In Retrospect

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Stefanie composes in Green Park, Athens

Stefanie composes in Green Park, Athens

Our earthly circumnavigation fades to the background of my mind these days with visions of our wanderings crystallizing in the quiet of night just before drifting off to sleep. Outside the realm of the unknown the memories are friendlier. The difficulties of travel, the discomforts of lumpy beds, the uncertainty of food and lack of routine all fall away. In the safety of knowing the story’s “end” I linger over the images inside my head from our 10 weeks of travel. I’m finally free to just enjoy myself rather than worrying about the next thing down the line.

Colorful Singapore street market

Colorful Singapore street market

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Stefanie observes a ceremony at a Hindu shrine in Bali

Stefanie observes a ceremony at a Hindu shrine in Bali

That I am not an easy traveler is not surprising since I’m a worrier in general. So it fits with my character that travel makes me apprehensive._ Countless people have told us, “Oh, you’re so brave!” Believe me, I’m far less resolute than I appear. Yet there’s a duality that I find myself confronting. That is, my curiosity about new places rubbing up against a certain fretfulness about the unknown. Experience tells me that once I’ve arrived in a new place and had a chance for sleep the novelty of the adventure usually wins out. I can say I’m glad I did it, pushed the “what-ifs” aside and sought my curiosity’s satisfaction.

Dave relaxes for a lunch break outside the rainforest in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Dave relaxes for a lunch break outside the rainforest in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

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Winter weather outside Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Winter weather outside Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Over the weeks of travel we learned the need to pace ourselves. We constantly repeated the mantra, “You can’t see everything.” We learned to pick and choose, prioritizing our hearts’ desires against what would be nice to see. I learned that every day need not be crammed with some sightseeing activity. In fact some of my favorite spots include times of relaxation in very ordinary places, like Green Park in Athens, where the locals stroll and the old men play endless games of backgammon. We went there twice during our two days in Athens and it felt like a luxury to sit quietly in a park and soak in the sun and do nothing more than share the daily lives of ordinary citizens. The week before in Istanbul I realized that our trip was a sort of marathon, an act of endurance as much as a trip of a lifetime. Part enjoyment, part pain and drudgery.

The train station at Pythion, Turkey and Greece border

The train station at Pythion, Turkey and Greece border

Across Europe Dave focused on train stations. There’s something timeless about them; people arriving from and departing to distant places, and waiting eternally. The analogy to us was clear. Yet I will always remember us with our backpacks, Dave with the larger two, me with the smaller ones, strapped on front and back, and always … always … my wide-brimmed hat atop my head. I see Dave ahead of me on the sidewalk and my reflection in the store windows as we make our way to our destination. There’s a determination in our step and a keen attention to what’s out there. It’s as if to say, we know where we’re going. Though we didn’t always. Part of the adventure, part of the fun, was making it up as we went along.

Our street at night in Baeza, Spain

Our street at night in Baeza, Spain

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Donkeys carry hides past our pension in Fez, Morocco

Donkeys carry hides past our pension in Fez, Morocco

And I had to remind myself of that. Especially as the time progressed and I grew weary of strange eating schedules and unfamiliar hotels. Yet in the end I find that’s a good deal of what makes me glad we did this trip. Knowing I can overcome the unknowns, combat the doldrums of waiting, survive the minutiae of planning, and wait out the occasional case of “nerves” that overtakes me. The payback was huge and well worth all of the downsides. Walking the rice fields of Bali. Snorkeling in Amed. The relief of a morning thunderstorm in Singapore. Gliding up the Mediterranean from Greece to Italy. Our intrepid hike through the countryside of Ronda, Spain. Watching the donkey train outside our pension in Fez. One memory gives rise to the next. It’s good to be home but it’s just as good to know we went.

The Elegant Conversation

A game of backgammon in Green Park, Athens

A game of backgammon in Green Park, Athens

Green Park in Athens was full of families pushing strollers and little knots of men playing backgammon. Or else performing a curious ritual that we would see again in Italy and Spain. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a kind of walking discussion. But I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t think it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s anything like what we do as we walk, which is most often idle chit chat or casual appraisals of what we see. These older men, in twos and threes usually, proceed very slowly, almost as if the stroll is mere pretense to the real purpose. I would watch many of these perambulations over many visits to the park. The men walk in rapt discussion, often accompanied by hand gestures, or else with hands firmly clasped behind the back. Suddenly they would pause as one man would try to drive home a point. Then they would both stand still and face each other. One man would gesture with a bit more animation, hold forth while his companion(s) would focus intently on him. After a period of about a minute or so there would be a brief exchange, maybe a shrug or two, a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìthis or that?¢‚Ǩ¬ù gesture by flipping over the hand, and then the walk would continue. And always, an inward focus on the subject at hand passes between them. The conversation was the focus, not the walking and the watching.

