Monday, April 30, 2012

Did Dr. Seuss Visit Penang?

When I leave home to walk to school Dad always says to me,
"Marco keep your eyelids up, and see what you can see."
But when I tell him where I've been, and what I think I've seen,
He looks at me and sternly says, "Your eyesight's much too keen.
Stop telling such outlandish tales,
Stop turning minnows into whales."
Now, what can I say when I go home today?
                  From And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
                  by Dr. Seuss (published 1937)

Oh, how I used to love this book as a child. I remember lying on my bed, turning the pages to look at Dr. Seuss's outlandish illustrations and enjoying the story Marco embellishes about what he sees on his way home from school along Mulberry Street. Growing up in a quiet Houston suburb, I never saw anything more exciting than a golf cart rolling down the lane. My children cannot make the same claim. No need to invent sights to behold because, unlike on Mulberry Street, anything is possible in Penang. Sometimes I wonder if Dr. Seuss ever had the chance to visit this city. Perhaps it would have inspired him.

Walking home Friday, my daughter exclaimed, "Watch out for the cow, Mama," as we strolled through the school parking lot. Cow? We're in an area filled with homes, condo towers and beach resorts. There are no pastures nearby. Why would a cow be here? But she was right.

Does Penang have leash laws regarding cattle?

Then came another cow on a leash. It seems that the school parking lot was the perfect place to graze. Whatever! If my story ended here, I'd still claim it was worth telling people.

Nom, nom. Can't talk. Eating grass.

Next thing I knew, I had to jump off the sidewalk as a man on a motor scooter zipped by on it. This is actually not all that unusual here. He pulled into the parking lot and gave a ride to the two cowboys.

A little further down the road, I came across what Dr. Seuss might call  "a broken down wagon".

Even in Penang, you don't normally see this on the road.

They were busy tying flowers onto the posts. Like Marco in the story, I guess they thought their cart was a little too tame. My two younger kids didn't seem the bit enthralled by the sights we had just seen.

After a while, my middle school child was a bit past due for arriving home, so I headed back to the school to find him. (This is when I started seriously considering getting him a mobile phone.) Aha! No "Rajah with Rubies", but the cart was completely decorated.

A flower bedecked chariot is something to see, sitting aside on Mulberry Street. 

But now... I don't know... It still doesn't seem right...

But it'd look simply grand with a great big Drum Band!

A band that's so good should have someone to hear it.

A large crowd gathered behind the cart.

People were streaming from the nearby hotels over to the cart. They were mostly Indians, but I saw Chinese and Malays, too. Many people had thumbprint-sized red dots on their forehead, much bigger than the bindis I'm accustomed to seeing on women. Looking around on the internet, I'd guess it was a tilaka symbolizing the third eye. But I really don't know and don't have a way to confirm it.

At this point, my oldest kid finally emerged from the school.

Clearly this cart was "really too heavy a load for one beast." It needs two cows at least. Ahhh, now the cows make sense. The cart started to make its way onto the busy street, followed by the crowd, drummers, and someone blowing a whistle rhythmically.

Say! That makes a story no one can beat (when I say that I saw it on Mulberry Street).

But then there came an "awful traffic mix-up."

It takes Police to do the trick,
To guide them through where traffic's thick!

A few uniformed guards stepped out in front of the procession, halting traffic where necessary. You can imagine how quickly the cross traffic flew when they saw what was coming down the road towards them. Stopping at red lights was not an option!

Confetti started popping out. Not dropped from airplanes as in Dr. Seuss's story but shot out of hand-held cardboard tubes instead. There was a even a Chinese boy running behind them — but no magician or man with a 10-foot long beard that I could see.

I was almost home and...

I swung 'round the corner and dashed through the gate,
I ran up the steps,
I felt simply great!
I had a story that no one could beat
(and to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street).

Everything excites me and makes my heart beat! But what exactly did I witness? I don't know. My girl thought maybe it was a funeral procession because of the large portrait on the cart. Were the fireworks coming from the nearby Hindu temple that night a coincidence? Unlike poor Marco with his unimaginative father, you can see anything on Jalan Mulberry. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Japanese Vending Machines

My cousin, Sandra, told me that the Japanese loved vending machines. She said they were everywhere, on sidewalks and down tiny alleys. Well, she was right. My kids are still hoping that in a fog of jetlag, I'll land at a U.S. airport, walk up to a Best Buy vending machine, swipe my credit card and declare, "You were so good on that flight, I'm going to buy you a Nintendo DSi." In the meantime, they got to enjoy the numerous vending machines we encountered in Japan.

