Roti Milo

Roti Milo

It may not look as if the slightly sweet, mildly bitter “milo” powder was incorporated into this delightful concoction, but inside that fluffy exterior is a surprising, subtle addition to an otherwise standard-fare snack in Malaysia.

The man running this particular stall explained to me as I was preparing to leave that he had just given a training session to the boy standing there with him – whom I presume to be, his son.

It appeared he had, gathering from the little that I could understand as I watched him explain the steps to the boy while whipping the roti (generally, an Indian unleavened bread) onto the table, spreading dollops of butter across the flat dough, and finally, sprinkling milo powder evenly around.

“Milo”, by the way, is a chocolate and malt powder typically served mixed in with hot or cold water, and sometimes sugar, for extra sweetening. It holds a particularly special place in my own childhood as my chocolate drink of choice, growing up in the Philippines.

The man laughed when the boy seemed unsure of how much milo to put in, as if he were doing so too sparingly. Even I know that you can never use enough milo.

He then folded the roti to create a pocket that kept the butter and milo altogether before placing it carefully on the well-oiled, rounded skillet that looks like the kind you would use for a crepe.

Each side of the square piece of roti was perfectly cooked to a flaky crisp, while maintaining a slight fluffiness to the dough inside.

It was worth the wait – watching this man and this boy, carefully make this roti for me. Perhaps he was preparing the boy to the run the business for him in the future. After all, he did refer to this morning as a training.

Which leads me to wonder how many of these makeshift establishments here in Penang will survive another generation growing older, and perhaps, further removed from carrying on this kind of family business. While roti would, on average, cost the customer no more than two ringgit a piece (around 60 cents), the labor cost is significant.

From the preparation of the dough ahead of time, to the cooking of various sauces (in my experience, typically a curry and a tamarind “daal” for dipping), to the kneading, slapping, and frying creation of the ordered roti, all in all it is a labor-intensive process. Not to mention, the man working this particular roti stall said he’s open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

After preparing mine, the boy immediately took a piece of dough and started pushing his palms into it, getting ready for the next customer’s order. As I was leaving, I told the man, the next time I come by, perhaps I’ll be buying my roti from his son, and not him. But after saying so, I realized that I wasn’t so sure.

Lost in Langkawi

We were quickly running out of options.

What appeared to be our final way home from Langkawi had quickly become just another dead-end. When we arrived at the bus station in Kuala Perlis, a gaunt, silver-haired man smoking a cigarette noticed our panicked, weary faces and decided to give us the finality we needed to hear.

“You can’t buy tickets here,” he said.

My wife and I and our two visiting friends, Ryan and Marian, huddled together without any other plan.

Then the old man broke our silence and said, “I have a van.”

But taking up his offer could be the makings of some terrible headline the following morning that would read:

“Four Hitchhikers Found in a Field”

Desperate for a safer alternative, we rushed the driver the moment his bus pulled in, asking if he had any room, offering him whatever cash we had. He counted the number of seats available. He only had one.

We went back to the old man, our spirits deflated. He told us it would cost RM300 for the three-hour ride down to Penang. We really had no bargaining power whatsoever.

“Give me a few minutes,” the man gently asked.

“Why?” I said curtly, surprising even myself.

“I want to pray.”

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My wife and I live in Penang, and it did not take long to discover Langkawi as a go-to destination for Malaysians, particularly those on the western coast of the country. It is an easily accessible getaway from cities like Penang and Kuala Lumpur, so locals and tourists alike head there for decent beaches, good, affordable food, and a respite from a faster pace of life.

Ryan and Marian were long-time friends from my college days who are much acquainted with urban living in Oakland, California. It was my idea, then, that an island excursion for all of us would be most appropriate.

The morning of our trip to Langkawi, however, we found ourselves already on a mad dash just to reach the jetty.

My wife frantically weaved through traffic with the clock ticking, so we could pick up the tickets I chose not to print out beforehand and reach the boat departing at 8:30 a.m.

Miraculously, we made it, and after a smooth-sailing, three-hour boat ride, we booked a car to travel around the island. We proceeded to the northeast of the island, to the idyllic Tanjung Rhu beach.

While the waters weren’t as green and pristine as we had hoped, we stuck around until the sun became a burnt orange to witness another shore emerge from underneath the water, making for a picturesque, sandy “walkway” dissecting the shallow sea.