Conversation is the focus in Baeza, Spain

Conversation is the focus in Baeza, Spain

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m struck by the character of these gentlemen. They seem to be engaged in a foil with the important thing. They parlay, rejoin, sally and engage each other with opinion. The exchange of views is the only priority. A good day is one that includes this event. A productive day, one that has the highest value is a day spent in conversation with a good friend.

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m reminded of the ancient philosophers of Greece, as they walk today in their steps. Though their discussions may not always reach to those realms, they operate in the same spirit. The salient features are there; an intensely inward focus, the need to express one?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s views and to seek out a response to them. The desire for clarity.

The forum at the train station, Baeza, Spain

The forum at the train station, Baeza, Spain

Thoreau says that man is not meant to do everything but man is meant to do something. These older gentleman have passed from the doing which characterized their active lives into a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìdoing?¢‚Ǩ¬ù that expresses itself in simple, elegant conversation.

I Hear Madrid

Post Office as palace

Post Office as palace

Madrid is all grandiosity. Great statues soaring in the sky atop practically every other building you pass. Not just some meek, chaste Madonnas but fabulous sweeping chariots and horses chafing to get underway, towering muscled Hercules posturing to the masses below, winged creatures of vast imagination in frozen animation. If that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s not enough, the buildings themselves are adorned with further flights of fancy ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú dancing cherubs, leering gargoyles, gilt angels, wrought iron vines just for the hell of it. Even the post office looks like a palace. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s Michelangelo gone mad. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a Roccocophile?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s paradise. Compared to Florence, with its glow of ochre and sienna and age-old Renaissance style buildings, Madrid feels more brash and daring. It grabs your attention and demands a response, an interaction. It asks you to dance, and a strong partner it is.

Roccoco everywhere!

Roccoco everywhere!

Statue and all lit up on the Metropolis Building

Statue and all lit up on the Metropolis Building

Dave and I glided into Madrid on a hotel night train from Marseille, France the day before Easter. The streets were quiet in those early morning hours, as the Madrile?ɬ±os were catching some shut-eye from their late night out as usual, no doubt, and week-long festivities of Semana Santa, the week leading into Easter. Our first walk that morning out of our Gran Via hostel took us past the Metropolis building, with a winged statue atop, and through the winding streets of the Centro into the Puerta del Sol. Considered the place to start your exploration of the city, Puerta del Sol is the true center of Madrid, as well as Spain, as it is from this point that all distances are measured. Before travel exhaustion overtook us, we managed to make our way along the Paseo del Prado past the Prado museum itself, the holy grail of artists, just to get a glance at it and breathe in the atmosphere, saving its exploration for later. By the time we trundled back to our room for naps, Madrid had taken claim to our hearts.

Making keys in the Sunday Rastro

Making keys in the Sunday Rastro

Besides the architectural art and world-renowned institutions, Madrid also has its share of quirkiness. One of the most popular spectacles is the Sunday Rastro, a weekly flea market that stretches for blocks on end and attracts locals and tourists alike. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s wall-to-wall people on the order of Taste of Chicago, and not for the faint of heart. You can get every kind of clothing as well as knives, jewelry, Spanish linens, small electrical components, and you-name-it, besides having keys made on the spot. We joined the strollers while keeping a close eye (and hand) on our valuables but took a pass on the merchandise. Another form of entertainment we found was running the gauntlet up our street from the Puerta del Sol to our hostel on Gran Via past the working ladies who positioned themselves along the way both day and night. Juxtapositioned across from them were almost always 3 police cars and 6 municipal police who plied the street as well. Their simultaneous presence would suggest some unspoken truce or understanding. After all, the ladies simply stood, leaning against the buildings or talking among themselves. All those restive women with nothing to do. Which is not to suggest that we selected a less-than-desirable part of town. Granted, besides the shoe shops and cafes there were a number of sex shops as well. But this was no Combat Zone of Boston fame. All of the above rubbed shoulders with four-star hotels and pricey department stores, along with a constant throng of people moving about the whole gamut every night as part of the dance.

