Sunday, May 11, 2008

Maa Kee

20 days is a long enough time to kill the excitement / enthusiasm of being in a new city / country. Slowly, but surely, the desire to explore, experiment, venture out, etc. is replaced by a stronger desire to get into a routine. Those travel guides are relegated to the bottom of the pile, those travel websites slowly tread down to the bottom of the dropdown list in IE (don't call me a loser; we don't have Firefox in office), and you are no longer interested in fiddling with cuisines. In the last year, I've tried enough cuisines to get sick of trying more cuisines. I tried Mexican cuisine, I loved fajita with chicken; I tried Japanese cuisine, I couldn't bear it; I tried Thai cuisine, I hated it; I tried Mediterranean cuisine (in Varanasi), I detested it; I tried Indonesian cuisine, I absolutely loathed it! More recently, I tried Taiwanese, and I it. So what do I do for food these days? Well, lunch is in the mall in the twin towers. The eatery is called Bengal Cuisine, and feeds me Naan, Alu Gobby, Alu Begun (Baingan), Sola (Chhola), and Dal for a miserly price of INR 60! Dinner is generally in a large covered-from-the-top-but-open-from-all-sides restaurant whose Masala Doshai can give Saravana Bhavan a run for its money. Super doshai, with a super chutney and decent sambar- all for INR 34. For me, a good city is one where both the rich and the not-so-rich have enough choices to lead a comfortable life. Kuala Lumpur, by this coin, is an excellent city.

Anyone who ever visits Kuala Lumpur, simply must go to Chinatown once. The heart of Chinatown is two parallel streets, no more than 4 feet wide, and lined with shops selling exotic brands at eccentric rates. Rolex, Tag Hauer, Omega, Breitling watches for less than INR 600, Adidas and Nike gear at unimaginable discounts, and a variety of odds and ends at a fraction of the cost you would pay elsewhere. The street is so narrow that if a customer in one shop steps back, he might butt you into the facing shop. Richie and I roamed the streets for no less than 3 hours, and returned only when we were broke.

Last weekend, I went to this hilltop tourist destination called Genting Highland. It's just an hour's drive from the city, and the weather is a pleasant change from Kuala Lumpur's. Genting Highland is famous for its amusement park, and most of the rides really were amusing. It's the kind of place where a group of families can tikaao their children on merry-go-rounds and spread their carpet and open their hot cases and distribute paper plates and play frisbee. There were a few exciting rides that scared the shit out of me, but in general, the place was kiddish. By 6 in the evening, the entire place was shrouded in clouds and it became pretty chill. After a few more hours of dilly-dallying, losing two rounds of pool, and dining at Pizza Hut, we returned at 11.

After my trip to Batu Caves, and before my trip to Genting, I spent a boring evening in one of the most happening areas in town. Bukit Bintang is famous for its malls (3 of them, one purely for electronic goods, one where you can buy stuff at affordable rates, and one where you can't afford an empty glass of water). It is even more famous for its massage parlours scattered on both sides of the road; massage parlours that (I've heard) turn into brothels at night. But I was on this road neither to shop, nor to get felt up. I was there just to kill time and hunger. Wandering from lane to bylane to bybylane, I spotted a street lined with cheap-looking, delicious-looking roadside restaurants. There were so many restaurants, I was sure I would find something for my fussy palate. My stomach rumbled, and my wallet nodded in approval. The first restaurant I spotted was Dragon View, and dragon was the only animal they did not serve. The names of the restaurants on the street should've told me that these restaurants were anything but diverse-Sun Chui Yen, Sai Woo, Cu Cha, Shui Kee, Loong Kee, Lim Kee, Hup Kee, etc. I instantly got this crazy idea of getting mom here and opening a restaurant called Maa Kee.

Talking of Maa, I made a few interesting observations about the Malay language. Thank you is Terima Kasih. Now, if you ever said that in India, you’d have your brains blown out before you could reach ‘sih’. I found a few parallels between Hindi and Malay- Maaf, Yakin, Sabun, Khidmat, and Awam mean the same in both languages. There are few awkward parallels too- you is ‘anda’, water is ‘air’, door is ‘pintu’ and city is ‘bandar’. If Symonds ever drops in here, he’ll sue the entire damn city for racial abuse.

