survive the monkey attack? Check back tomorrow. All the best till then.

Monday, March 31, 2008

His Room is Next to Mine!: Math Teacher Celebrity Watch

Our very own Shelby J. Bryant had the Song of the Day over at NPR two weeks back, a made-over take on the song "Doll on a Music Box" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Witness the awesome here.

I believe now would be an appropriate time to submit requests for other 1960s children's songs that we would like remade, as the article says, a la Saturnian Lounge Band. As much as I would like to hear, say, "Supercalifragilistiexpialidocius" (think about it; it gets more awesome every time) I would hate to pass up on the rest of the gold mine that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has to offer. I mean, APIS is certainly the Posh Posh Traveling Life. This is Korea - what better inspiration for "Me Ole Bamboo?" And I'm not even going to get started on the role of Kimchi in "Toot Sweets." Unless by saying I wouldn't, I just did.

Anyway, I joke because I can't help it, but I don't want to take away from the fact that there are many, many songs out there, and having his picked by NPR is a pretty sweet tribute to the Shelbmeister. So congratulations, Shelby!

Add: Undermining my last point, I have to submit this other video I found while looking for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang clips. Verdict: That movie was Messed. Up.

Malaysia: There and Back Again

This past week, Nana and I came as close as we ever had to crossing the line with a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, a mere 8 degrees north of the equator--and we made it back safely this morning. (Note to self: Find the man who thought redeye flights were a good idea. Punishment TBD.)

Expect about a post a day, with photos, this week. For now, while we recuperate from a long day of work (after a long day of travel), you'll have to content yourself with a brief summary: Malaysia is totally awesome. I never thought I could love a place that was so swelteringly hot, but boy did I ever. The food, the people, the nature, the culture--what a cool country. Stay tuned for more.