A little baudy, a little naughty in Plaza Mayor

A little baudy, a little naughty in Plaza Mayor

One night on our way to find some little place to eat, out and about at the earliest possible hour of 8:00pm for dinner fare, we came across a violin, cello, and viola trio unceremoniously positioned against a department store, adding a classical air to the early evening. The music glided and swept around us, and we stopped to the side along with others to listen. Dave seemed to think the piece was Pacabel. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhat does it sound like??¢‚Ǩ¬ù he asked. To my ?¢‚Ǩ?ìear?¢‚Ǩ¬ù it sounded like the wonderful strings of viola and violin with the bass of the cello. But not recognizable as Pacabel, which I know. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìIt sounds like something classical?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, was all I could say. Soon the song ended and they began another. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìVivaldi?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ?¢‚ǨÀúFour Seasons,?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢?¢‚Ǩ¬ù Dave informed me. I couldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t recall ?¢‚Ǩ?ìFour Seasons?¢‚Ǩ¬ù though I knew I had heard it many times before. Suddenly there came a little flourish of notes in a marked cadence, the sound of strings in a familiar coupling, and what before had been merely pleasant became a memory released, a lost friend found. Without thinking, the tune sprang from my lips surprising even myself, and Dave and I embraced to share this unexpected poignant moment.

Ah, surprising Madrid. It swept me off my feet.

Flamenco, the grand dance of Spain

Flamenco, the grand dance of Spain

Give me Istanbul

Instanbul's Blue Mosque at sunset

Instanbul’s Blue Mosque at sunset

After Asia, Europe seems like another civilization. OK, it is but still?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ something seems like a long lost friend here. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve always pooh-poohed the European travel thing, having a strict bias towards Asia, beginning with my stay in Nepal many years ago and gathering steam in visiting other points east. Arriving in Istanbul from Penang, Malaysia (via Bangkok) I had a flash of familiarity, and it was from the comfort of things western. Not like McDonald?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s or Pizza Hut. Asia had those to little effect, but western style architecture, signage, words I could sound out and at least have a hope to understand. Also a somewhat less chaotic (to me anyway) style of urban living, no more horse carts, chickens, open butcher shops with sides of pork getting hacked up. Penang was full of these sites, as well as being hot, almost too hot to enjoy. An Asian city like Penang seems all a jumble, somehow just managing to sort itself out. A gloriously mad tussle, the teeming throng.

A streetcar moves down an Istanbul street

A streetcar moves down an Istanbul street

And then, after a long flight from Bangkok, through Dubai, we got to experience the sudden transition of being in the west. We came into Istanbul late and it was a dark taxi ride to the Sultanamet neighborhood. The darkness offered only glimpses of the huge mosques; Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, that with Topkapi Palace lend the characteristic profile to this city. Their palpable, timeless presence, almost hidden by the night were waiting for us as we emerged from our modest room in Ayasofya Hotel. We came out onto the cobblestone streets of old Istanbul into a clear-crisp late winter morning. A full strength revelation emerged as well; the realization that my prejudices regarding Europe (we were, after all, right on its edge) were proving false. The familiar-exotic axis still swung distinctly towards the exotic with the morning call to prayer coming from the many minarets and the multi-domed mosques looming overhead. But it was a glimpse of something familiar inside all of it that was comforting somehow, something that looked like me.

Sweeping up in the cafe below Topkapi Palace

Sweeping up in the cafe below Topkapi Palace

My bias away from Western Europe is that it seems to be pretty much the same as America. I always assumed that travel to London or Paris would be like travel to some new region of the States. Language differences aside, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d still see malls, lots of shiny new cars and all the same haggard parents chasing after similarly indulged children. That type of travel was poison for me; until now I practiced strict avoidance. This entry into Europe via Istanbul was then the perfect antidote. I was pleased to be discovering an exotic western city. The same?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but different. something about the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnot quite familiar?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is even more tantalizing and intriguing then the patently strange.

Preparing to tour the Blue Mosque

Preparing to tour the Blue Mosque

The vision of Istanbul that first morning was a craggy, weathered version of my own culture. Not a precise projection back, more like a distant relative from the old country. One with a different history, different language, even different behavior. But one who still has the familiar compliment of facial features that conveys relatedness.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

The city carries the vintage of buildings from the post-war era; tattered now but full of character and personal scale. The sweet shops with their honey-soaked pastries, sandwich stands and compact general stores pocket the streets. The faces on the pedestrians are severe as people get about their business, but smiles appear too in small knots of conversation here and there.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

All this ?¢‚Ǩ?ìpace of life?¢‚Ǩ¬ù stuff is common. The grand plaza, shouldered by the two great mosques, is singular. To stand in the middling space and turn first left, then right is to have two competing, yet complimentary, visions. The Blue Mosque is sedate; slate-blue grey and geometrically symmetrical. Precise. Harmonious. Resonating perfectly in the music of the spheres. Hagia Sophia is muscular; warm, orangey-red tones and massive. Brooding. Powerful. A much more earth-bound structure but sublime and full of enchantment and mystery as well. After visiting both it was fun to stand there between them and look first left, then right. The same. Different. Left. Then right. The guy selling those tasty sesame covered bread rings from his cart probably thought I had a tick. But I knew that I had only this moment to attach them to memory. And this city with its contradictions and continuities, with its tantalizing similarities, was giving me something.