Most of the machines served beverages. If you got thirsty walking down the street or standing on a train station platform, there'd surely be a machine nearby so you could quench your thirst. The one in the hallways of the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport hotel even dispensed beer. No I.D. required.

Cigarette vending machines were also popular.  I haven't seen those in America since I was a kid. Back then, you had to pull out the lever to get it to come out. Or so I thought. I never actually bought any. In Japan, there were public smoking areas with rows of cigarette machines all along the back.

Was it coincidence that this cigarette machine
was next to an Automated External Difibrillator (AED)?

You could buy small toys in plastic bubbles, too. However, machines dispensing Nintendo DSi's were no where to be found.

She had a yen for LEGO minifigures.

But the best machines gave you food. At the Kyoto International Manga Museum Cafe, we came across a Ticket Vender. After perusing the numbered menu, you used the machine to place your order. Just insert the appropriate amount of money and push the button for the food item you want. The machine gives you back both change and a printed ticket with your order. Hand the ticket to the person at the counter and find a table. When the food is cooked and ready, a waitress brings it out to you. For drinks, entrees and side dishes for the five of us, we handed over 12 tickets.

The menu is the red-bordered page at the top right of the machine.
Push the button corresponding to the menu item you want.

The most amazing vending machine is the one that gave you HOT food. No kitchen or cook required at this one! My younger boy was feeling a bit peckish one afternoon when we came across it. Other people crowded around eager to watch, but we were the only ones willing to actually pay money to see it in action.

Come and get it while it's hot!

The menu was in Japanese, so I was glad there were pictures. It offered both Western foods like hot dogs or french fries as well as Asian foods such as fried rice or noodles. Everything was priced at 350 yen, or US$4.30. Insert your money and make your selection. A timer lights up, telling you how long to wait to have your hunger sated. My boy chose french fries which took about 90 seconds to cook. As we waited, I joked about Wallace and Gromit-worthy contraptions housed inside the machine that would peel and slice potatoes, heat the oil, fry everything up, drain it, and plate the food. Ding! The machine was done.

Yum, yum! French fries from a vending machine.

He peeled open the box to find a pile of steamy, soft, microwaved french fries. It turns out that a packet of salt was included, but we didn't discover that until the fries were consumed. Were they good? Not in my opinion. Did my boy eat it? Yes, and even had to be strong armed to part with some to share with his siblings.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Malaysian Coffee

Kopi tiams (coffee shops) are an integral part of Malaysian culture. You'll find these ultra-casual open-air establishments everywhere, providing nourishment to the locals before they head off for the day. Most Western style coffee houses like Starbucks don't open until at least 9 a.m. — shocking! — so a kopi tiam is your best bet for coffee in the morning.

But if you just order a kopi (coffee), you may be surprised by what you get. Not grossed out surprised. Just, "Oh, that's not what I expected" surprised. The default way to serve a nice, hot cup of coffee is with sweetened condensed milk mixed into the brew. Lucky for me that I love milky, sweet, coffee goodness! Asking for kopi-o will result in a cup without milk but still sweetened with sugar. Kopi kosong is what most Americans think of as straight up coffee — black, no sugar, no milk.

The coffee is brewed in a sock, what they call the muslin bag attached around the top to a large metal ring with a handle. Ground coffee is placed into the sock and then steeped in hot water. A few spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk are ladled into each cup of coffee, and then the whole mixture is poured back and forth between two cups, one held high above the other, to combine everything and make a nice foam on top.

Malaysians have an interesting way of roasting coffee. Instead of a dry roast, they traditionally stir the beans with butter and sugar in a pan placed over a hot fire. With all the sweetened condensed milk plus my lack of discerning taste buds, I can't really detect a difference in taste from my regular American coffee. Supposedly, this roasting method results in a burnt flavor that masks the harshness of liberica beans typically used.

