Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Looking for a Thick Skin

Any idiot can write a blog (more on idiots later) and my guess is that there are many idiots that do. But not every idiot can say that their blog is now found on! I'm listed on the right under "recent additions" and then under the "Family" section. I'm right underneath "Mormon Mommy Wars" which is one of the few blogs I actually read, because if I started reading too many blogs my productivity would slow way, way down. As it is, I feel the need to check the Consumerist and Freakonomics blog several times a day, and if I added more to that list I'm in danger of my bottom fusing to the chair I'm currently sitting on, because I might never move.

So what does that mean, exactly, that I'm listed on I have no idea. But it's a little like seeing your name in the newspaper, it doesn't matter that all it is is birth notice or maybe list of property tax evaders, it's YOUR NAME and now everybody who reads the paper has read YOUR NAME! It's just the cool factor, I think that's why I'm happy.

I also needed a little shot of confidence, or possibly my bruised ego needed a little massaging. As I've been threatening to do for a little while now, I took the plunge and tried some creative writing. Unfortunately, it looks like the pool I dove into wasn't as deep as I thought. I might have smacked my head on the bottom, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

A couple of weeks ago I went with my parents and youngest brother to Barnes & Noble when we were trying to walk off a way too big meal at Outback. I don't think I've ever been to a bookstore with anyone else who likes books as much as I do, that was an interesting experience. Anyhow, I wandered over to a section I had never been in before, full of books for writers. If I can't make it as an author of fiction, I think I'll write a book about how to write - apparently, it's quite a racket.

There were about 8 shelves worth of "how to write" books, which made me wonder, is it really that hard? I'm guessing there aren't as many books in the "how to do quantum mechanics" section, or even the "how to perform open heart surgery" section. (The "how to fix clicking swamp coolers" section must be large, since it is so challenging to replace the missing screw that is causing the clicking that I had to pay $89 for the privilege.) If I could learn organic chemistry in one shelf or less, why do I need 8 shelves to teach me a subject that I ostensibly already spent 12 years in public school learning?

Because bookstore owners know that there are probably a lot of readers who might read a particularly bad book and think, "If this yokel can get this drivel published, then certainly I can too. How hard can it be?" Well, pretty hard, as it turns out. But fortunately Barnes & Noble is well equipped to handle those less naturally gifted in the writing department. The idiots out there are particularly well-served by the selection at the Orem B&N, as the Idiot's Guide to a variety of writing topics far outnumbered the for Dummies books. Apparently idiots are able to learn how to write poetry, novels, erotica, and children's books, or any combination thereof, and get it published. The dummies can only write children's books, get it published, and have good grammar. Maybe B&N knows that it has more idiots shopping there than dummies. Or reversed - all the dummies have been here already and wiped their selection out, but the idiots are waiting for "The Idiot's Guide to Reading" to be published so they don't come to the bookstore as much.

So I ended up getting a couple of books and doing some of the writing exercises in them, because I think the key here is practicing. Out of the blue one morning, I came up with a plot for a short story. It intrigued me and I churned on it for a while before I spent a few hours over the next couple of days pounding it out. And you know what? I liked it. I thought it was pretty clever and not too bad. I suppose I was even a little bit proud of myself for actually doing this.

The problem is, though, I don't have much of a thick skin when it comes to criticism. Ryan had some comments about my story, and I instantly felt bad about every author I've ever bashed. It hurts to have your work criticized, especially when you aren't too confident to begin with. How do published authors not want to curl up in a ball and cry for a week when something they write garners two thumbs way down?

So with that in mind, I'd like to make some public apologies.

To Stephenie Meyer (author of the Twilight vampire books that I love so much): For thinking your second book was a bit of a disappointment, and that your main character is in serious need of a backbone.

To Dan Brown: For disliking the ending of The DaVinci Code so much that I had to put the book down for half a day before I could finish it. And for assuming that all of your other books would be so poorly written that I haven't even bothered reading them.