Where Are You From?

The bustling Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

The bustling Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

As we briskly walked through the carpet souk at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul a man stopped Dave to ask us, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhere are you from??¢‚Ǩ¬ù The United States, Dave told him. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhy don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t more people from your country come here??¢‚Ǩ¬ù he wanted to know. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a hard question to answer and one we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve heard all too frequently, from Bali onward. We usually give the standard answer that people are afraid. And indeed they are, for a variety of reasons. Recent bombings in Bali and Spain, both places on our itinerary. Imagined reprisals from Muslims. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s easy to get caught up in the fear from recent events. It was even suggested to us by someone before we left that we tell everyone that we are from Canada. That never seemed like a viable, or realistic, solution to any potential problems because of our nationality.

The face of Istanbul

The face of Istanbul

Cool guy sports Stef's sunglasses in hot Bali

Cool guy sports Stef’s sunglasses in hot Bali

Like everyone else our transport driver to Lovina Beach in Bali wanted to know where we were from. His response to our answer was a smile and then something along the lines of, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m not sure I like George Bush.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s our turn to smile and say we don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t care too much for him either, which in this case and other instances becomes an easy opening conversation and an intriguing window into others?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ views of the US government. Another man in Bali assured us that he liked George Bush. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìHe?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s strong,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù he said. Interesting perspective. Going into an antique store on Jonker Street in Malacca, the proprietor came up with a surprising rejoinder after we assured him we didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t vote for Bush or much care for him. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìBut he IS your president,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù he said. Touch?ɬ©. A well-deserved come-uppance, I suppose. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI like Americans,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù the man at the caf?ɬ© in the last Turkish town before the Greek border told us on our way to Athens. But he went on to add, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìGovernment, uh, no!?¢‚Ǩ¬ù It seems to be the common sentiment.

Fruit vendor at Lovina Beach

Fruit vendor at Lovina Beach

At times it feels like we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re inhabitants of a lost continent whose fellow citizens have long since passed into obscurity. We scan guest books in museums and tourist information centers for nationalities. USA is a rare entry. There?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a look that passes over people?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s faces when we say we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re from the States, a mixture somewhere between wonder and remembrance of something long forgotten. Those who want to know more specifics and have heard of Chicago invariably say, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìMichael Jordan, basketball.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù At least we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve moved passed Al Capone. Our travels haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t seemed that far off the familiar path of common destinations. Yet there it is. We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve not encountered many fellow Americans so far or seen evidence of their passing through.

Penang profile

Penang profile

In all of the places we visit during this journey and have been to in the past, the most lasting memories will always be my encounters with people, not the grand vistas or historical buildings spoken of in guide books. Spending the night on the transit lounge floor in Bangkok airport with a group of central Asian pilgrims returning from the Haj, getting a ride to our Singapore hostel door from a pair of sisters when we seemed lost in the metra station, sharing a cup of tea with a carpet merchant in Istanbul, or talking with a young Bangladeshi man selling roses along the promenade at the base of the Acropolis are opportunities to catch a glimpse into another?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s world. Sometimes there?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s little language except for a smile and a shared laugh, but that may be all that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s needed to bring us a little closer. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI am not like you,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù our desert guide in the Sahara remarked to us during our trip to Morocco in 2000 when we were amazed at his ability to walk the desert with only thin sandals and sometimes barefoot. Indeed, we are not. But our encounters with others along the way help us see the commonalities that bind us together, to see the human despite the differences. In this age of fear, I think that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s exactly what?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s needed.

New found friend in Penang

New found friend in Penang

The Search for the Perfect Murtabak

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m sitting in our room in Penang, Malaysia and not far from here, in some small restaurant lost to memory, is found that holy grail of Malaysian cooking: The Perfect Murtabak. When I traveled through here 16 years ago I stumbled on this local dish, a griddle-fried bread filled with goodies and topped with a mild, sweet curry sauce. I took a stroll from my guesthouse that long-ago morning and came across a man slapping dough on a greased stone, actually sort of flipping it, very skillfully against the surface to stretch it out into a thin disk about two feet around. Then onto the hot griddle it goes to toast before it gets filled with egg and onion and folded into a neat square. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhat is this?, I asked. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThis is Murtabak?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, he replied.