Anyway, the series of Kee restaurants had a variety of skinned animals on display that made the lane look like a fried zoo. I loitered around for some more time before spotting Restoran Srirekha. My tongue almost lolled down like a red carpet into the restaurant. The place was crowded- some Indians who, like me, would’ve fled the Kee-street; and some foreigners (locals?) who’d have their innards incensed with Andhra chilli and run back to Animal Planet.
All this talk of food is making me hungry. Time to run to Bengal Cuisine for my daily dose of dal-roti. I might be here for just another week, so my next post will be from the comfort of my room in Bangalore. Till then, happy reading and enjoy the IPL (sob sob L)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sightseeing in KL

At the Headquarters of the Department of Disaster Management

“All stations alert, we have an emergency. I repeat; all stations alert we have an emergency. Category 3 tummipane reported at 21:45 hours. All teams ready to evacuate.”

“I told you this was coming. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the ocean tempera-”

“Shut up, Gore. This ain’t the environment; it’s a goddamn stomach. Junior, what’s the status at the large intestine?”

“All queuing up sir. We’re just waiting to reach the Western Command.”

“It’s Commode, idiot. Gore, stuff that Nobel into his mouth, willya.”

“Ok, we’re ready for evacuation sir. Sister has been informed.”

“Cistern, jerk-head. Now open the gates.”



I know most of this sounds insane. Ok, ok, I’ll give it to. Every bit of this is insane. But let me not jump straight to the event that led to this outburst. I’ll do this chronologically.

The day began like all holidays begin. I woke up, saw the digital clock say 11:00, grunted that I missed breakfast time again, and pulled myself out of the monstrously large bed. I tried to draw an agenda of things to do, and finally decided to spend the day productively by playing the World Cup in Cricket 07, watch BBC, eat something, and play another World Cup. When I went to the door, I saw an envelope lying on the ground with At Nikko, We Serve With Love written on it. The letter informed me that I had exceeded my limit, and therefore had to “furnish cash” to the hotel. I looked at the words on the envelope again. Big love! The good thing though, was that in going to the reception to “furnish cash” I shook off the lethargy. My sweat glands salivated at the sight of the sun outside. Still, some strange andar ki awaaz advised me to stop being a lazy bum and go around the town. Now, I’ve been ignoring my andar ki baat ever since Sunny Deol started mouthing the very same words on national television, but this time I decided to heed the call. A slow shave and a quick shower later, I was out of my comfortable room and into the punishing heat of Kuala Lumpur, with a handkerchief and a camera in hand. My destination: Batu Caves.

Whenever I go to a new city, I try to use public transport as often as possible. I love observing the local junta even if I don’t understand a word they speak. Now, those of you who know me well enough will rubbish this entire love-to-observe story and say I use public transport simply because it’s cheaper. Well, that’s true to an extent, but only to an extent. My train ride to Pasar Seni was in the crowded LRT, which is the local train here. I was to take a bus from Pasar Seni to Batu Caves. When I dismounted at Pasar Seni, I almost felt like enquiring if I was still in Malaysia. Teeming crowds with veebodi (sacred ash) smeared across their foreheads, murukku and pakodam selling on the footpaths, a live Tamil ‘concert’, a signboard saying Jalan Doraisamy (Jalan means ‘Street’ in Malay), and a row of shops with Tamil boards- who says Chennai is only an Indian City? In the bus, I was surrounded by an Indian reading a Hindi Newspaper, an elderly Malaysian Tamilian couple, a native Malaysian Muslim woman, and a group of native Malaysian Chinese men- a snapshot of Malaysia in a radius of 1 metre around me. I was immediately delighted I chose to travel by bus.