At the grocery stores, instant coffee gets far more shelf space than coffee beans or ground coffee. Now, I finally understand my parents' penchant for instant. Most of the instant coffee is bags of single serving packets labeled "white coffee" and "3-in-1." At first, my friend and I thought that it was some special light roast, but it turns out that white coffee means instant coffee with nondairy creamer and sugar mixed in. See how it's similar to the kopi served at the restaurants? The white coffee labeled 2-in-1 doesn't have sugar included.

Traditional Penang White Coffee
Now with Mocha!

Worried about coming to Penang and having to give up espresso? You'll be glad to know that Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafes are everywhere, usually right next to each other. On my exploratory trip to Penang, I ordered a Tall Cafe Mocha at Starbucks, and it was just like they serve in America. In fact, it was better than what I usually drink because I forgot to ask for low fat milk, so it had the full creaminess of whole milk in it. That was the point when I realized I could live here. Penang wouldn't be 100% foreign if I could still go to Starbucks.

But not everything is American at a Malaysian Starbucks.

Small, locally owned espresso houses abound in Penang, too.  I'm gradually working my way through them, but here are my favorites so far.

siTigun Bicycle Pit-Stop Cafe is a Italian-style micro roastery that serves knock-your-socks-off espresso plus homemade croissants and other delicious delights.

Kopi C. Espresso at China House is, despite it's name, Australian cuisine and the most talked about restaurant in town right now.

55 Cafe at Coffee Atelier serves an excellent breakfast in addition to espresso. Sneak back towards the bathroom to see the old-fashioned Malay coffee roaster that's no longer in use but still cool to look at.

Double Malay coffee roaster at Coffee Atelier

Lighthouse Coffee is for the coffee connoisseur with its variety of beans, brewing styles (espresso machine, ice drip, French press, and siphon) and syrups plus advanced barista workshops, coffee tastings (like wine tastings) and coffee appreciation seminars.

siTigun picks through green coffee beans before roasting them the Italian way.

Update: Regarding white coffee, I've now heard that it's beans roasted with only butter and no sugar, creating a lighter roast than the traditional way of using both butter and sugar. The instant stuff at the stores still typically contains sugar in the sachet unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Key to Japanese Test Taking? Kit Kats

Some kids in Texas public schools are taking the brand spanking new STAAR exam this week. Touted to be more rigorous than the old assessment test that it replaces, it seems to be universally despised by students, parents and teachers. At least, that's what my extensive research of Facebook friends' status updates tells me. They should take a cue from the Japanese who have quite a history of intensive test taking. Give the students Kit Kats.

Sakura-Maccha Kit Kats with  Green Tea White Chocolate Coating
and Cherry Creme between the wafers.

An explanatory sign was set up by these candy-filled gift boxes.

In Japanese, "Kit Kat" sounds similar to "Kitto Katsutoo!" which means "you're sure to win'' in the Kyushu dialect. Because of this, Kit Kat chocolate is commonly used as a good-luck charm for students taking school entrance examinations. It is also familiarly known as an "omamori" (which means "lucky charm") all across Japan.

So I figure that if you tuck in your kids early for a good night's sleep, fill them up on Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast and send along some Kit Kats for a mid-test snack, they'll definitely ace the exam! There's even a little spot on the back of the package where you can pen your well wishes.

Dear Gen, the answers are hidden inside the wrapper.

A ton of flavors were available in Japan. I've been out of the U.S. long enough so that I'm not sure if some of the ones I thought were unique are offered in the Western Hemisphere as well.
  • Milk Chocolate
  • Sakura-Machha pictured above
  • Cinnamon White Chocolate
  • Cookies and Cream
  • Strawberry White Chocolate
  • Strawberry Cheesecake
  • Orange
  • Almond Tofu Pudding (I'm pretty sure this one is Asia only.)
I really wanted to try Almond Tofu Pudding Kit Kats, but not enough to shell out US$12 for a big box. Cinnamon White Chocolate was yummy.

Good luck and Kitto Katsutoo kiddos!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

U.S. National Park Week: Part 2

From April 21-29, 2012, it's National Park Week in the U.S.A. That means you get free admission at all national parks plus special discounts at selected parks.

We had planned to visit one of the most famous national parks, Yellowstone, last summer. I even made reservations a whole year in advance for hotel rooms with a view of Old Faithful. But fate stepped in and sent us packing halfway around the world instead. Thank goodness the lodge had a very generous cancellation policy. In Part 1, I covered our visits to parks in Washington State, Colorado and Maine. Now, on to the rest!