To various LDS Romance authors: For considering your books nothing more than a nice, fluffy read when I want to escape from real life.

To Victor Hugo: For skipping 3/4's of what could easily be thought of as my model for long-windedness in Les Miserables. I'm sure you had a purpose in putting in all of those details, and it wasn't that you were getting paid by the word.

When it comes down to it, all of these books not only were published, but were serious best-sellers. And maybe I wouldn't have done it the same way, but they were still some of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. I just hope they don't take it personally.

I am going to bite the bullet and post currently title-less story. I will keep my fingers crossed that I am not one of the talent-less American Idol auditioners, you know the ones that come with all of their family members who curse at Simon when he tells them the horrible truth that they don't have a lick of talent and that the earth would be a happier place if they never opened their mouth again. Those same auditioners whose loved ones didn't have the guts to tell them that maybe their weekend would have been better spent on the couch watching a 12-hour Lord of the Rings marathon, instead of waiting in line to have their hopes and dreams crushed on national television. Who are always, always surprised that it turned out the way it did.

I don't want to be one of those people, but if I am, someone needs to let me know. After all, it's not like this has been my goal since I was a little girl, I won't take it all that hard. So maybe writing won't make up my oeuvre. But if it's not my oeuvre, where else will I be able to use all of my pretentious French words? Fortunately, I will always have my blog, my now almost famous blog, that might get read by actual strangers, and all of the great stories that make up real life. Because no fiction can really ever top that.

Here's a link to my story.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

My Best Intentions

Since I returned from my trip to Malaysia, I haven't had that frazzled, frustrated, one second away from a nuclear meltdown reaction to all of the nutty things my kids do. But they are working overtime to get me back to that point.

Zack caused me to call Poison Control for the first time in my life yesterday. He had gone in the front yard to play and I was inside, feeding Darcey, which I spend about 27 hours a day doing. He comes back into the house a little bit later, soaking wet, saying that he had been in the water. I'm thinking a neighbor had a wading pool set up and he had climbed in, but when I start probing for details, I realize that it was not a pool he was in, he was, in fact, playing in a neighbor's water feature in their front yard.

My emotions are vacillating between being angry at Zack for climbing into their pond, angry at myself for not watching him better, and angry at the neighbors for owning such a tantalizing yet dangerous decoration. It only took me about one second to drop any anger at the neighbors, after all, they are perfectly within their rights to own a water feature in their front yard. That freed up some emotion for a nice amount of guilt and embarrassment.

While I'm putting Darcey down and telling Zack to find some clean clothes, the phone rings. Naturally, it's the neighbor. Inwardly groaning that I have to confront my embarrassment head-on so quickly, I answer and say "I bet you're going to tell me that Zack was playing in your pond. I am so, so sorry." She says yes, but then goes on to say that she's not worried about the clean up, she'll just wait for the water to settle so she can get all of the bark out of it (oh, it's just getting worse and worse!) - she's more worried because she treats her water periodically with half a container of bleach, and her daughter saw Zacky drinking the water.

I take her recommendation and call Poison Control. The fact that I have to go through an automated menu takes me by surprise ("If your child drank poison, press one...") but I'm quickly connected to a man who listens as I explain that my 3 year old drank outdoor water treated with bleach. He says that the bleach is so diluted that it is not a concern at all. I can't get away that easily, though, as he tells me what really is the concern - the bacteria in the water, which could cause vomiting or diarrhea. Although, you'd think the bleach might take care of that, right? Anyhow, I was advised to keep him hydrated if he does get sick, and take him to a doctor if it doesn't go away on it's own.

I call my neighbor back and leave a message on her machine with the Poison Control information and another apology and plea to let me come and clean the mess. So far Zack is fine, and I'm not worried about him getting sick. It's probably what I deserve.

