Dear loved ones,
I refuse to believe this, but the calendar tells me that today is already June 8th, meaning that we will be arriving back in Washington DC in less than one week. Try as we might to stay firmly in the present, those mixed feelings of transitions and farewells keep bubbling up in quiet moments. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have had the privilege to spend the last six months abroad, and with my husband and partner at my side. Though we always keep our fingers crossed that such unexpected opportunities may arise again, I have been so overjoyed to have this period of reflection, growth, and adventure that I will be content if I never have a life sabbatical such as this again in my life. Then again, for Nod and I, travel may just be in our blood.
Though the last two months of backpacking around have been incredible--eye opening and fun and challenging all at once--our very favorite part of our entire time abroad may very well be the new friendships we made while living in Australia. There's something about staying put and putting down our roots in a new community that we love more than site seeing, and in this case, it was our adopted Australian "soul family" who we lived with and Nod's co-workers who made an especially lasting impression on our hearts.
At the same time, being away from home reminded us daily how precious our friends and families are to us, and how much we miss out on when we're away. As sad and reluctant as we are to bring this spectacular season of life to a close, I'm also impatiently excited to touch down on home soil and hold tight all those we've missed for these many months. But we're also mourning those we won't be able to hold again: this week Nod's grandpa passed away after many years of poor health. We'll be heading back to Seattle shortly after we return to the U.S. so that we can say our goodbyes to a man who was such a special and central part of Nod's family, and a legend in his own right. The sadness we've felt this week is complicated by the fact that we're so far away, so it's been adding to some of our readiness to return.
|A picture of Nod's grandpa from his younger days that Nod's sister Mikel recently shared with us|
But we still do have ten days left, which we plan to live to the fullest. For most of this week we've been in the sleepy little islands in Malaysia where Nod and I are lolling about like sunburned porpoises and snorkeling with sea turtles.
|On our own deserted beach|
After catching up with some friends in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, we leave today for the final stop on our journey: Japan. Nod's mother is Japanese, but Nod never had the chance to travel to Japan before, so this final stop is extra special to us. I plan to spend the last five days of our travels picking up fashion tips from Harajiko girls while Nod gobbles down as much sushi as his belly can hold.
But now, for a recap of our latest adventures: crashing motorcycles, smashing doors, and nommming our way across Malaysia.
You probably remember from my last blog that I am a nervous wreck when it comes to motorbikes. Motorbikes are king of the road in most of southeast Asia (Malaysia is the only country so far where four wheels are the norm), yet I managed to drag my feet for six weeks in hope of prolonging the inevitable. When our feet were tired and we were desperate for a taxi, I would let every moto taxi pass me and drag myself along for another mile until I found a car that would take me home. I pleaded and cried not to rent one in Chiang Mai when we took a day trip to a nearby temple, even though it cost us ten times more to hire a taxi instead. When I finally gave in and went along for a motorbike tour in southern Vietnam, I almost kissed the ground in relief when it was over.
One week after our motorbike tour in Da Lat, we were in the misty mountains of Sapa in northern Vietnam. Sapa is a tiny speck of a town that exists as a central market for nearby villages and as a jumping off point for travelers wanting to take in the beautiful countryside. The highlands villages dot the border with China, which was less than fifteen miles away. Ethnic minorities like the H'mong and the Dzao farm corn and terraced rice paddies in the green mountains. The mountains were so cool that we had to wear jeans and jackets--a welcome novelty after so many months in the sticky hot tropics. (Nod took some beautiful photos!)
In Sapa, we came to do one thing, and one thing only: rent motorbikes to drive through the hilly fields and villages. Given that the last time I had ridden a motorbike we nearly had to enter marriage counseling, it was surprising how calm I felt about getting on the second time. Perhaps it was the confidence I gained from surviving our previous trip. Maybe it was because I had threatened Nod with the prospect of not shaving my legs for two months if he drove recklessly--a threat he took to heart. It's hard to say, exactly, where this calmness came from. But as I slowly straddled the back of the bike and we roared the engine to life, I felt sure deep down that today was going to be a good day.
It's ironic, really, how I had been so panicked on our first ride--which had gone so smoothly--and felt completely serene as our motorbike slipped out beneath us and we came crashing to the concrete later on that day. The day had been glorious--one of our very best in Vietnam. We spent hours admiring the beauty and sheer accomplishment of the village terraces. Nod pulled over frequently so he could chat with villagers and take pictures. We stopped and walked through one community and lingered as long as we could before we had to turn back. The roads in and around the villages themselves had been treacherous: steep dirt tracks with big, loose rocks. Though they were certainly a test of Nod's driving skills, we had managed all of them successfully, with me uncharacteristically cool and collected all the while.