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The smell was wonderful, my curiosity prevailed on me, and soon I had the pleasure of diving into one of the most delightful breakfasts of my life. The bread was toasty, with a crisp but chewy texture, the egg and onion chimed in, and the perfect compliment was the spicy tang of the curry sauce; not your overblown Northern Indian potent type of curry but a more delicate and exotic flavor that I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even identify then as curry. My life changed that morning 16 years ago, and it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s brought me to my current state; finding myself trying to recapture that moment in my Search for the Perfect Murtabak.

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

At that time I thought it wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t be difficult. Living in Chicago, I knew the chances were very good I could find murtabak in some restaurant, maybe up on Devon Avenue where the Indian and Pakastani cuisines thrive. I was to be disappointed though. It turns out that murtabak is an uniquely Malaysian dish, the Indian and Chinese cultures that influenced this country in so many other ways don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t feature it. Chicago, as far as I could tell, offered no one the ability to partake in the delights of murtabak. I spent 16 years telling of the joy I found that morning in Penang, at that little restaurant lost to memory, tucking into forkfulls of murtabak dressed in sweet red-brown curry.

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan's palace

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan’s palace

And now it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s threatening to ruin my marriage. As I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve traveled from city to city up the long length of the Malaysian Peninsula, trying to regain the thrill of that single encounter with murtabak, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve discovered to my horror that my wife doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t particularly like it. We ordered it in Singapore, at one of the large food courts in Chinatown. Chicken murtabak this time (the sardine variety is supposedly very tasty but I took a pass), which arrived not folded into a neat square but oblong, and sliced. I was back in the company of my beloved murtabak at last and though this version was a bit more bready and somewhat lacking in the filling of goodies, the sauce was much as I remembered it. Stefanie gave it a try upon my incessant ravings and urgings but she was left unimpressed. I was crushed, of course, but found consolation by discussing the shortcomings of this particular version. Too ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbready?¢‚Ǩ¬ù.

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

We traveled next to Malacca, the old port city of the spice trade days, just up the coast from Singapore. The remnant of the old fort is still there, as is the ruined church on the hill where St. Francis Xavier was once buried. In the same historical district is a beautifully recreated sultan?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s palace, all in a dark wood, looking just like the day the slaves finished building the original (it burned to the ground 150 years ago). Later that evening we went down the streets of the old city along the Jonkers Walk and into one of the many antique stores found there. We saw elaborately carved ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbridal beds?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢, like small open-side rooms actually, massively detailed, all shipped to the States for around $3500, if you please. Stefanie was heartbroken to leave behind a lovely celadon ginger jar painted with Chinese script.

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

Malacca was wonderful but I ate no murtabak there, and soon we were on our way up to the Cameron Highlands to a small town called Tanah Rata. We needed to change buses in Kuala Lumpur where the bus station includes a warren of bus ticket windows for countless numbers of private little bus companies. They all cry out in jangled chorus to snag the customer before the other guys does. We just kept asking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìCameron Highlands??¢‚Ǩ¬ù and walked in the indicated direction past rows of windows until we found our guy, tucked away near the end of the second aisle. Fetching our tickets, we found the bus that would take us up the road north to the Highlands. After a couple of hours on the main highway we exited onto a winding mountain road that led into the jungle-covered hills of central Malaysia.

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

The days were cooler in Tanah Rata and we found the perfect little guesthouse up on a small hill south of town. One night, after a day spent walking through a brilliant green tea plantation, I set out to find a murtabak that would match my memory. I knew it was a crapshoot, picking the right place. Much murtabak to be found around Tanah Rata?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but where is THE murtabak, the one from my dreams? We finally settled on a small street-side restaurant. I ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ well, you know what. Stefanie ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Roti, another type of pan-fried bread. Now the story of my search takes an unexpected turn. For, you see, my murtabak was good. But the more I munched on my chicken murtabak, and the more we compared it to samples of Stefanie?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s cheese roti, the more I began to agree with her; the roti was BETTER! Damn that roti! So delicious! So tantalizingly close to my beloved memory of my first murtabak. Maybe the chicken filling was confusing things!!

Tomorrow, in Penang, I will attempt to find the Perfect Murtabak. This time it will be simple and straightforward. No chicken murtabak, not even sardine murtabak (which I can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t quite get up for)?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but egg murtabak, in Penang. Malaysia. This time for keeps.