Langkawi_Shore-1024x768

My wife and I took a long stroll along the new shore that surfaced, while Ryan and Marian bought some fresh coconuts. We took our time drinking up the warm juice and scraping up the coconut meat. By the time we were through, it was dusk.

Suddenly I remembered we had to head to our hotel before dark. We had already missed our original check-in time so we could head to the beach instead.

We drove in circles in the middle of the island, lost and panicking about how to reach our hotel until, after finding the coast, we noticed a dimly lit road with a makeshift billboard that read, in tiny letters, “Ocean Residence” the name of our hotel I couldn’t remember earlier. For some reason, I hadn’t written it down anywhere.

It was too late to appreciate the actual ocean view the hotel had boasted, but at least, the four of us could enjoy a cozy, loft-style, brick-interior lodging for the remainder of the evening.

The following morning promised to be a little less stressful.

After checkout, we couldn’t leave our hotel right away, because I had accidentally set our car alarm off and it wouldn’t turn off.

The workers at the residence started to gather around us, confused and visibly annoyed. One of the men decided to take the keys from me to look at the car himself, fiddling with the exposed wires underneath the dashboard, popping open the hood, and eventually, unscrewing the plug for the car battery altogether, just so the noise would stop.

The manager made a call to the car rental office. In 15 minutes, the agent arrived, and in less than five, he managed to stop the alarm for good. Apparently, there was some broken switch in the middle of the dashboard that we needed to press if the alarm ever went off – something he didn’t bother explaining when we first took the car. Without saying much else, he encouraged us to get the car back to the ferry office well ahead of the boat departure.

That much, I figured, I could handle. We had several hours still to roam the island before boarding at 5:30 p.m.

Driving along Pantai Cenang, the main drag by the coast, we found a decent Thai restaurant for lunch. Afterward, I suggested we get all get massages. But after phoning one parlor after another, we found that none of them offered a massage for under a RM100, or had enough private couples rooms to accommodate all four of us.

Ryan wanted no part of the massage idea anyway. He was much more looking forward to a visit to the local aquarium. Underwater World was about as family-friendly as it would get, wasn’t too costly, and wouldn’t require us to drive much farther. From there we would head straight to the jetty.

After watching penguins waddle and witnessing the aquarium staff feed the other neighboring sea creatures, we decided it was time to head for the jetty, a little after 4 p.m.

My friends and I finished a light meal at the food court at 5:15 p.m., thinking we had plenty of time to spare.

But as soon as we arrived at the main departure hall, we found no line of passengers waiting.

Sweat started to break on my face and armpits, immediately. All the signs said the departure time was at 5:15 p.m. I remembered watching Ryan devour a piece of chicken at 5:15.

I swore to myself and to my friends, repeatedly, that I had seen the departure time listed online at 5:30 p.m.

I looked at the tickets in my hand closely. 5:15.

I pleaded with the staff—as if they could somehow make the boat turn back for us—to no avail.

Naturally, I kicked my backpack, thinking no one was looking. Except, everyone was looking. Worse, my iPad was in there, and I regretted it immediately.

My wife took over the planning for us. She had to – I was fuming mad and couldn’t think properly, let alone say much else other than swear. She quickly gathered from the staff that, if we booked another ferry to Bukit Perlis, we could catch a bus at 7:30 that would head down to Butterworth, which was on the mainland of Penang.

That was our best option because it was the only one we had.

I hardly said a word, nor could I look at anyone around me. I just stared blankly ahead, still perplexed by the fate that had befallen us. A familiar sort of anger, the one that overcomes me when I perceive myself making blatant, avoidable failures, consumed me.

While I did my best to avoid eye contact, my wife, who is hardly ever confrontational, was determined to get my attention.

In her most direct, nonsensical way, she said, “If you can’t handle these kinds of little problems you can’t control anyway, what about the bigger things?”

My eyes were quickly filling with tears getting too heavy to hold back. I was already blowing an undesirable situation further out of proportion as if I had to make my singular planning mistake feel even worse by playing it on a loop in my head.

Worse was how I couldn’t spare myself the shame of a public meltdown for something so small, and stupid.

So instead of creating a bigger, more embarrassing scene, relenting and making more excuses, or justifying my own irrational anger explosion…

I slept.

We arrived at the station 15 minutes after 7, so we blitzed over to the bus terminal, only to receive our bad news.