Half an hour later, the bus stopped a couple of hundred metres in front of a magnificent wall of rocks and trees. Batu caves, famous for its temple of Lord Murugan and the annual Thaipoosam festival (nothing to do with Thailand), lay ensconced within that mottled façade of green and grey. As I walked towards the caves, an imposing golden yellow statue of Lord Murugan came into view. I learned later that this is the tallest statue in the world. Next to the statue was a flight of stairs that seemed to never end. The lead-up to the temple was littered with tourist buses, tourists, and empty Sprite cans. There were many small shops selling flowers and garlands, evocative of similar shops near every Indian temple. At the foot of the hill were temples, a small pond with beautifully coloured fish (I’d like to think some artist pulled them out of water, painted them, and threw them back in), a small gushing waterfall, and innumerable souvenir shops and restaurants.

I laboured up the 272 steps. It was a very uncomfortable climb, because the steps were very narrow and I almost had to walk sideways lest I trip. But boy! Wasn’t the climb worth it! A breathtakingly beautiful cave, with idols of Hindu gods and goddesses standing out from the jagged walls, and the Gayatri mantram playing in the background- it was all picture perfect. A short walk through the cave opened out into another grey-and-green façade with the temple of Batumalai Murugan in the foreground. I’m at a loss for adjectives to describe this setting, and I don’t think Barron can do justice either. I won’t attempt to describe. I’ll let the photographs do the talking.

The magnificent statue of Lord Murugan with the adjoining stairs

The Batumalai Murugan Temple

At the end of the 272-step climb

Inside the caves

Talking of photographs, none of the shots I took had me in them because I was alone. I tried snapping myself, and let’s just say that if it wasn’t a digital camera I would’ve slaughtered myself for wasting the reel. I had asked a Tamilian chap to click a picture of me against the rock wall when I was halfway up the 272 stairs. But he refused because he was afraid his wailing 4-year old would roll down to the foot of the golden yellow Lord Murugan. At the Batumalai temple I gave my camera to a babyless man, but the amount of instructions I had to give him could fill up a PhD thesis. I finally found a man without a baby and with some knowledge of cameras, but as it turned out, the self-snapped images were the best of the lot.

Apart from the Batumalai temple, there were two other caves with Hindu deities and scriptures on the walls. The caves were simply spellbinding and I was really glad I shook off that laziness in the morning. This trip was worth every minute and every ringitt I spent on it. On returning to the foot of the hill, I had a sumptuous idly-vada lunch in a pure vegetarian restaurant (a dodo in this part of the world). I spent close to three hours at Batu Caves, and I might have lingered around for some more time if my mind had stopped drifting to that blessed air conditioner in my room.

Anyway, I was back at Pasar Seni at 5:30. The Tamil concert was gone, and in its place was a three-man band playing Stairway To Heaven on acoustic guitars. The song was a fitting description to my 272-step journey to the temple.

I lazed around in the room till 8:30 and stepped out again to answer my tummy’s call. I was in the mood for something different, and a cozy looking Taiwanese restaurant was just was the doctor ordered (as it turned out later, this is just what the doctor had NOT ordered). I combed the menu, and chicken was the least offensive animal on a menu that had coffee as its only vegetarian dish. When the waitress brought me a steaming bowl of noodles and a small tray of awesome-looking chicken chops, I was applauding myself for my choice. Ten seconds later, I realized I couldn’t have made a more daft choice. The noodles were insanely long; when I tried to suck a noodle in, it just kept coming till I was out of breath. The noodles were immersed in a spicy liquid and were so slippery I passed through hell trying to coil them around the fork.

Twenty minutes later, I was exhausted. Hunger wasn’t even a factor. I paid and ran out. Moral of the story: If you ever enter Little Taiwan, don’t waste time asking the waiter for tasty stuff or spicy stuff. Ask him what is easiest to eat.

Halfway to the hotel, the rumbling began, and you’ve already read what happened later.
It’s now 1:10 a.m. It’s the end of a long day. I fulfilled part of my earlier-planned agenda. I did watch BBC, I did eat, and though I didn’t play the World Cup, I beat Australia in Perth by 7 wickets. I’ll upload this one tomorrow. I don’t surf the internet much these days as I don’t have a connection in my room. Still, I’ll try to upload some photographs of my trip. Chalo chalo, let me sleep now. Tata.