It was just when we were heading back that our troubles begin. Perhaps it was that we were feeling a bit cocky on the pavement, having just mastered such difficult terrain on the dirt roads. Maybe it was the elation we felt in such a beautiful place after such a pleasant day. Maybe we're just complete rookies at driving motorbikes and had no idea what we were doing. The problem came just as we turned a corner and saw that a small stream had breached the road and covered the asphalt with an inch or two of water. That alone might have been okay, but a large 12-passenger van came around the bend heading towards us, pushing us to the side and catching us a bit off guard. The water had made the road slippery, and as we were moving over for the van, the bike went out from under us and we were on the ground before we even knew what was happening. Luckily, we made it without hardly a scratch on us: Nod was completely unscathed, while I just had some small cuts on my feet, though I have some deep bruises on my legs to show for it, too.
|This is after we picked the bike--and ourselves--up off the wet street|
The van driver looked horrified and made sure we were ok. An old woman passing by just laughed at us, the foreign amateur drivers. Later that night, we treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes and felt grateful to be well and safe. The next time I'm on the back of a motorbike, though, you'll understand when my palms get a little sweaty.
After Sapa, our next stop was Malaysia. Malaysia is known for many things: cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, gorgeous rain forests, a diverse heritage of Indian, Chinese, and Malay influences. Mostly, though, we were going there to eat. The large island of Penang is especially famous for its food. Alina, my old roommate, is from Penang, and I have never met someone so dedicated to the act of eating. Take a weekend trip out of town, and the first question she'll ask is: "What did you eat?" Try to show her pictures of the sites you saw, and she'll skip through them until she finds the pictures of your food. We once took a roommate trip to New York, and she scheduled our entire itinerary around the restaurants she had carefully researched for weeks ahead of time. During our first night there, she ate two full dinners in different restaurants. People from Penang are serious about their food.
Since I spent years of my life subsisting on nothing more than cereal, scrambled eggs, and diet coke, and since I still consider Hot Pockets to be a pretty decent meal, I have no right to speak at all about the subtleties of a celebrated cuisine. After all the famous dishes we ordered in Penang, I was still the most excited to discover that they had real A&W root beer there (trust me, it's impossible to find outside of America!)
So I had the reins over to Nod, who took diligent notes on each and every meal we ate. Foodies, read on (This is for you, Alina!). Non-foodies, continue reading at number three.
Having been told time and time again that Malaysia, and Penang especially, is the food capital of SE Asia (and by in large the entire world, I mean c'mon, this is some of the best food in the world, right? Sushi, excluded, of course!) the Wazis decided to unbuckle our belts for a day and try to fit it all in.
Arriving in KL after a monstrous travel day including a 1 hour bus ride through the mountains of NW Vietnam (only a mere 1 kilometer from the Chinese border), a 10 hour train ride to the capital, a 5 hour wait at the airport, a 3 hour flight to Malaysia and a 2 hour layover disaster in KL, and surviving on stale coconut bread, I was in dire need of food! I get the Nasi Lemak (rice with peanuts, cucumber, fish, shallots and samba sauce wrapped in a banana leaf) and am already in foodie heaven! And, this is at the airport. Good things are to come…
We arrive in Penang just in time for dinner, or at least what we thought would be dinner time at 6pm. Food stalls are just starting to open up and we wander out of the old city, unable to find the hawker food. We settle in at a coffee shop and bleary eyed from hunger, I decide to stick to my guns and order the Nasi Lemak again. Alissa orders a BBQ chicken dish and some wonton soup. The portion size is monstrous and the bill is less than $5 USD. It's 8pm and the smell of Malaysian and Indian food start wafting through the air. Overly full, we hesitantly follow our noses.
The next stop was the famous Char Kaeo Taeo cooked by the same man since 1954. This fried noodle dish with prawns and cockles would put any Pad Thai to shame. At $1, not a bad deal!
On the way back home, now delirious from food, we happen to run into a cake vendor. I start snapping photos and the locals corner Alissa and tell her which cakes are best. We end up with 1 kilo of cakes and finish the bag by the time we get to our hostel, 3 blocks away… :/ A deep sleep ensues…
Our one and only full day in Penang starts at a leisurely 9am, in torrential downpour. This is what happened:
9am: Indian Roti with egg and onion with potato stew, Tosai (long flat bread) with onion, dhal and chickpeas. Followed by orange juice and chai tea…
10am: Fresh coconut juice
11am: Mee Goreng (fried vegan noodles with dark soy sauce and veggies), chai tea and a cup of hot water due to a translation faux paux
1pm: Rojak (diced durian, mango, apple, pear, papaya and veggie fritter with a shrimp/squid and tamarind sauce). We walked for 90 minutes trying to find this place in a downpour! This stand is famous around the world for THE BEST Rojak and though it didn't disappoint, the flavors were a bit bold for the Wazis. Alissa followed this by some A&W root beer.