Whatever words I had to offer to my wife and friends would have felt like another empty promise, the residue of yet another failed attempt to make things right. So I offered up none.

The old man at the terminal, however, offered up his van, and his prayers.

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He also offered to switch cars for us. I didn’t feel I was in a position to negotiate, so, we just let him decide.

The van seats offered comparable leg room to what a budget airline would afford its passengers. We all sat up straight and I couldn’t figure whether this was because we couldn’t adjust our seats, or we were still in shock that we took this man up on his offer.

But the longer we drove along the coast, watching the horizon getting absorbed by a blanket of midnight blue, I noticed the tension in my body beginning to erode and I slowly started to gain that feeling I had longed for the entire trip – a quiet calm – finally setting in.

After about half an hour, we reached what appeared to be his house. It looked like a flat, one-story block of concrete. A cat jumped out of the window to greet him, and then, a woman stepped out, presumably his wife. I was afraid we might sit in on an awkward exchange between her and the old man, due to what I assumed was the inconvenience we were causing. But there came no such tense conversation.

The man had a Toyota Camry parked in his garage. I figured that was the car he was referring to, and it made sense that he would want to switch—he would be saving a lot of money on gas.

All our stuff fit snugly in the trunk of his Camry. And while I had to sit up in front with a complete stranger for a few hours, I couldn’t help but at least feel grateful for the extra leg room.

After bidding his wife a brief farewell, we hit the road again.

The old man slowly reached his finger over to the car’s CD player. A few seconds passed, and then a song I’ve heard a hundred times before came on.

So wake me up when it’s all over

When I’m wiser and I’m older

All this time I was finding myself

And I didn’t know I was lost

Aloe Blacc’s voice on “Wake Me Up” would stir anyone up into a momentary frenzy. The thumping beat of the bass line when the chorus hits wouldn’t allow for any sleeping on the ride home. Soon we were then serenaded by the likes of Pitbull and Macklemore. He had this “top hits” CD on repeat.

I finally asked the man for his name, feeling silly that I hadn’t bothered to do so the entire time we were with him.

It was Abdur Rahman.

He explained how we were driving through the state of Kedah. He then pointed at a bright, beaming white tower standing alone on the horizon, towards Alor Setar, the capital city.

He mentioned his daughter lived in Penang, and it was with her that he would spend the night.

He drove like a much younger man. He tailed and bullied and whizzed past three or four cars at a time throughout the duration of the trip, even racing towards on-coming traffic on the right side of the road, just to pass slower vehicles. And since I sat up in front with him, I did a little praying of my own, closing my eyes every time I could sense him revving up to pass.

It wasn’t safe. And yet, I felt absolute relief that it was Abdur Rahman, and not I, who was fully in control.

Silence and Scenery

Day 9, 500 words, 31 days.

Shuli and I have traveled up and down the North-South Expressway five times in the past two weeks. We had taken this road on the way back from Kuala Lumpur after celebrating Christmas there, and made stops in the historic town of Ipoh several times, to and from Cameron Highlands. Today, we went on a school-sponsored “retreat” to “The Lost World of Tambun” – a water theme park and resort for visitors to the Ipoh area.

The park itself is surrounded by stunning, green cliffs towering over the grounds. Today it was especially beautiful – the steady rain had brought with it patches of fog blanketing the tops of these enormous rock formations, making for misty, scenic view, shrouded in mystery.

I’m not one for water parks usually, but I decided to tag along for this particular trip and to my surprise, I actually had a good time.

Of course, you can only go down water slides so many times before the thrill begins to wane. This particular park, since it functioned as a resort as well, offered heated pools and even a sauna inside a cave, if you can believe such a thing. This too, was a pleasant surprise – a nice reward for parents and adults that fancied a “good time” for themselves to be as slow and relaxing and thrill-less as possible.

We arrived there around 12. I was tired, hungry, and sleepy by 3:30 in the afternoon. It was dreary and wet the entire day and so, for most days like this, I resorted to hot, caffeinated drinks to get through.

By the time we hopped on the bus back home it was past 5. We were in for a 3 hour journey, including some rush hour traffic so I made sure that I was prepared. The iPad was loaded up with podcasts for days. I had my music going. The book I’m reading on writing, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, came in handy whenever I couldn’t sleep.