It's such a shame this happened, though, because I was planning on having a pretty good day. My parents had taken Brad and Noah to the Discovery Gateway Children's Museum on Tuesday, and the house was so quiet and peaceful with just Darcey and Zack here that I was able to actually accomplish something, for the first time in months - I made 5 1/2 quarts of freezer jam. So on Wednesday when they were all going to go on a hike at Sundance, I was looking forward to more of the same. I think it's one of those things where expectations are made and then not met, which causes more pain than if there had been no expectations at all.

The boys had a great time on the hike. The very best part of the hike was the dead deer they saw, which described in excruciating detail. They talked about seeing into it's head, and it's ribs and other bones, and how there were tons of flies on it. They also mentioned that they liked the waterfall, that they got a little bit lost trying to find the trail at one point, and today I got to hear about how fun it is to pee anywhere you want. The whole world is a bathroom, as my mom said. They enjoyed it so much that they went back today to do it again, although instead of hiking up the mountain and taking the chair lift back down, they might go up the chair lift first and walk back down. While they are out, they'll be keeping an eye out for my dad's glasses that somehow fell out of his pocket, and a new stick for Noah, whose previous stick broke, causing great anguish.

Later that afternoon, I got to put my Judge Judy skills to work. Noah had been eating a popsicle in the backyard and came in the back door without the stick. I asked where the stick was and he said that he threw it in the outside garbage can. I found this highly suspicious, so I asked him where the garbage can was. He said, outside by the sidewalk. I asked him if he walked from the backyard, around the house, threw away his stick, then went back into the backyard to come in the house from through the back door. He said yes. I asked him to tell me the truth, where is the popsicle stick really? In the garbage can, he said. I said, So if I go out there and look in the garbage can, I'll find your popsicle stick? Yes, he said. I invited him to go on a field trip with me to the garbage cans but he told me to go by myself. (Rather rudely, I thought, but that wasn't the battle I was fighting right then.)

I checked every trash can out there, which were all empty as it was trash day that morning. There was nary a popsicle stick to be found, as I had suspected was the case. I went back in the house and asked Noah to tell me where the popsicle stick really was, and he angrily refused. I told him that he was going to have to go to his room , which he readily agreed to, as if that would somehow avoid the whole sticky situation. I followed him upstairs, where he buried his head in his blanket and screamed at me, and at life in general I suspect. I tried to talk to him but he wouldn't say anything, so I told him he was welcome to come out of his room when he would tell me the truth.

Eventually he had been quiet for a while so I went back up for another round. He started asking me if he told me the truth if I'd be angry at him. I told him that I'm angrier that he lied to me than about the final destination of the popsicle stick, and that I might be angry when he told me but that I'd be angrier if he didn't. I told him that I knew what happened to the stick but that I really wanted him to tell me himself. Finally, he did tell me, like I suspected he threw the popsicle stick over the fence into the neighbor's backyard.

We had had an incident of this at the beginning of summer, and I thought my lecture at the time was enough to stop this from happening again. It was a different neighbor, fortunately. The original popsicle stick neighbor was also the cat-and-duct-tape incident neighbor, as well as the throw rocks at their children neighbor. They are beginning to think that living next to us is not a good idea, so now we are more evenly distributing our children's bad behavior around the cul-de-sac.

Why is it ever a good idea to lie? You just always, always get caught, and whatever you were lying to avoid ends up being a better circumstance than where you end up after you've lied and been caught. Haven't all of these politicians and Hollywood stars and other criminals' examples taught us anything? Well, they might have taught me but they haven't taught my kids yet.

My mom told me a funny story about my brothers who, when they were teenagers, decided they didn't want to go to church with my parents but promised to attend a different ward's meeting. My mom was suspicious and told them to bring home a program from that meeting. When they got home, they claimed that they had run out of programs by the time they got there. So my mom asked who spoke. They rattled off some names. She asked what they spoke about, and again answered about the talks that people had given. Of course, what my mom knew that they didn't was that it was Fast Sunday, so there wouldn't have been any talks at all! She just let them run with the line, the hook in their mouth, and then started reeling them in. Ah, it's that kind of masterful parenting that I can only aspire to! I feel like I got a glimpse of that kind of brilliance in my own popsicle investigation today, but I still bow at the feet of the master.

