Wednesday, June 26, 2013

'The Devourer' Approves

While traveling I think people are mainly scared of three vastly different things: bathroom situations, language barriers and food. As you probably know I've spouted off quite a few words on the toilet subject already (revisit those entries here and here). I think we all know where I stand on that. As for language I don't have much to say, mostly because my Bahasa Melayu is still in a pitiful state. Plus, so many people and places in S.E. Asia speak English that wandering about round these parts is largely a breeze. Unfortunately, I'm too American for my own damn good. I can't learn a second language for jack squat. But I did take my first language lesson a few nights ago, so we'll see how that goes.

When all three of these issues collide that's when I think folks can really freak out. Just running the possibilities through one's head can get people's pits sweaty and their reservations ramped up about visiting novel locales. Apprehension quickly sets in. These three topics spook people into staying at home.

But it's all for naught. In my opinion, the toilets of the Malay archipelago are superb, people love it when you chit-chat or crack lame jokes in broken Bahasa, and the food is delectable. The cuisine over here has kept me constantly saying my favorite phrase: “satu lagi,” which means one more. Yes, I'll have one more portion of beef rendang, one more pulled tea, one more nasi lemak, wrapped in its tell-tale banana leaf. Why of course I'll have another skewer of chicken satay and grilled veggies, make it five actually. And don't forget to drizzle it all in peanut sauce.

I'm no hoity-toity gourmand. I just get a huge kick out of scarfing food. My reputation as “the closer” has even followed me to Malaysia. During summer camp, which just took place, I even picked up a new nickname: "the devourer," which has quite the nice ring to it, in a sarcastic, horror movie kind-of-way.

Luckily food is everywhere out here: restaurants abound, street stalls flourish in hectic cities, and in most villages you can plop down at a plastic table in someone's yard and eat a meal. Maybe even watch “Iron Man” with their son while you slurp your noodles too loud. Enough of trying to describe the scene out here in paragraph form. Let's have the pictures and, I hope, the humorous captions do the job for me.

Mee Bandung, one of my favorites from over here. Coincidentally the best version I've had hails from Juara. I try it everywhere, but it's never as tasty as here. Mee is noodles and Bandung is a city on the Indonesian island of Java. The noodle bowl is slightly sweet with crushed peanuts, veggies, an egg, chunks of chicken and squid, and fresh lime all dancing together. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking them.***

The precision squeeze is key! Dani loves it too. I put her on game with this one. Mee Bandung is like the mole (delicious Mexican chocolate cinnamon chile sauce) of S.E. Asia. When it's on I can't get enough and nothing tastes better, but when it falters, and it usually does, it don't taste too good.

What else can I say about dude, I gets bizzay.

Bakso, an Indonesian staple found everywhere: from street vendors and roadside markets, on bicycles and at airports. It's like French Onion soup with veggies, spice and usually beef or chicken meatballs. The quality of the dish and meat vary, but just like Mee Bandung, when it's on point the taste is a doozy.

Three classics on the Juara eating scene (from left to right): crispy, deep-fried squid (one of the only times in life dipping things in mayonnaise is acceptable), spicy sambal chicken and veggie curry. Sambal is a sweet chile sauce packing flavor and heat. I dig it even if it induces hiccups often.

Gado-gado, another Indonesian go-to. I translate that to “whatever tasty veggies you got in peanut sauce.” We've had it with noodles, rice, boiled egg, tempe, or tofu. One translation we saw on a menu read “Peanut Sauce Salad.” That doesn't do this one justice.

The ubiquitous Nasi Lemak wrapper. You can find these mini-pyramids gracing many Malaysian tables in the morning. Do yourself a favor and eat like three. I do.

First, unwrap the banana leaf to get a solid look at what's inside: coconut rice, anchovies, sambal sauce, peanuts and usually, but not from this one, egg.

Second, take your right hand and get busy. Spread that sambal around. Don't think too much about it. The anchovies in it are salty morning morsels. Don't pick 'em out, these miniature fishes know what they're doing.

Third, consume with gusto. It's one of the classic Malaysian breakfasts, but feel free to chow down a couple at nighttime, in your hotel room, while your girlfriend looks at you oddly, judging your audacious appetite. I bet she wouldn't use that adjective.

You can score some serious Indian food in Malaysia and Singapore. On this journey we discovered butter chicken (top right corner). The sad part was that it took 28 years to first eat it.

Daniel behind a roadside Soto Ayam (chicken stew) stand in Bali, whipping us up a few bowls. I feel like this photo would give a Maricopa County AZ health inspector a heart attack. Peep the dangling chickens.

The finished product: rice, veggies, eggs, noodles, crushed onions, broth, spices and chicken. They don't waste no chicken here. You get bone, liver, chewy chunks, feet and whatever else was on the blade before they tossed it into your bowl.