But the thing that put me most at ease, there and back, might have simply been staring out the raindrop-covered window. It’s beginning to be a familiar view – the vast, grassy farmland, the hills sitting just above the horizon, the swaying palm trees lining up each side of the road. We’ve gone up and down the same road so many times recently that I was even anticipating where the next rest stop would be in case we wanted to “makan”. (eat.)

It needs to be said that Malaysia is a beautiful country. The diversity of it’s peoples is already reason to celebrate, but the countryside itself is such a calming sight for me to behold. These hours-long road trips up and down the highway have been life-giving times.

I’m not entirely certain what it is about these long drives that put me at ease. Maybe I just enjoy them the most when I’m not the one driving. Then I can look out and pay attention to all the tranquil details outside the window, or do the complete opposite and take note of nothing at all, letting all the scenery merge into a greenish, untarnished blur.

Today, on the bus, I faded in and out of sleep. Whenever I woke, I felt rested and refreshed. And even at my most alert, there was little desire to speak. I was quiet for long stretches of the ride – happy to listen to old recordings of This American Life or The Moth, and letting the chatter around me dissolve slowly into the background.

For the first time in a while, I found myself rather content, not feeling the need to have to say anything to anybody, embracing the silence like a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time.

Just Passing Through

Day 7, 500 words, 31 days.

This morning we found ourselves taking another visiting friend to see the Clan Jetties. These historic waterfront settlements are literally water villages built on stilts. To this day they are still occupied by Chinese residents representing the familial clans from which they are named.

We frequent the Chew Jetty when we have guests – as it is the most populated strip of houses along the water, many of which have converted part of their properties into little shopfronts selling a variety of tourist-friendly knick-knacks.

As much as possible, I try to walk quietly and carefully on the rickety wooden planks of the walkway. Less so because I fear losing my footing, but mostly to be respectful. I just don’t want to cause a scene. There are plenty of other obnoxious tourists brandishing their big cameras and long lenses and shooting everything that is moving along the jetty.

I don’t need to be another one of those people, taking tourist-type pictures inconspicuously, with no sense of shame or discreteness whatsoever.

Most the time, I snap a photo here and there, almost never of any of the residents, and if I would – they’re sure to be candid pictures. I don’t have the gall to ask someone’s permission for a portrait. Everything I witness, and capture, happens in a few seconds – a woman washing her clothes by hand in the corner, a mother carrying her son while tending the store, an old man sitting on his balcony, bare-chested and smoking a cigarette.

I don’t take pictures of any of these things. I just keep a mental log of what real life is like here, and move on to the edge by the water and take that typical, sweeping, panoramic shot of the sea. Best not to bother the locals here, so I do my best to be the least intrusive as I can be.

The appeal of these settlements makes sense. These families still choose to live by the water, or rather, on top of it. Every sunset, they boast a a magnificent view of the water and the ferry terminal nearby. These jetties have been around for what feels like ages – and the “clans” are still here – working, living, and dealing with constant visitors invading their home.

There’s something unsettling about the whole thing for me. Perhaps this same quality prevents me from ever becoming a bold photographer, but I simply cannot muster up the courage to document the way they live without regarding their privacy. Everything I do shoot, I shoot quickly, and as secretly as possible.

We are the voyeurs in their village. We, the visitor, on one hand, are a source of revenue for their makeshift businesses. However, we come in droves, we make noise, we shoot pictures indiscriminately, and we take up their rightful space. I can’t imagine how frustrating we must be.

I assume they want our money. Equally, I assume they want us out of their hair. Maybe they just want us to make it quick – this “transaction” of sorts – the experience of their unique living quarters for an increase in public attention, which in turn, may mean more money put into preserving their homes.

It’s a trade-off I’d never wish I’d have to make, if I were in their shoes. If it were up to me, I’d just want to be left alone. Or maybe, ban cameras altogether. At least the big ones. No one needs to bring a telescope into these places.

What we ought to bring, is grace. Respect. An appreciation for how these families have lived on with very little. As well as an admiration for their tolerance for some unique smells. I prefer not to imagine what could be in the water after all these years, and it’s best that I reserve my judgments.

At the very least, I’m just thankful that we, the visitors, are afforded even more grace than we give. Yes, perhaps, they look at us suspiciously, and rightfully so. The least we can do is tread lightly, shoot sparingly, and be on our way. A donation would be even better.