(In my brothers' defense, I'll tell this little tidbit about myself - I was an atrocious liar as a kid, and that's basically the reason I forsook a life of darkness and turned to the light. I would go as quietly into the kitchen as humanly possible and lift the lid of the cookie jar so slowly and carefully so that I wouldn't knock the lid against the ceramic jar, take out a few cookies, and then replace the lid. I was as stealthy as a cat. Or maybe, as stealthy as a walrus, I'm not sure how quiet I actually was because every single time I did this my mom would call out from upstairs to put the cookies back, or something along those lines. Caught every time, I was. I'm not any better at lying now, which is why I try not to do it at all. There's just nothing worth lying about. Except for ordering two dinners and telling the waiter that it's not all for me...)

The dead deer made an appearance at dinner that night. Not literally, of course. Noah says, "You should have seen the deer, mom. It's head popped off and you could see it's bones." Could this unappetizing description possibly be the reason that Noah didn't want to eat his dinner? Of course not. In the case of that night's dinner (Cajun Chicken Caesar Sandwiches from the terrific Saving Dinner cookbook), he actually liked the food. I think he didn't want to eat it merely out of habit, because that's just what he does every night. He's got a reputation to uphold, after all, and if he starts eating without a fit then what kind of a wuss would all of his friends think he is? The dinnertime arguing is a delicate spice for his meal. It's probably a better flavor than the dead deer.

I'm trying so hard to hold on to this calm, peaceful feeling that my vacation left me with. I handled all of the incidents calmly, I didn't yell and almost didn't want to, which is a good thing. But I'm starting to feel a little worn out. Zack's a worse sleeper than my newborn daughter, and that is super-frustrating. He fell asleep after 10:30 last night (1 1/2 hours after I put him down) and woke up at 2 a.m., Darcey woke up at 4, and Zack was awake for the day at 6. Seriously, my 2 month old is waking up less than my 3 year old!! The injustice of this kills me, but I'm trying to stay calm despite all of that. And not exasperated. Or irritated and annoyed. I think I'll go take a nap.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Tuesday #2

The Longest Tuesday in History

Well, Seoul was a disappointment, although I can't blame the city for that, just the circumstances.

Darcey and I took a taxi to the airport at 10 p.m. Monday night after we joined Ryan and the production crew from Rocketfish Studios at Cineleisure to watch the Simpson's Movie. It was hysterical, consistently funny all the way through. I want to watch it again, with Americans this time, because there were jokes that we laughed at that no one else did. Like Mr. Burns saying "Finally, a rich, white man has all the power." See, funny!

It was bittersweet leaving. I've had such a fantastic time, quite possibly the best vacation of my life so far. But I'm ready to go home. I miss my easy going life, where I don't mind just vegging at home all day if I feel like it, where I can buy something or ask a stranger a question and not have to try to interpret their answer. So like a fat man after a night at Sizzler, I am ready to leave, satisfied and full of new, great memories, my desire to travel completely sated for now. But when I left I couldn't revel in the perfectness of the trip, because I'm leaving without Ryan.

I hate being emotional and try not to be as much as possible. Plus I'm fairly independent, I like being alone. For those reasons, Ryan was actually surprised when I got a little weepy when it was time to say goodbye. He liked knowing how much I'll miss him. I do like to be alone, and I did handle a week of solo sightseeing just fine, but I knew that I had him to come home to and tell about my adventures. That's not the same as really alone.

The bittersweetness of the end of my KL holiday turned into run of the mill traveling about 10 minutes after I left the hotel. I was instantly out of emotional mode and into functional mode. Figuring out logistics, making plans and decisions. That is as much traveling to me as any of the sights.