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Big Island, Hawaii - 2010
This was a place of refuge for the ancient Hawaiians who broke sacred laws. It is an amazingly way cool historical place.

My favorite memory is asking my then 5-year-old how did she think they lifted up the massive rocks to build the tall wall. I thought she'd reply, "Magic," or "Fairies." Instead, she said, "An inclined plane." Thank you Sid the Science Kid!

Ki'i (carved wooden images) made out of ohia wood

Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii - 2010
Here's your chance to visit a live volcano. See the red glow and gasses coming out of Halema'uma'u Crater while standing on the deck of the Jaggar Museum. At night, view lava flowing down the mountain. Explore the cavelike Thurston Lava Tube hidden under the jungle growth and hike the aptly named Devastation Trail where you can observe plant life reestablishing itself after a 1959 eruption.

Visiting the home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes

Modern day lava flows across the old Chain of Craters Road.

Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii - 2010
The landscape changes as you start at sea level, pass Hosmer Grove, and drive up to an elevation of 10,023 feet at the top of Haleakala. Some people even watch the sun rise at the summit then bike down the twisting road.

Missing summit near the top of Haleakala

Alien forest in Hosmer Grove gives way to
native Hawaiian shrubland

I spent many childhood summers nearby in Lake Isabella, but I somehow never made it to this park until last year. Giant trees, the Crystal Cave, and a canyon that's about 8,200 feet deep (2200 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon) all call for your attention.

Pausing for a moment before descending to the bottom of Kings Canyon
to hike Zumwalt Meadow

Driving through Tunnel Log — How much more touristy can you get?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

U.S. National Park Week: Part 1

From April 21-29, 2012, it's National Park Week in the U.S.A. That means you get free admission at all national parks plus special discounts at selected parks. We're a family that visited National Parks every summer until we ended up moving to Malaysia (where we happen to live just 20 minutes away from the smallest Malaysian National Park).

In some ways, I always thought our park visits were a little strange. We are not folks who normally go out on weekend family hikes. We typically spend our free time baking in the kitchen or maybe tinkering with LEGO robotics. But our big vacations always seem to lead us to National Parks.

Over time, I have figured out that even though the kids were small when we started, we've created lasting memories. When my oldest boy studied ancient American civilizations in Social Studies, he couldn't wait to bring in some photos from our trip to Mesa Verde National Park which was home to the Pueblo Cliff Dwellers in Colorado. My younger boy once started babbling on about riding on a boat, eating a hamburger, watching whales, sleeping in a log cabin and eating pancakes. At first (only halfway listening), I thought he was telling me about a dream. He insisted it was real. Then, I realized he was describing our trip from Canada's Victoria Island to Olympic National Park in Washington state that we took when he was only 4-years-old. He made it sound so magical. What kid couldn't love it?

Here are some of my favorite pictures from past trips to U.S. National Parks. I hope that one day, you'll make some time to see some, too.

Olympic National Park, Washington - 2007
With Pacific coast beaches, temperate rainforest, and alpine areas, this place is like three parks in one. Twilight fans have an extra bonus since Forks is reached by driving through the park.

Rialto Beach

Easy alpine trail on Hurricane Ridge

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado - 2008
This park is best known for the cliff dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people. It has everything from hikes so easy a 3-year-old can do it, to more challenging ones that involve climbing ladders up to the cliff side condos.

Spruce Tree House

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado - 2008
This is the home of the tallest sand dunes in North America. The sand gets blazing hot by midday in the summer, so plan on visiting early in the morning. Afterwards, cool off in Medano Creek that runs by the Visitor's Parking.

Can you see that tiny speck of a person just right of center
on the Great Sand Dunes?

Acadia National Park, Maine - 2009
On top of Cadillac Mountain, be one of the first people in America to watch the sun rise for the day. Enjoy popovers and tea at Jordan Pond House. See the rugged Maine coastline and eat lobster. Ahh....

Grabbing some sun on Cadillac Mountain

Post-prandial stroll around Jordan Pond

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll cover a few parks in Hawaii and Sequoia National Park in California.