Maybe there is simply no dancing around this delicate interaction between locals that have developed a business by “selling history”, and the visitors willing to pay to take it all in. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with it at all.

All I know is, it’s never that comfortable. Not for me. I can only imagine what they must be feeling about us.

Role Playing

Day 6, 500 words, 31 days.

The pressure to create is really hitting me now, and I’m not sure if I should take this as a discouraging sign. It isn’t about having an audience, or the lack thereof. Posting these on Facebook has less to do with building a readership, than keeping myself publicly accountable.

But regardless of whether or not an entry makes it to the WordPress page, I’ve committed to write this amount, for this long. And I haven’t yet hit a week.

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Today, one of Shuli’s friends arrived from Thailand. She’s actually Australian but her future in-laws have since retired there and she paid them a visit with her fiancée. She decided to spend the last leg of her trip abroad here in Malaysia, and so for an evening and a day, we’re hosting.

These past few weeks we’ve actually had quite a number of visitors coming through Penang. It’s been a pleasant surprise, the influx of guests coming over. We probably don’t ever admit it, but some days, it might just be what the emotional doctor ordered – it is healthy for us, having friends. Often, our friends are in the middle or the end of a longer trip in Southeast Asia and we’ve given our friends a little incentive to take a little detour and see us, simply because we’re here.

I’m not certain Penang is quite the destination for our American friends in the way it is for Malaysians looking to take a quick getaway to what’s considered to be a foodie paradise. Some know of the historical significance behind this British outpost and come to see the architectural remnants that harken back to older times. Others consider the island a laid back alternative to the hustle and bustle of bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur.

For us, of course, it is all of these things – but it is also where we now call home.

Unlike our friends that found a nice excuse to take on a new destination while seeing us or local tourists that heard about the hawker food and needed a taste of the Char Kuey Teow for themselves, this is where we’ve decided to stay put – for now.

We’re far from assuming a “local’s” identity – something that if we’re to be truly honest with ourselves, we’ll never attain anyway. Nor would I want to, personally.

For my wife, it is different. Her ties to Malaysia are far deeper, far more intimate. Her formative years were spent in Kuala Lumpur and she’d been longing to return to her homeland ever since.

For me, this is adventure. An unpredictable, indefinite, adventure. There’s nothing about this experience that I could have possibly prepared for, and there’s little that I can brace myself for still. What I am sure of, however, is that I’m no local. And frankly, I hate getting mistaken for one too.

This is the consequence of possessing ambiguous features. And if those features happen to look similar to those of a local – then be prepared for locals insisting to speak to you in Bahasa Malay, or Hokkien, or Cantonese, or something other than English. Even if you answer their first question to you, in unmistakable American English.

So, maybe I’m projecting.

Truth is, I’m also partly to blame. For starters, I hardly ever feel the need to raise my voice when I’m asking for something, so much of what I say gets, literally, lost in translation anyway. Secondly, the moment I make the decision to speak broken English so as to simplify my sentences, then it just gets plain confusing. Worse, when I manage to muster up the confidence to say a few words in Malay – employing the little that I know immediately, invites a much more eager conversation the local I’m interacting with is hoping to have – in Bahasa.

Of course, I’m never ready for this, and I reply with a sheeping grin and say that I don’t know anything. Silly American me. I try not to make any more eye contact, and I lower my head in shame. For what, I don’t know. But the feeling is certainly shame. And then, a mild resentment, as if it was their fault for not sensing my Americanness spill over somewhere in our brief interaction. Couldn’t they just, tell?

No, they couldn’t. Hardly anyone can. Shuli and I truly look the part – minus the odd fact that we’re together – a Chinese woman and a Malay-looking man holding hands on the street probably warrants a few stares in a predominantly Muslim country. Little do they know how absolutely ordinary it is, for us, in America.

For many who don’t know our story, we are a puzzle, indeed. Our pairing, our being here, our moving away from America, our lack of kids, our youthful looks, our strange sounding, American-accented English. All of it is probably, a little strange indeed.

But this is the game we’ve chosen to play. It’s the one where we pretend to blend in, until we’re caught fumbling over a food order and mercifully ask for the locals to speak to us in English. Most days, I’m up for it, but sometimes, it’s just too tiring to play.