I entered the airport pushing a full luggage cart and pulling Darcey's stroller behind me, as I headed toward the Korean airlines check in counter. An employee intercepted me before I could get there and took the luggage from me, checked me in, switched me to an aisle seat, all while I waited. It was such good service.

The flight was 6 hours long, and Darcey slept maybe 4 hours total, although not consecutively. There was a lot of turbulence, the scary kind, and the flight attendant told me she had to be held. Darcey, that is, not the flight attendant. I expect the flight attendant handles turbulence just fine. I ended up getting about an hour of sleep that whole night.

Which put my 12 hour layover/sightseeing opportunity in Seoul off to a bad start. I can deal with tired when there's fun to be had. Sadly, Seoul was fresh out of fun. What they did have was plenty of rain.

The other day I was talking to my mom about taking the whole family back sometime, maybe at Christmas. Only thing is, Christmas in KL is the rainy season. Who cares about a little rain, I said to my mom. It's not like we're going to melt when we get wet. Or multiply like Gremlins (can you imagine taking them home on the plane?)

Now that I've tried sightseeing in the rain, I can say with certainty, it stinks. I took a bus from the airport to a certain stop, where I got on the Seoul City Tour Bus, fulfilling my previously unrequited desire to master foreign public transportation. Seoul is not at all as foreigner-friendly a KL was and since the characters are so different from our alphabet, I couldn't piece any information together either.

I mentioned earlier that if you want to humble a proud person, send them to a foreign country. I've decided that a foreign country is also the place to go if you ever want to appreciate the generosity of strangers. I can't count the number of people who have gone out of their way to help me. Today it was the 3 guys who helped me find the right bus. Later, it was the man who, out of nowhere, stopped me in line at the National Museum to remind me that our bus pas included a coupon for the museum ticket. So many people have helped me drag or carry the stroller up and down steps. One held an umbrella over me while I folded the stroller. And on a less welcome note, about half of the Korean women in the airport went out of their way to tell me that Darcey was cold. (You can't win 'em all.)

So with help I got on the right bus, and the driver made sure I knew when my stop came up. I got on the City Tour bus and started a tour of Downtown Seoul. The city reminds me a little of KL - lush, verdant green all around the city, some low rolling hills also covered in trees, and tons of shopping. They have one mall complex that has 10,000 vendors, no joke. It must be freakin' huge.

I picked four things to do on the tour - the National Museum, the Seoul Tower, a market, and a palace. I was most interested in the palace, which was the last stop on the tour, and the museum was first geographically but least interesting. And once I got into the museum, I remembered - I don't like museums. Some are good, of course, I don't dislike all museums. Just most of them. The ones full of 2,000 year old pottery fragments, which incidentally look exactly the same no matter what country you're in. And just as boring.

I didn't spend long there, had a sushi roll for lunch in the cafe, then went out in the downpour to catch the bus. I had an umbrella which kept me and Darcey dry, but the stroller and my backpack were getting soaked.

The rain just got worse as the bus drove it's circuit, and I decided that I would do my sightseeing from the bus. But then the second factor to make this a rotten day kicked in - I was so tired that kept dozing on the bus. I would nod off and then one second later jerk awake so violently that I almost gave myself whiplash. Over and over, for the rest of the 2 hour circuit, I would fall asleep and then instantly wake up. Oh, it was so painful. I wanted nothing more than to lay down and take a nap, but I was so afraid of missing my stop that I couldn't. When I think back to what I saw from the bus, it is all hazy and I can only picture a few fleeting images - the front of a palace that I had really wanted to go in, driving through the forest on the Mount Something in the city, lots and lots of storefronts with names written in Korean.