This post is part of Friday DayDreamin at R We There Yet Mom?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Tokyo's Ueno Park

It all began with a book. A few months ago, I was reading aloud Thea Stilton and the Cherry Blossom Adventure to my kids. If you're not familiar with books "written" by mouseling Thea or her brother, Geronimo Stilton, they are an excellent bridge between picture books and chapter books for young-ish readers. As I described the action-packed story that took the characters from Kyoto to Tokyo, I was suddenly struck with inspiration for our Spring Break trip. We were going to Japan!

Of course, we had to see the cherry blossoms or "sakura" as they are called in Japanese. New England has their leaf peepers, and I think it's an unofficial law that every Central Texas child must be photographed in a field of bluebonnets. That's how the Japanese feel about hanami (cherry blossom viewing). There's a palpable feeling of giddiness in the air if the sakura are in bloom. We were a few days ahead of the peak, but we still had a chance to enjoy the budding trees in Ueno Park. With more than 1000 cherry trees, it's one of the best hanami places in Tokyo.

Young love in bloom
getting their wedding portrait done

Old married couple

Office workers set up blue picnic blankets on the the ground and had a party filled with toasts and gaiety. My oldest boy thought that this was a wedding reception since everyone was wearing suits.

Cherry blossom viewing (hanami) party

Late at night the next day, we saw another group of workers still picnicking under park lights and cherry blossoms, even though it was already dark. The blooming season is short, so work (and sleep) can wait.

Even the manhole covers paid homage to Mother Nature's lovely work.

Though it was a weekday, the park was packed with what seemed to be both locals and tourists. Jugglers put on an impromptu show, and a kimono-clad woman demonstrated the art of Japanese paper cutting (monkiri).

Monkiri - Japanese paper cutting

Thank you, Thea Stilton. Naturally, we brought the book along on our vacation. With a few pages that highlighted some of the most famous sights and activities in Kyoto and Tokyo, it was a great way to build our kids' excitement about the trip.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Many Wonders of Japanese Toilets

Japanese toilets have a reputation for being very advanced and equipped with extra features. So, when our plane landed at Tokyo's Narita Airport, I was eager to find a lavatory for numerous reasons. Outside each entrance to the men's and women's toilets, a handy map was displayed on the wall.

How do I get out of here? Oh, thank goodness there's a map.

I'm sure this comes in handy if you become so totally lost in the bathroom that you can't find your way from the loo to the sinks. Or perhaps it's so you know you're waiting in line for 5 Western toilets and 2 squat potties.

On the outside of each stall, there are icons showing you what's inside. Door #1: Squat potty. Door #2 Western potty. I bet you can guess which one I was waiting for. But wait! What are all those other icons? I chose the one with the most signs.

Top to bottom: Western toilet, baby rest, washlet

Moms of babies and toddlers will surely appreciate the baby rest. I've seen a few in the USA, but these seem to be better constructed. Plus, it frees up your hands to play with all the washlet functions.

My girl was bummed that she was too old to try this out.

Ahhh, the washlet. The highlight of the Japanese toilet experience. For some reason, I actually looked into installing one in my Texas bathroom. It was over US$1000!!! That's just for the fancy seat, not the toilet itself. Needless to say, I decided against it.

Who needs to read on the throne when you can play with all this?

The controls are within easy reach just to the right of the seat. Information overload. What do all those icons mean? Never fear. "How to Use" instructions for "Equipment to cleansing the buttocks with warm water" are posted on the wall.

I can attest that the pink button, 3rd from the left, does not raise you up into the air on a geyser of water as the picture suggests. The musical note button, furthest to the right, plays a recorded flushing noise. Supposedly, Japanese women would be so embarrassed by the noise of any bodily function that they would continuously flush the toilet to cover up the sound. Now, they can just play a recording without wasting water. The washlet is 100X tidier than the flexible hose of Malaysian public toilets.

The toilet at our hotel was even fancier. It actually kind of surprised me when I opened the door, and the lid opened all by itself. I was going to post a video, but I'm guessing you can probably imagine it. There were complicated controls mounted on the wall. At first, I didn't try them out because it was all in Japanese. When you're dealing with that area of the body, you should exercise a little caution. Luckily, our other room had English translations on it.