Nasi Goreng Ayam. Another classic. It's either rice or noodles (or both) mostly every day out here. Feeling down about just plain fried rice? Top it up with some fried chicken. No matter where you go in Malaysia and Indonesia there will always be fried chicken available and, yes, it will always be yummy. These countries know how to fry.

Izzati, you got caught! Tom Yum chock full of veggies and fried squid. Double meal - take it to the stage!

Shaving ice for two classic Malaysian beverages. I bet some hipster in San Diego has this machine and on Wednesdays they make local-infused gin slushies with it. Probably sprinkles them with basil grown off their bike trailers.

On the left we have ABC, which contrary to stereotype (based on color) is not the Lady's favorite drink. Her go-to is Cendol, on the right and filled with coconut milk.

ABC all mixed up and ready to give you a brain freeze. The shaved ice goes with sweetened condensed milk, rosewater, sugary jelly-rice doo-dads, corn and kidney beans. Trust me, the corn and beans hold their own. For me those kidney beans not only are delicious, but provide a stream of fiber in a sea of diabetes.

Malaysia makes lovely drinks. One pet peeve of mine is that any beverage ordered-to-go comes in a plastic bag. I hate it. It's like getting an IV drip to sip on.

Malaysian kue, which are various pastries and gelatinous sweet treats. Sometimes rice is thrown in. Here we got a few takeaway ones, which I have already started to nibble on. I like the slimy green ones.

Izzati whipping up some Fishnet Roti at JTP. Roti is bread in Bahasa. I give her an A for presentation and style.

The rotis all rolled up, tiny airy pancake-esque nubbins that get dipped in curry sauce. Alli can eat like 10 of 'em. I've seen it.

Chocolate sweetened condensed milk. Like whoa! My consumption of this canned milk is already 478% more than when we were in the States. Finding this special can (the only time I've seen a chocolate one) on our scuba liveaboard in Komodo made for a splendid day.

Drizzling it on freshly-fried banana doughnut balls. From this session alone I think I created three cavities. Worth it? We'll see what my dentist bill is when I return to the U.S.

Alli around our spread on the liveaboard. Our cook never did anything fancy, but that didn't stop him from whipping up the best meals we had in all of Nusa Tenggara (Komodo, Flores and all those other forgotten islands east of Bali). We got chicken, noodles, three veggie dishes and bomber Flores mangoes.

Glutinous sticky rice in a bamboo log, which serves as its pot. You line the bamboo in banana leaf, shove lots of rice inside and cook it over the fire. This is what you call magic rice. You can eat it plain it's so tasty.

Izzati modeling a bamboo full of said glutinous rice.

Now time for some fruits: red pineapple.

Massive jackfruit growing right off the road in Juara. At special occasions here (weddings, engagement parties and Hari Raya) folks make jackfruit curry, a favorite of ours. The fruit is meaty and filling.

Sackful of durian! I've already blogged about these exquisite fruits here, but just to reiterate they are quite a bonus to living here. This old rice bag was filled with around 20 durians and in one day the small JTP staff ate 'em all.

We also were lucky enough to have Izzati make durian glutinous rice dessert. She turned the durian fruit into a creamy concoction with a texture similar to clam chowder, but don't think savory, think sweet, sweet jungle fruit.

Locally made banana bread by Alli. We had one bushel of easily over 100 bananas at JTP so she made lots of bread and all I contributed was my stomach space.

This is like the fourth photo of me hovering over food. I didn't get the name “the closer” for nothing. “Typical” Alli just muttered.

Babi guling! Aka suckling pig prepared in a variety of ways served all at once. A Balinese speciality.

Pork explosion: satay, fried skin (so greasy and good!), roasted belly and another mystery side we can't remember. It was pork though. And incredible. We even snuck some onto the plane on our way out of Bali.

Kek lapis from Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. It's dense layer cake. Alli didn't like it, but I was a fan. Sadly this Oreo flavor tricked me as it was bland as can be. But the other ones I ate were lovely, especially the Milo one.

Sometimes you just have to consume a weird chicken bun on the public bus taking you to the Cat Museum (see here!).

Bun creeper. So steamy.

Kopi ice in Maluku! Beverages are big over here so I like to stop constantly and drink them, preferably strong coffee ones with lots of milk and sugar. While Indonesia has lots of robust black coffee I have developed a weak spot for the sweet. Alli is concerned I'm getting into Type 2 territory.

Malukan kue! Another yellow gelatinous cake, crispy brown sugar rice squares and a rice roll stuffed with salted fish and peanuts. A plate of these with your morning joe never hurt nobody.

In case you're worried Coca-Cola contains pork products they have a way of reassuring you.

I said I love beverages, especially fresh mango ones at the base of the Gunung Lukon volcano in northern Sulawesi.