I finally got back on the bus to the airport after standing in the rain and in a 2 inch deep puddle (no wonder everyone else was huddled at the other end of the stop.) I felt a little better knowing the ropes this time, handed over my 10,000 won note for the fare and settled into yet another bus seat. I must have gotten a second wind or something because I didn't want to sleep so much this time. We crossed over a body of water (a river?) between Seoul and Incheon, where there was what looked like frost on the ground and on the water. Could it have been that much colder there? It doesn't seem likely, but I don't know what else it could have been.

Back at the airport, I was seriously regretting choosing the 12-hour layover. I had the best intentions, but now that I had slept through a tour of Seoul and still had five hours until my plane left, I truly wished I was on the earlier flight. I kept busy wandering around the terminal, but there was a kiosk where the women employees would come out from behind their post and stop me to coo over Darcey. Every time I walked by, they would do this. So at some point, I decided that I couldn't take it anymore, and limited myself to just the left half of the terminal for exploration.

I stopped for dinner at some restaurant, where I didn't understand the menu very well, and ended up ordering too much food. I got a sushi roll and an order of vegetable fried rice, which seems fine, except that both items were considered full meals with soup and stuff, so I sat at a table looking like a complete idiot. (Not like the Indian food I bought two orders of on purpose, but could gorge myself in the privacy of my hotel room.) Ah, who cares, I'm never going to see any of them again anyways.

Darcey had a massive blowout diaper about 30 minutes before boarding. When I changed her, I realized that somehow I was going to walk on the airplane with just one diaper left. I thought I had packed enough, and I had the backup plan that the airline would give me some, the way China Air presented me with a bag of diapers, formula, and baby food.

Well, this isn't China Air, and all I got for her was a sticker book on the first leg of the trip. Knowing that only having one diaper on a 10+ hour flight was a really, really bad idea, I asked the flight attendant at the gate if they had any diapers on board or if I should go buy some. She said yes, but the other flight attendant there said no, so I asked them to check for sure. Yes, definitely, was the confirmed answer.

So I wrapped Darcey's poopy clothes inside the blanket of hers that I had dropped in the puddle at the bus stop and shoved it in the bottom of my backpack. I took out the brick which is the South Korea tour book I had bought, and stuck a note on it saying "Free! Take it if you want it." I left it on a table, hoping that someone else could use it to plan more fun in Seoul than I had.

I boarded the plane and the flight attendant handed me a bag with diapers and wipes in it. I stuck it under my seat, but it was a good thing I got it, because Darcey pooped again during take off. (And it wasn't a particularly scary take off, either, she must have a weak constitution.) I waited until the seat belt light went off, then grabbed the bag and the poop-meister and headed to the bathroom. When I opened the bag, I marveled again at the language barrier - I don't know what the flight attendant thought I wanted, but what she gave me was six handi-wipes and a box of Kleenex. I grabbed my last diaper, changed her, and held my breath (and hope that Darcey holds something else) that we wouldn't have any incidents in the next 10 hours.

The flight was predictably boring, although it was made worse because they didn't show any movies at all the entire time. It would have broken things up a little, even though I was prepared with my own entertainment. Also, the flight left at 8 p.m. but they didn't turn the lights down until 11, because they were busy selling duty-free cigarettes and lotions and stuff. I was still as wasted as I was earlier, I wrote in my notebook a completely unintelligible paragraph, I wish you could see my handwriting because it is atrocious. Here's what I wrote:

"The sleepiness hasn't worn off yet. I keep nodding off. I just wiped drool off my shirt and let's just say it wasn't produced by the one of us for whom it is acceptable to drool in public."

Darcey fell asleep as soon as the lights went off, and so did I - amazingly, we both slept for 5 or 6 hours, until they decided to turn the lights back on. I could have slept much longer, so I was a little disappointed. I prefer China Air to Korean Airlines any day.

I got off the plane at LAX, and the book I was listening to was so boring that I left it in my backpack as I waded through Immigrations over to the baggage carousel. It turns out that was a good thing, because the experience at the airport left me with so many amusing observations that I actually had to pull over and write them down. It seems as though listening to an ipod all day isn't conducive to thinking of funny stuff to write about. I'm going to have to keep that in mind.