Controlling the most magical toilet in the world

Its many features included:
  • Unisex soft spray or regular "almost an enema" spray for cleansing of the backside
  • Bidet cleansing for the ladies
  • Oscillating water action
  • Water massage (pulsating action)
  • Water pressure control
  • Adjustable nozzle position
  • Power deodorizer
  • Seat warmer (plus a warning not to accidentally burn yourself)
  • Gentle air drying
  • Dual action flushing
  • Button for raising/lowering the lid
  • Button for raising the seat
  • Automatic flushing
  • STOP
My kids tell me that if you don't sit on it just right, you can shoot water across the room.

Given how hi-tech their toilets are, I was glad to see that at least I understood the basic usage of the Western toilet. Those who are accustomed to squat toilets (also available in many Japanese public restrooms), may have had a harder time with the rudimentary details, so signs were posted for those as well.

What to do? Oh, I see. Lower one part and sit on it.

This one's my favorite. It's from the Mount Fuji First Station lavatory that featured foam flushing instead of water flushing.

Does the person in the top right have
any chance of successfully hitting the target?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Penang's Thai New Year Songkran Water Festival

Wat Chayamankalaram Thai Buddhist Temple

Today kicks off the New Years Celebration in both Thailand and Myanmar. In Thai, it's called "Songkran," and in Burmese, it's "Thingyan." The primary way to celebrate is by throwing water on each other. Doesn't that sound like the perfect way to cool off on a hot day? In Penang, the Thai Buddhist Temple and the Burmese Buddhist Temple sit across the street from each other which makes this place the center of action.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Scare

April 11 was a strange day. My hubby was back at home in Texas for business. In Malaysia, it was a last-minute public holiday for the coronation of the new king. (In an incredibly fair system developed when Malaysia gained independence from England, the ceremonial position of king is a 5-year stint that rotates among Malaysia's nine states' hereditary royal rulers.) Everyone was off from school and work and in a holiday mood. Then, the earth started shaking, and we turned our eyes to the sea to see if a giant wave was going to engulf us.

I had just told my kids that I'd take them to the pool as soon as I finished watering the plants. As I walked around my balcony, I began to feel it bounce beneath me. "Shoddy Malaysian construction," I thought to myself and stepped back inside. That's when I realized that it wasn't just the balcony, the whole building was shaking. My kids had felt it, too, and came out of their rooms.

We decided to head down the stairs. My agile boys made it down quickly, but my girl and I were a little slower. Living a little more than halfway up a 40-story high rise tower, it took me about 8 minutes to get to ground level. When I thought about it hours later, I realized that if the building was shaking hard enough to be structurally dangerous, I probably would have been thrown down the stairs. I should have just stayed put.

After talking with others, it seemed that the higher up a building a person had been, the scarier the quake was. This makes sense. Friends who had been eating at McDonald's, wandering around Little India or hanging out on the beach didn't even feel the shaking. A friend who lives 13 floors lower me initially thought a breeze was just blowing her door back and forth until she realized no windows were open. The one who lives nearly at the top of the 40-story building was the most spooked. Others who lived in older condo towers said the pictures were shaking on the walls or that they couldn't evacuate because the building was moving too much.

There was a small crowd gathered outside by the playground. Murmurs of "8.6 earthquake in Sumatra" started floating around. Soon afterward, people started talking about tsunamis and headed back up into the building. I checked the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and, after much deciphering of the information, figured out that a tsunami was predicted to hit Penang about 4 hours later.

Even though I didn't particularly like the idea of waiting for aftershocks inside the building, we went back upstairs, too. My mother's stories of collapsed towers during the a 1968 Filipino earthquake flitted through my mind. A few of my friends opted to pack their families into the car and drive up to higher ground so that they wouldn't have to be inside. I was optimistic enough to wash school uniforms for the next day but still worried enough to pack a survival pack. (I guess that's what happens when you're the mom of a Boy Scout and read too much Hunger Games.) I loaded up a backpack with flashlights, bottled water, granola bars, a waterproof groundcloth, pocketknife, first aid kit and whistle, then left it by the front door.

Waiting for a tsunami is a weird experience.  I kept looking outside at the water, wondering if the large cargo ships would be swept against my building. I turned on the local news but found coronation coverage on almost every station. Al-Jazeera turned out to have good coverage of the current events. I figured that if the waves hadn't swept over Indonesia, we were probably in good shape.