Stuck in Singapore

Colorful crowded streets of Chinatown in Singapore

Colorful crowded streets of Chinatown in Singapore

Arriving at the airport last Friday we were congratulating ourselves on our mastery of Singapore?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s bus and subway system, conquered over our 3 day stay. We were especially proud of the fact that we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d made it to the airport by the recommended 2 hours prior to takeoff for our flight to Mumbai, India. But our smugness soon turned into chagrin when we discovered that India requires a special entrance visa, something we had not thought we needed and something we were sorely without. A torturous bus trip to the India embassy, with a drop-off of our luggage at our guest house, saw us arrive 15 minutes after closing time. And to compound our dilemma, a seemingly knowledgeable person standing in the outer courtyard informed us that it would take 5 working days to process our passports. In an instant Goa had slipped off our map.

Stefanie lost in Mustafa mall

Stefanie lost in Mustafa mall

As travelers on the lean budget plan, it took us exactly 30 seconds to come to the conclusion that an additional week in Singapore was out of the question. Singapore is an infinitely interesting, cosmopolitan, multi-cultured and clean city with an endless supply of air conditioned malls. However, it is also infinitely challenging to stay within our means in such a high-end place. We needed to escape to a more reasonable economy, and soon. Plan B was in formation before we had left the embassy grounds and was on its way to completion by the time we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d walked the several blocks to Orchard Road for a cheap lunch of curry puffs and fish balls from one of the ubiquitous stands found there amidst the tony shopping centers. While eating our lunch on a bench in the shade of the tree-lined street, we decided upon an alternative destination. When traveling the world, there are plenty of options. Peninsular Malaysia called.

Fugian dancers in graceful pose

Fugian dancers in graceful pose

Back at our guesthouse, we were soon pouring over tourist information booklets on Malaysia and studying the train and bus routes north. Our hostess, April, gave us some tips on bus travel and information on guesthouses in the areas we were most interested in visiting. By late morning the next day we had connected with our travel agent stateside and had confirmed new flights out of Bangkok, to arrive in Istanbul March 8th as originally planned. With a good idea of where we wanted to go and how to get there, and no further reason to remain, we decided to seize the moment and be on our way since it was still early afternoon. We packed our bags once more, settled our bill, and set out hoping to make Malacca, Malaysia, south of Kuala Lumpur, by early evening in time to hunt down reasonable accommodations. Our plan was to catch a local bus to Johor Bahru, just across the border from Singapore, where we could connect with a bus northward to Malacca, a cheaper option than a direct route from Singapore.

Soft hues of lotus blossoms at streetside

Soft hues of lotus blossoms at streetside

Four buses (including a wrong one due to miscommunications) and 2 hours later, we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d made it just to the far side of the border, a distance no greater than 10 kilometers. Once through customs and headed to what we thought was our connecting bus, Dave was snagged by one of the many taxi guys just outside the building. Dripping with sweat from carrying our bags through the dense humidity and heat, off-loading from 2 buses required to get us through the border, we made a quick decision to go with the information our taxi guy was telling us. That it was 15 kilometers to the bus station and there weren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t any buses going there. As we climbed into his car ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a private one ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the heavens opened and torrents of rain fell from the sky, obliterating our view of what supposedly was Johor Bahru. Welcome to Malaysia. Fifteen minutes later as we began to believe we were driving in circles, the bus station appeared. Unable to drive through the terminal gates to the entry because he was not licensed, our taxi guy stopped at a distant curb where we disembarked for a mad 30-yard dash to the safety of the bus shelter.

A bicycle rickshaw -- not one of our transportations

A bicycle rickshaw — not one of our transportations

Now soaked to the skin, we lugged our baggage into the terminal in search of an express bus going to Malacca. The next one was scheduled to depart in half an hour. But first we needed Malaysian ringgits in exchange for our Singapore dollars, which the money changers at the terminal were happy to oblige, along with changing a few US dollars when 2 different ATMs failed us. Back at the ticket counter we purchased our tickets, then hit the McDonald?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s (yes, McDonald?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s!) for a take-out sack of cheeseburgers, fries, and cokes, and finally made a quick pit stop at the restroom with a little time to spare before boarding our bus.

The dancing lions' message of good fortune

The dancing lions’ message of good fortune

In Malacca, we hit pay dirt when Dave phoned the guesthouse and found a vacancy. We caught the local #17 bus as instructed, only to be let out very prematurely in unknown territory. Happily, it was on a busy street with frequent cabs. We haled one and arrived safely a short time later at our guesthouse some 8 hours after our journey began. Six buses, 2 cab rides and one torrential downpour later, we had finally managed our exit from Singapore.