A Sunday feast! We have a plate of roasted and fried pork, BBQ satay and cap cay veggies (fried in oyster sauce). And yes, a big bowl of rice too.

Lost in translation? This was the Ice Cream Sundae we ordered. A little bit of sundae, mixed in with shaved ice and fruit cocktail. No fudge or chocolate sauce, but that wafer stick thing was tasty.

Switching gears at the end of the blog here. This is not from SE Asia, but from Kathmandu, Nepal. Alli and I really dig the Asian breakfast (seriously - rice, hot sauce and egg is wondrous) but after over a year in Asia the American breakfast at our hotel blew our minds. Consider me patriotic, but all the six mornings I spent in this vibrant city started off with this plate. So simple and tasted just like home.

Yeah buddy.

If you read the post about things we miss then you know we were jubilant to see “Mexican” on that sign. They might have thrown some Nepali curry powder into the refried beans, but that didn't matter. The fajitas were huge and sizzling, and they actually came with “real” tortillas. Well, real enough.

Welcome to Asia where even the felines enjoy a bowl of rice for dinner. R.I.P. Bucket, you were a jolly jungle cat and would eat anything.

Monday, June 10, 2013

"We Can Pee in the Ocean?"

On a recent late afternoon a smattering of Singaporean school children were milling about after a leisure snorkel session. The highlights were two Reef Cuttlefish (Sepia latimanus), one Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), and lots of cold muddy river runoff that was flowing into Juara Bay, causing kids to shriek about the chilly temperature and how dirty the water was.

Some were ecstatic about watching the mind-boggling cuttlefish pulsate color changes as it hovered over coral outcrops. A few mumbled about needing a shower. And most had to take a leak.

After we had numbered off and made sure everyone was accounted for, Ania (a colleague of mine) began to tell her group what was up next. A young girl, quite shyly, then asked if there was a bathroom around she could use. Accompanying the group was a teacher from the school who loudly responded she could go in the ocean. “We can pee in the ocean?” she replied confusingly. Other children were miffed too. “Of course you can” we all said.

This is not the group I'm referring to in this blog. Unfortunately no pics exist from that outing. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.***
Lots of kids had repulsive looks of horror on their faces. More than a few seemed completely stunned, which amazingly means they had never realized in their approximately 14-year-old existence that urinating in the ocean was an option in life. A couple children looked giddy with mischievous delight. Then over half the class booked it to the water. A few folks on the fence even ran down after they realized the majority was squatting at low-tide, relieving themselves of countless gulps they'd been repeatedly told to take from their water bottles all day long.

I heard quite the variety of commentary on the entire episode. One child proudly proclaimed this was the greatest piss of their life, while another retorted this was all beyond disgusting. Everyone agreed showers were needed afterward. I couldn't help but think about how weird it is be a youth in this day and age.

It wasn't just the urinating in the ocean that got me thinking about this. It had been on my mind since the first group of 50 eighth-graders kick-started our summer season. A total of 125 kids, split into five groups, recently spent five days total engaged in our outdoor education programs. This meant jungle trekking, sea kayaking, camping, forcefully having to do without air-conditioning, jetty jumping, encountering bugs and doing more than their fair share of activities under conditions unheard of in Singapore.

Welcome to the land of sandy feet, sweat everywhere, insects fluttering about your face, cuts and bruises, mud on your palms and underneath your fingernails, biting red ants in your bellybutton and jungle detritus smeared on your clothes.

A lot of these pre-teens, young adults or kids (whatever the proper label is) had never done any of the above activities. There was a slew of fourteen-year-olds who'd never camped, swam in the ocean or even sat in dirt around a campfire. Some were totally mystified that our plan was to sprawl out on the ground, dirtying up our trousers and just hang out around burning logs.

Wyatt on the left giving our group a kayak tutorial in Juara Bay, as I look on from the right.
Numerous news items, scientific journal articles and books have been written about the continuing detachment the youngsters of successive generations have with the natural world. I'm not here to pound my fists and continue on with those critiques, nor is this an indictment of Singapore's urban culture, or for that matter, most urban environments around the globe. For me it can be a lot more simple than that. Nowadays kids might know more about rainforest biology than their counterparts decades before, without ever actually setting foot in the jungle. They have access to reams of intel compared to even my generation when we were young, all available instantly at their fingertips.

These youngsters don't have to get lost in primary forest to see a hornbill, they can YouTube 'em. In Arizona you don't even have to leave your computer anymore to see the Grand Canyon, Google Street View (or is Nature View or some other moniker) can take you down into those famous red-rock walls. More and more people witness wildlife via the epic nature documentaries constantly running on BBC and Discovery Channel. And to be fair, those programs are grandiose in the right way.