It turns out that Penang has some sort of tsunami plan in place. Unlike The Big Island of Hawaii, I've never seen "Tsunami Zone" signs or sirens around here. Instead, an ambulance drove down busy waterfront streets loudly announcing the warning in Malay. Hotels in the resort area started closing their beaches. Civil defense personnel rode up and down beaches on motor scooters telling people to clear out.

Two hours after the first quake, an aftershock hit. In my kitchen, the sliding glass door started rattling back and forth. Part of me wanted to go back down, but I convinced myself to stay put. Almost everyone I knew thought that staying high up in a building was the best bet. Those who lived in bungalows accepted the kind offers of their high rise dwelling friends inviting them over.

Finally, my husband woke up in Texas, heard the news reports and gave me a call. I had been worried that the last thing he'd ever hear from me was an email saying, "Earthquake hit. We're going back in the building." It was such a relief to talk with him since he's a rather pragmatic guy. At that point, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reduced the watch area, taking Malaysia off the list. Forty minutes later, about the time the wave had originally been predicted to hit Penang, they canceled the Indian Ocean warning entirely. Thank goodness! Big sigh of relief!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Malaysian Public Toilets

There's a good chance that one of the first things you'll experience in Malaysia is using the public toilet. You could ask someone "Tandas di mana?" or just look around until you see the universal male/female signs for the bathroom. (On a side note, I once almost entered a room clearly labeled "Perempuan" which means "Woman" to use the toilet before realizing it was the gender-segregated Muslim prayer room.)  When you walk into a stall, you may see this.

It's a squat toilet!

If you're not in the mood to try out a squat toilet, 99.9% of the time there's at least one stall with a Western-style sitting toilet. Just wait until one is available, and indicate to others in line that they are welcome to use the stall with the squat toilet. You may notice that the stall doors go all the way down to the floor. I guess that if people are squatting, they don't want people peeking under just to check if the stall is empty.

The only time that a squat toilet was my only option was in a more rural town than Penang. That experience had me going home and Googling "How to use a squat toilet." Believe me, for a lady, it's not as intuitive as it sounds.

Some people accustomed to squatting have the opposite culture shock problem when faced with a sitting toilet. Upon occasion, you'll notice footprints on the sitting toilet's seat. I guess that's the reason some places post this sign.

Please don't squat on the sitting toilet.

It's interesting that the Western versus Asian toilet styles diverged long before the onset of modern sanitation.  When we were visiting a mock-Edo period village in Japan last week, I noticed that their pretend outhouse literally had just a hole in the wooden floor that was best used while squatting. Compare this to a Texan outhouse.

This outhouse had bench seating for two people.

All toilets whether they're for squatting or sitting usually have a flexible hose next to it. The nice places also have a sprayer attachment on the hose's end. The less fancy places skip the hose and sprayer entirely and just have a bucket of water with a ladle.

Hose off to stay fresh.

Many locals, especially the Muslims, feel that you need to rinse with water down there in order to really clean everything off. Typically the floor and seat are both wet from the spraying down process. Sometimes the walls are wet, too. If you have a hang up about splashed-on potties and floors, get over it before you visit Malaysia! I am sooooo glad that my kids are no longer toddlers because I suspect that they would have hit me with a jet of water or dabbled their hands in the water bucket. When a public restroom doesn't have a hose or bucket, I've seen locals fill up a water bottle at the sink and then bring it in with them for a little squirt cleansing. If everything else gets this wet, I don't understand how they keep from soaking their clothes with water, too.

All that water spraying around is the reason why you rarely find toilet paper in the stalls. Look for it by the sinks or next to the entrance/exit before finding a stall. Many times, it doubles as the way to dry off after hand-washing, too. I carry around tissue paper with me for all the times that the toilet paper is completely absent from the facility.

At hubby's work, numerous companies shared a public bathroom. For a while, toilet paper was never stocked in the bathroom because no one wanted to donate it for another company's use. Instead, hubby's company kept their stash next to the door closest to the bathroom hallway. Employees were supposed to grab what they needed for that one trip on their way out the door. I hear that this especially galled the males since it announced to the world if they were intending to do #1 or #2. Not cool. Due to employee feedback, the revolutionary decision was made to start keeping toilet paper in the bathroom itself. Now all they need to do is invent quick-drying stalls.

Web Analytics