The Return

You can go ahead and laugh at the superstition behind the Wishing Tree. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll just stand off to the side, arms folded, with that ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI know better?¢‚Ǩ¬ù look on my face. By the time we arrived at the airport in Bali, my wayward bag was sitting there with a red ?¢‚Ǩ?ìrush?¢‚Ǩ¬ù tag on it, next to the luggage carousel. I just know that that orange, tied to a wish, hanging up in that tree in Hong Kong, had something to do with it. Now, the other wish about lording over the known universe is looking more in the bag for me.

It seems to take me at least a couple days to transit the mental space between here and there, in this case between Hong Kong and Bali. The typical adjustments of travel; changes in currency and climate, orientation to the new lay of the land, etc, take some focus to achieve. It usually takes me that long anyway to begin to feel a part of each new place. Inside that time frame I usually feel a little disjointed.

Since I was here once before, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m also dealing with ?¢‚Ǩ?ìreturn visit syndrome?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. My first urge is to tell Stefanie, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìyou wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t believe how nice it was here 15 years ago?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. Well shut your cake hole you big fat travel snob. OK, maybe Ubud (our home in Bali for the first week) was less crowded back then. On that basis maybe it was marginally nicer since less of my touristy types always equals better (forgetting for the moment that I am one of those tourists). But isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t it curious how memory manages to sift out all those nasty little problematic negatives associated with distant experiences. For example, the last time I was in Bali I was also nearly broke and struggling to finesse a bank transfer to pay my lodging bill. Memory makes the grand positive out of the past. It can use that as a bludgeon then to pummel your appreciation for things during the return visit.

Our memories of first trips are unique. Eye opening. Revelatory. But I have to remind myself that they are also a fabricated assemblage of glowing details seen in the sweet gloss that comes from having a positive initial experience. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve sifted out all the negatives by now to create a nice little romance story. The return visit I experience now not only lacks that gloss of novelty, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s also a much more vivid mixed bag of good and bad. So it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a false comparison. Of course that first trip to Bali kicks butt?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ because god, it sure was great back then.

Total illusion. The classic downfall of the travel snob. And the big reason I think that this is a problem is that it begins to interfere with my ability to appreciate the events as they occur and people I meet. If I decide that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m having a bad time then guess what, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s no picnic for the people I meet either. Each encounter during any given day has the potential to transform, for good or bad. And those moments are abundant. Sometimes I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m amazed at how small gestures or behaviors from others affect my mood, and my opinion of people and places. To think that my attitude towards others has the same effect?¢‚Ǩ¬¶

We were talking about these things over dinner and Stefanie gave a good illustration. While we were waiting for the plane to take us from Vancouver to Hong Kong she began to get a little anxious about what comes next. The flight attendant who took her ticket greeted her with such open warmth and measured calm that she instantly forgot her concerns and understood that all would be well. It transformed the moment for Stefanie and she was left not just impressed with that one Chinese woman but helped her believe that those she was yet to meet in Hong Kong would treat her the same.

Part of the problem of thinking, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìit was all so much better the last time I was here?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is that I may miss out on all that.

It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a complaint I hear all too often among frequent travelers. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t ever believe it when you hear that a place is not worth visiting anymore. If you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve never been there, go. It will probably be spectacularly worth it. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t use someone else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s take on how someplace has changed for the worse as your guide. You?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve never been there before. Enjoy the first moments. Let second moments and return visits be what they are. Someone else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s fiction (or your own) can lead you off the trail of a treasure.

A Rainy Season

It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s raining gulley whoppers and the old man is dumping tons of potatoes on his bridge. This booming thunder sounds just that way, like there?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s someone up in the sky dropping loads of potatoes, or maybe bricks, just like my mother used to tell it. I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know when I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve seen it rain so much ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú certainly not since we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve been here. It started shortly after noon and has been unrelenting these past 2 hours. But I can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t complain, as it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s finally cool, and we have a fabulous deep porch to hide out on that overlooks Sri Ratih?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s courtyard of frangipani and other tropical flowering trees.

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve been trying mightily to physically and mentally overcome the heat these past several days. Mostly to little avail. We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve determined that any activity, even slight, is best accomplished in segments. Planning a walk into town, perhaps a half-mile, is done ever-so-slowly with a couple sit-down rests along the way.