2pm: We picked up some pretty gross onion dessert balls. I thought they were pastries filled with yummy red bean paste. Nope-curry powder! Foiled!!!
4pm: Laksa (Malaysian soup with noodles, veggies, fish and this wonderful broth that was spicy, sweet, sour and salty) and Indian tofu with a sweet tomato sauce. Followed by kiwi juice and Lime assam juice.
4:30pm: Popiah (Spring rolls with stir fried noodles and tofu)
5pm: Cendul (a dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, red beans and this green gelatinous thing). SO GOOD!
5:30pm: Tee Nya Kuih (a dessert made with molasses and gelatinous rice flour)
6pm: An eclair. We went to a local coffee shop called Starbucks and played cards. We felt bad and ordered an eclair.
7pm: Char Mee Hoon (stir fried vegetarian noodles chinese style with mee curry).
8pm: Cendul AGAIN! So goooood!
9pm: Rice cakes and a sesame fritter…
This leads me to this moment right now. I can slowly begin to understand Malaysian's obsession with food. Most hawkers on the street serve 1-3 dishes that they have perfected and many have been around for over 3 generations. At 11am, people were packed at the outdoor food courts eating heaping plates full of rice, fish heads, chicken, dhal, and a million types of sauces. What I don't understand is how nearly everyone we saw were thin, apparently healthy looking and eating plates of food 1/3rd their body weight! Luckily, the Wazis paced themselves properly and walked maybe 10 miles in search of the best of the best. Tired feet, full bellies and a smile on their faces… Now, off to the east coast islands of Malaysia for some snorkeling and 86F degree water! :)
When we were in Penang, we decided to forego the usual budget backpacker hostels and their inexplicable dedication to reggae music and rent a bedroom from a local. We found a room that was located in an old-fashioned house in an historic quarter of Penang that's recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. The woman who owns the house uses the downstairs as a cooking school for travelers, and rents out two rooms upstairs to people like us. We didn't see much of our host, however, since she wasn't scheduled to hold any cooking classes during the two days we were in Penang, and she doesn't live on the premises.
Being an historic house, it had a few quirks to it. It was tall and made of heavy wood and--being a townhouse in an old crowded quarter--it didn't have any windows or doors along the sides or in the back of the house, since other townhouses shared these walls with us. The front doors were thick and wooden with an antiquated lock that wasn't really functional, so the owner used a thin metal gate--the kinds you might see on the front of a pawnshop at night--to secure her doorway, locking it with a padlock.
|Old houses in historic Penang, all with metal gates in front.|
I explain all of this because when we came downstairs at 4:30am to meet our waiting taxi for an early morning flight and found that the padlock was jammed, we were literally trapped inside a wooden box with no other way to escape. No windows to shimmy through, no back door to try. If there had been a fire, we would have turned into little bits of charcoal. The padlock had always been difficult for us: sometimes the key didn't turn right, sometimes we couldn't get the lock to close. But with patience and enough jiggling, we had always gotten it to work. Now that we really needed to leave and catch a plane, the lock jammed irreparably--perhaps irritated by the abuse we had shouted at it every time it had been difficult to us in the previous days. Nod, me, and the taxi driver all took shifts turning the key left and right and yanking on the lock, but it was all in vain. Since it was 4:30 in the morning, there was no locksmith to call, no owner nearby to provide a plan B. After fifteen minutes, it was clear that we weren't going anywhere unless we changed tactics. The padlock was solid steel and wouldn't break without a power tool--something we had in short supply. But the metal security gate was made out of thin rungs that looked like they might give way. We looked around for something we could use to smash apart the door. Since this was a cooking school and not a house, we couldn't expect to find the usual assorted toolbox most people keep in their garages. Luckily, though, this meant that the owner kept an industrial sized mortar and pestle in her kitchen. The pestle was made of solid granite and weighed almost 20 pounds. Nod grabbed it and started bashing it against the metal rungs, and soon we had broken enough that we could squeeze through the bars. So it was that before 5 in the morning, we had already 1) showered 2) eaten breakfast and 3) broken down a door, which is more than I can usually say after a whole day. We felt a certain sense of accomplishment. Our taxi driver mostly looked at us like we were crazy, and possibly to be pitied for that.
Next to motorbike crashes and bashed-in doors, our other misadventures seem trivial. Sure, the Kuala Lumpur airport is the most byzantine and archaic I have ever seen and caused us to actually miss our flight--and yes, we are ready to bid farewell to all of Asia's budget airlines and their nonexistent customer service. But what would travel be without a few hiccups and frustrations? Absurdity seems to be where Nod and I shine, both easy going enough to see the mishaps of our trips as good stories rather than spoilers. But with all that said, we'd just as well prefer that the rest of our short time abroad goes smoothly so that we end up home all in one piece. And so now we're off to live up a few last days of relaxation in Malaysian islands and prepare ourselves for a sushi onslaught in Japan.