When I was young I didn't know much about the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland (U.S.A.), but that didn't deter me from catching blue crabs with raw chicken necks attached to string, swimming in gross water, chasing menacing swans and peeing all over America's largest estuary. I enjoyed being outside for the hell of it and it was a wonderful way to get into trouble. Most kids now probably know the pitiful plight of the blue crab and that harassing wildlife is wrong. I didn't. That type of behavior these days in very not-PC.

I think outdoor education's goals can become somewhat hifalutin at times, and definitely rear into hippy-dippy, touchy-feely nature schlock. It doesn't have to become that complicated. Just getting these kids out in the jungle, splashing around in a kayak or searching for the perfect marshmallow roasting stick is what it's all about.

There doesn't always need to be a higher order behind all these activities. While incorporating global and local natural history into classic outdoor education activities is why we're in Juara, sometimes you just gotta let the merriment rip. Yes, I'd be over the moon if just one kid begins to fancy reef fish or another gets into the nitty-gritty of beetles. I'd love for them to take away that geckos are a vital source in local food chains or that mangroves are super-productive ecosystems contributing to the overall health of ocean habitats, but one of the best ways to get into biology and being outside is to have fun.
You just can't beat a post-dinner Milo when camping.
But if you beat them over the head too hard with the science stick they might tune out. It's also a malleable notion: if a kid is bonkers for bats and dorking out for info on echolocation while camping his experience isn't superior to someone who just wants to kick their feet up, listen to the nocturnal jungle soundtrack and take a moment to soak up the ambiance. Or superior to the pyro who gets a chuckle out of setting their marshmallow ablaze, as long as the end result is a new-found appreciation for the outdoors and our planet's ever disappearing wild places.

Watching our group evolve over the week was a real treat. On our second day we went to a nearby waterfall; it can be a slippery trail complete with gnarly wet rocks that make the footwork slow and plodding. Some kids toppled over and got quite muddy in the process so a few asked me where they could wash their hands. I just laughed and told them to wipe it on their clothes, or if they were feeling the need for war paint, their faces. Their response: staring and awkward mumbles.

The next day at our campsite, Wyatt (a colleague who was leading the group with me) started a game of “Never Have I Ever” to encourage everyone to drink lots of water. We all took a seat on the ground, which ended up being a challenge for at least half the group. They didn't want to sit in dirt or get their clothes yucky. But they had no choice. Getting acquainted with the ground was mandatory.

Hours later near the end of the night, around the campfire, it was all smiles. They lounged, plopping gooey marshmallows in their mouths and straining their necks up in awe at stars and constellations bursting with light that they can never see in Singapore. Nobody bothered to complain, or even hesitated, about the fact that we were on the ground. And when we trekked out of camp the next morning mud was constant, but complaining and the need for napkins had vanished.

Campfire reflection time complete with an unreal looking night sky and smores.
The trail was a slog and we had the uphill route, but they motored through and for the most part were jolly: ooohing and ahhhhing at the Chameleon Anglehead Lizard (Gonocephalus chameleontinus) found lolling on a tree branch, quizzing me on jungle ecology and trying tirelessly to figure out what can be in the Land of Confusion (you can munch on apples there, but unfortunately not grapefruits).

The week long program was an assortment of little, awesome moments. Watching a tiny girl (definitely under 36kg (80lbs)) rock out during our kayak expedition and smoke her classmates on the water, easily bagging the 7km paddle. The cherry on top was when she admitted how much she enjoyed it all and that 'discovering' kayaking for her was the trip highlight. Having a group of boys confide in me that they didn't want to go back to Lagoon because camping was a blast. Fielding questions from interested kids on a variety of topics: regenerated lizard tails, diets of different sea birds and why only female mosquitoes suck blood. And of course for me, anytime a kid wants to talk snakes I get giddy. Unfortunately I never found a Reticulated Python for the girl.

Starting our kayak cruise across Juara Bay.
Then they were gone. I'm sure they quickly morphed into the rampant-paced, wired world we inhabit. Judging from the Facebook requests I received (and obviously declined) they spent no time waiting to jump back into touch-screen existence, utilizing the all-important index finger. And here I go, delving into that hifalutin jargon I mocked some paragraphs ago.

It's ludicrous to think these kids are going to completely detach from the social media dominated atmosphere we all now live in, whether we like it or not. But hopefully from time to time they do. We all should. And if they go snorkeling they now know what an alive cuttlefish looks like. Sadly, I think most Singaporeans' experience with this cephalopod is from a bag, dried and seasoned as a seafood snack. The bonus next time is they can look at it as long as they like, without having to take a bathroom break.

More photos below:
Our group getting into their kayaks before our paddle across Juara Bay. The next day we headed out on our expedition, which started with a 7km paddle to the campsite. All of the following kayak photos are just of the paddle in Juara Bay though, not from the expedition.
Alli in the safety kayak while another group snorkels.
One of our two campsites in Dungun.
Milo social hour at the camp.
The camera found some campsite trolls wandering about.