Beyond dehydration and heat exhaustion, walking poses perhaps a more immediate hazard ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú that of getting hit by a motor scooter or jeep as they go hurtling past at a frightening pace. It doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t help that they?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going opposite to my usual sense of traffic orientation so that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve learned to look behind me if I step off of the sidewalk.

So, the rain today is welcome on several fronts, to cool us, to give us rest, but also as an added incentive to just sit quietly, without heed of what place we should be going. Simply to be in the moment, watching the birds and enjoying the beauty around us.

Lost in Hong Kong

It’s more than a cliche to say you better be ready for anything when you travel around the world. And the way we do it, the unexpected can often come in torrents. A long flight from Chicago to Vancouver B.C. to Hong Kong ended with the added thrill of lost luggage as we stood and watched the carousel go round and round and people disappeared one by one. Stefanie picked up her backpack right away and that seemed like a good sign until we were left alone in the claim area with dying hopes. Nice way to kick it off, get the weirdness out of the way right up front so we won’t have to wonder when it’s coming. We filled out the forms and the nice men promised to call as soon as there was any news. I kind of kissed off seeing my little satchel until at least Bali since we are only here two days.

Hong Kong neon

Hong Kong neon

The last thing I’d do is let that kick my butt. I’m ready to enjoy this come hell or unavoidable consequence so we grabbed our bus into Kowloon and I fought hard to not let that loss break hard on me. Everything in the bag except my wedding ring can be replaced so what the heck, we got our health right? I went through the stages of grief as quickly as possible on the bus ride to the hotel because I wanted to get into the much-anticipated joy of arrival if at all possible. I managed to keep my pouting to a minimum and, for the most part, internal.

The streets of Kowloon

The streets of Kowloon

We tried to get a good night’s sleep after checking in to the hotel. Our room was tiny and the two single beds ate up all the maneuvering space so we had to take turns moving around as we settled in. The double dose of Sominex got me knocked out for a few hours but soon I was back to the insomnia as I wandered through plans to get on without my backpack.

The Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Next morning we were up around nine, asking our hotel staff how to get to the wishing tree. Stef had her own reasons to make use of this Hong Kong custom and I just developed my own special need to make a wish regarding lost possessions. We mastered the Hong Kong rapid transit system and transferred our way up to a small town in the New Territories, the northern fringe of the former colonial region. After a quick cab ride we executed a commando raid on the wishing tree since we had only one day to see all of Hong Kong. The wishing tree custom involves tossing an orange tied to a scroll with your wish up into a tree, hopefully getting it lodged in the branches. You only get three tries. I got my two wishes written out and tossed into the trees. Stefanie got her bundles of wishes up too after buying one replacement for the second uncooperative orange.

Stef has success making her wish

Stef has success making her wish

Back down to Kowloon past the same lovely rural scenery we saw on the way up, we transferred onto the train that took us under the channel and on to the island of Hong Kong. The shiny, largely glass and metal city with its amazing blur of humanity rushing about greeted our rise from that submarine express. What at first I took to be frantic and oppressive actually grew on me fondly as the rest of the day progressed. The city is an elaborate 3-dimensional maze of triple-deck causeways and interlocking buildings. Often we wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t realize when a hall between two stores became a connection between them. At other times just finding our way back outside at street level was a challenge. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìJaw-dropping?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I kept repeating to myself. Like nothing I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen.

Statue Square

Statue Square

We had lunch with the locals in a noodle shop and then went from site to site, using our Xerox copies from the libraries guide book to lead us on. One of the only buildings older then fifty is the old Courthouse and we used the Statuary Square in front for a brief water break. We headed up through the HSBC building (a billion dollar wonder of exoskeletal construction) to gaze up twenty stories at into the hollowed out center atrium and then, through another causeway, headed out into a lovely tiered garden by the old Episcopal cathedral. After another short break in the lovely, cool interior with wood beamed and blue ceiling, we went up to take the tram up Victoria Peak. This famous overlook gave us our first overall look at this city and I agreed when Stefanie remarked, “modern architecture sometimes looks uniform and boring close up but from a distance the assembly can be very impressive”.

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Our day ended back on the Kowloon side, sitting on the promenade doing some people watching while the sun went down over Hong Kong. The bus ride back to the airport in daylight revealed easily the largest harbor complex we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen. Miles of docks, cranes, freighters and container cargo, receeding of into the vast distance.

The luggage left behind was fast becoming symbolic of what we had tried to leave. We made a promise to travel lightly but we had no idea just how extreme that commitment was.

The "Star" promenade at sunset

The "Star" promenade at sunset

Hong Kong harbor

Hong Kong harbor