Back Home

Day 5, 500 words, 31 days

My mountaintop retreat came to an end today. We made our way down from Cameron Highlands this morning, feeling refreshed from clean air, breathtaking scenery, and copious amounts of tea. If I had it my way, I’d still be sipping on a cup of tea by the balcony, keeping on a few layers to keep warm as the cool fog settled in.

But every season of respite must still give way to work that beckons. We all have a job to do – my wife and our friends are all teachers, and their job right now is, well, to rest as much as possible, before the school year continues after the holiday break. They probably could have used a longer retreat than I did.

We all, also have pets – and for this reason, it was time to go home.

My job remains, to write regularly – something that had proved to be a challenge on a weekend retreat that seemed only to bring about in me a sloth-like approach to my work. Along with my pace, I wanted the time to move as slowly as possible.

After all, isn’t it commonplace for writers to retreat and just clear their minds and create space in their head for the generation of new ideas? As our time away had drawn to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could have still spent it differently. I would’ve wanted to read a little more and write a little more, and somehow, sleep a little more too. I wanted more than 36 hours away from Penang.

But here I am, back in Penang, typing away in the relative comfort of my own living room, wondering where the time had gone and how much more there is still to do.

There aren’t any more majestic rolling hills inviting my mind to wander. I’ve just got to make do with what I’ve got…

And yet, I have the sudden fall of rain, a welcome gift from a scorching day on the island.

I have the suspense of unpredictable traffic. I have the clanging sounds of kitchen utensils scraping against sizzling woks on the road side hawker stalls.

I have the soft, longing meows from Madu, my cat as she sits silently by my feet late into the evening. Even her brother, Miles’, incessant pining for Shuli has it’s own endearing, albeit, distracting, charm.

These are what I have most days, and they are deserving of my gratefulness, for they are good.

Yes, life is slowly rounding back to form – soon I’ll be taking my wife to school still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I’ll be monitoring how much meat Miles eats per meal while making sure Madu eats at all, and I’ll be logging into each and every social media platform I manage, hoping to discover the next best way on how to get more “likes” and “follows”.

If I had it in my way, I’ll still be far away from all of this, taking deep, unpolluted breaths and taking in excessive amounts of caffeine because I like having it in the form of hot beverages, and that goes real nice with the cold.

But maybe the way I had in mind isn’t what’s best for me. Maybe it’s best that I’m here now, searching hard for the unfamiliar in the midst of all that I’ve already come to know. There’s more to be had – more to give and more to grow, and it begins right here where I sit, on this poorly constructed dining room chair, in the quiet of my own home.

And here, in my home, I also have caffeine.

Time for Tea

Day 4, 500 words, 31 days

It’s early in the project, but I’m beginning to feel the burden already of having to churn something out every day. I realize there isn’t any pressure to have to publish whatever I write, but for me, I could use the accountability.

Briefly reading some of the other entries people have been putting up for this project tells me two things: 1) People are writing about absolutely whatever they want. 2) People who actually have projects to pursue are putting those aside, just so as to keep writing everyday, even when they are experiencing writer’s block.

As for me, my objective is really simple – just as advertised, at least 500 words, for a month. When I would otherwise be a stickler for my own rules, in this case, what I believe(d) my blog to be about, I’m ok with writing about anything, so long as I’m writing.

The randomness of my subjects is freeing, and for now, it’s what I need to keep going.

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Today, it was my turn to get behind the wheel and explore Cameron Highlands a little more with our friends.

Our first stop was the Big Red Strawberry Farm in the town of Brinchang. It was a bit unnerving driving up a steep, gravel road to reach the summit of the farm, but our little car made it just fine. There were hardly any strawberries to pick so we settled for some strawberry souvenirs from the gift shop.

This entire area is covered by strawberry farms. There are all sorts of strawberry-related trinkets in the markets lining up along the road – keychains, t-shirts, mugs, and even doormats designed with some sort of strawberry image printed on it. Clearly everyone is cashing in. We left with two jars of jam and our friends, some strawberry-infused tea. At least ours are edible.

From there we proceeded over to the Cameron Valley tea plantation, which produces what our relatives have said is some of the best “strawberry tea” these grounds has to offer. Yes, we felt compelled to leave with a box of tea, but to me, it was the view that was the gift.

The tea plantation spanned several lush, verdant hills – the field before us was a vibrant green and from a distance, it was beautifully dotted by the bright hijabs Muslim visitors were wearing on their heads. It looked to me like a canvas painted green, speckled by small spots of red, pink, blue, and yellow. And with the sky a pure blue and only a few white, cumulus clouds hanging above us, it couldn’t have been more picturesque.

I don’t often recall moments that really do take my breath away, but for some reason, this was one of them. Perhaps it, again, had to do with feeling so small amidst natural vastness. Something about that feeling, of being at the mercy of what is before me, gives me a clarity I can’t find in many other places I visit.

Soon after we headed out for a late lunch and decided to pull over at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant along the road. We weren’t sure what to expect from a place that didn’t even offer a menu, but we took comfort knowing that at least some families eating there had food on the table. Most of the folks inside this ‘kopi tiam’ were old Chinese men all bent over newspapers and puffing away on their cigarettes. Maybe they didn’t care much for us, but I felt their stares anyway, as if we had barged in on an exclusive club that required all their patrons to be male and over 50.

The food at Tepi Sungai Chong Kee was surprisingly good – standard fare sort of stuff, fried rice, a tangy chicken dish, some greens we didn’t know what to call and soothing, jasmine tea. But the uncles’ cigarette smoke was just too much to bear and we were compelled to head over to our final destination.

The Boh tea plantation is somewhat of an institution in Cameron Highlands and so, it felt like an obligation to at least pass by and see the hype for ourselves. What we found was yet another stunning sight of this region, tucked away into a valley deep into the mountains. In order to even get there, I had to drive down a winding, one-way path that required all drivers to honk their horns before turning corners, so as to signal to other cars that we were coming through. This was mildly stressful, but once we arrived, the view was enough to justify the means to get there.

I won’t give a Boh history lesson – this plantations legacy and contributions to this region are well-documented. In fact, we didn’t need to drive all the way out there to buy their tea – Boh is widely distributed all over Malaysia and can easily be found at local supermarkets.

What we came for was to take in the view, drink local tea, have some pastries, and let our afternoon wane slowly. We stayed until closing, when the Boh workers started sweeping up the floors of this beautiful cafe Boh erected upon the edge of a hill.

It was exactly the experience I had hoped for. I’m no tea connoisseur, nor do I desire to be. I’ll readily admit that I’m a black coffee sort of guy, but, I wouldn’t let my caffeine preferences prevent me from experiencing the finest Cameron Highlands has to offer.

For my relatively low standards, we’re living this weekend like kings and queens. High above on mountaintops draped by the clouds and kissed by the sun, here we are sipping on tea and basking in this momentary blessing – the blessing of being in the midst of so much beauty, and so far away.

Retreat to Higher Ground

Day 3, 500 words, 31 days.

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Today, my wife and I took a trip with two friends over to Cameron Highlands, a destination here in Malaysia known for numerous tea plantations and strawberry farms. It is an idyllic getaway from the relative busyness of Penang, but more than anything, it is a welcome respite from the baking heat that we get on the island. I welcome any excuse to layer up and dust off my sweaters from our cabinet, so this is retreat will be well-worth the 4 hour trip it took to get here.

Our journey took us through the town of Ipoh, which in these parts, is popular to visitors mostly for it’s “white chicken” dishes and famous white coffee.

Sure enough, the food did not disappoint. Which was extra satisfying, considering we almost got swindled by a “parking attendant” that refused to return the change we needed back. It’s a longer story, I won’t get into it. I just know the chicken and bean sprouts we had at Restoran Lou Wong was tender and terrific. I had an ice coffee to-go as well from the store across the street, and it wasn’t bad at all, maybe a bit milky for my liking but it displayed a strong, surprising kick at the end, comparable to a shot of Vietnamese coffee.

We also made a stop to see Gua Tempurung, the limestone caves in Perak. Despite how incredibly humid it was in the caves, the imposing rock formations were a fascinating enough distraction from the beads of sweat cresting upon my brow and collecting on my arms. We were gifted with the occasional breeze in some areas of the caves – and there’s probably some elaborate scientific explanation for that which I won’t get into either, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you.

There was a dark, vastness to the caves that made me feel small. We spoke in hushed tones, as if the pure, uninterrupted sound of our voices made everything sacred. The silence was beautiful down there – broken only by the short and steady breaths I took in between strides. Inevitably, places like this remind me of how we remain, so much, at nature’s mercy and we’re left but to stand in awe and marvel at what great and mighty things have already come before us.

After we worked our way out of the caves we briefly rested our weary legs and dried ourselves from being drenched in our own sweat. We ate some flaky Kaya Puffs we had bought from Ipoh to hold us over for our final leg of the trip toward Cameron Highlands.

The road we took up to Cameron Highlands was predictably winding, but as we had been told, it wasn’t nearly as narrow as the older way to get up there. We’ve been told enough stories by relatives about how dangerous the old road was and we were sure to steer clear of it. Yes, we still had our share of close calls driving, but otherwise, it was a pretty pleasant ride up.

What I found particularly notable was the amount of construction being done in the area. I hadn’t expected any part of these mountains to look so industrial, and yet, interspersed between fruit farms and tea plantations were large patches of dirt-brown earth and half-finished metallic structures erected to soon become what we imagine to be new hotel developments.

Needless to say, our view from the hotel room once we arrived is a tad obstructed. In the distance you can see the fog rolling over the hills and beautiful swaths of green countryside, but I have to fix my gaze far away to prevent my periphery from witnessing the construction projects below. Still, I’m grateful to be high up, which we hadn’t anticipated – we were upgraded to a deluxe room on the 12th floor. And apparently on this floor, we don’t need air conditioning. Still, the ceiling fan is spinning just in case. You can never be too cool – not in Malaysia.

Yes, we can’t escape everything. But we’ve escaped enough – the heat, the loony traffic, the constant noise – to name a few things. We’ve come far enough to forget, for a little while, how amazing it actually is to live in Penang and to just enjoy being elsewhere. Who cares what we might be missing?

Sometimes, retreating is just what the soul needs.

Dreaming

We were floored.

My wife woke me up, calling out my name, and immediately, I knew we received the news we were waiting for.

For a few agonizing weeks, that would be our routine, we’d wake up and immediately check her inbox, hoping to get a final answer on the one thing we had desperately hoped to hear back about. The waiting was starting to consume us – our conversations always punctuated with an open-ended question about our future that we never had an answer for.

Until that morning. That’s when we found out that we’re moving to Malaysia.

We’re moving because my wife was offered a position to teach an International School in Penang. We couldn’t believe it – I was screaming. It felt like the only appropriate thing to do.

In the days since, the elation has settled to a much more tempered, but hopeful feeling. We’re eager, but we’re anxious. We’re excited, and yet, we’re scared. Or at least, I am.

My wife tends to take these sort of abrupt changes in our lives in good stride. The thrill she receives from plunging forward into a sudden change – of everything- isn’t so easily extinguished. The fear of uncertainty is drowned out by her own desire to see what amazing things could possibly be ahead.

My natural response is to stay in the fear.

These sort of abrupt changes fly in the face of the certainty I relish, of the kind of control I always hope to hold onto. I hate admitting it, but it’s true, I still love “lording” over my own life – all the finite details, every little thing that requires even the slightest bit of management.

The news we received has taken my control away. And at first, it felt frightening. (Maybe, subconsciously, that’s partly why I had screamed)

But it’s starting to become something else. Our conversations are still almost always bookended by something to do with our impending move, but there’s a lightness to them now, an embracing of the inevitable that is becoming more freeing than anything else.

There will be a loss, yes. Of control and certainty, for starters. But of far more important things than those. Of time with family, and friends. Of a home we’ve found in Oakland. We’ll miss seeing our friends’ bellies swell, and babies growing into toddlers, we won’t see new romances bloom and witness old ones refine with age. We’ll miss the sights and sounds of all that we’ve come to know about where we are right now and what we’ve grown to love.

But slowly, I’m starting to appreciate the gain.

Shuli and I are following this series of Malaysian-produced Youtube videos from Samsung, promoting their new phone, and we can’t help but be overcome by excitement over the ‘makan-makan’ we’ll be doing (that means to ‘eat’), the exploring of a land that seems both foreign and familiar, and the sacred stories we hope to collect, with humility and grace.

The last time anything felt truly dream-like, was our wedding. When I think about that day, I remember sitting in our sweetheart table, removed from all of our guests, watching them enjoy an incredible feast of Southeast Asian cuisine as they sat beneath four, beautifully-lit magnolia trees, and looking back at my wife, feeling so, so grateful. We couldn’t have asked for a better moment to share.

And yet, we asked, and then, we were given. There’s something out there for us, and we have little clue what it may be. All I know, is that, I’m starting to dream again.