The baggage carousel was so full of 300 people's bags that handlers came and took the bags off and made a wall of bags around the outside of the carousel. This meant that we now formed a human carousel to rotate around the stationary bags in order to collect our stuff. It took eternity to get all three of my bags, and while I was waiting for the third one, I started doing an inventory of that bag to see if I could just leave it there. I saw it, finally, still on the carousel, but I was behind the wall of other bags, so I asked the asian man near the carousel to grab it for me. Here's what I said: "Could you get me that bag, that blue bag, that small blue bag, it's right there, that small blue bag right there, that blue one, that one that just went past you." A handler eventually grabbed it for me.

A TSA employee, who I think had seen that whole exchange, came up to me while I was pushing my cart with the folded stroller on top, and said something completely unintelligible to me, but with a smile on his face like he was sharing an inside joke with me. I think what he said must have been, "We are massively inefficient, aren't we!"

When an international flight enters the United States, everyone is required to get their bags, take them through Customs, and then recheck them. I happened to be walking behind a guy who had two gigantic bags, probably ten feet long each, looking like body bags with wheels on the bottom. I felt so bad for him, it was the most unwieldy baggage I've ever seen, worse than pushing a cart and pulling a stroller. Then I felt bad for all of us, because if a guy can really check dead bodies on an airplane then what does that say for the state of security here?

One of the elevators I took made me question whether I was still in a foreign country. I was on the ground floor and needed to go up, and here were my options: C, P, T, and R. I stared at my options, trying to decipher the less-exciting sequel to the DaVinci Code - the Elevator Code. Eventually I located a sign near the top of the elevator with the key to decrypting the secret message.

C - Baggage
T- Ticketing
P - Planes (Not parking)
R - Unlabeled, must be the floor that takes you to the secret vault.

I got the extra screening at security. I'm sure I was profiled, after all, a woman with a baby strapped to her chest is the most likely to be carrying explosives, right? No, it was my hair clip that set off the metal detector. That's it, new security rule, no hair clips of any sort. Even rubber bands. As a matter of fact, no hair anymore either - who knows what could be hiding in there? Darcey's set.

By the time I got to my gate, an hour and a half of my two hour layover had passed. I couldn't believe how long it took to do all of that maneuvering. At one point I was suddenly hungry, ravenously hungry, the kind of hunger that indicates my body has started feeding on it's own internal organs, leaving the gaping chasm that is my stomach. My two choices to eat, quickly of course, was at Starbucks or some sausage place. I was sure that eating sausage would be a horrible mistake, so I got a lemonade and some cut up fruit, $8, welcome to America.

I had been carrying Darcey in the Baby Bjorn ever since the last flight landed, and she stayed asleep in it the entire flight to Salt Lake. She only woke up during the last 15 minutes or so, letting me nurse her until we got off the plane. She was perfectly happy and/or asleep while my mom picked me up, we gathered my luggage, and all the way home. She finally got a diaper change when we got home, probably 15 or 16 hours since I put the last diaper on her. Like the cruz of oil that never failed, she wore the diaper that never overflowed. It did smell, though, and within minutes of her change she pooped again. Like Ryan said, she prefers a clean palette for her art.

It was nice to be home again. Unfortunately, the jet lag meant that no matter how tired I was, I didn't fall asleep until 6 a.m. The kids were happy to see me, and I think it was genuine even if the first thing Noah did was ask about his souvenirs. The boys were healthy and happy, no ill effects from having their mother gone for 11 days. Does that mean something? Were they better off without me here? I'm not going to explore that question, I'm just going to look back at this fantastic vacation and appreciate the family members who worked so hard to take care of my kids, who provided me with this vacation even more than the money that paid for the plane tickets did. The best part is that in the days since I've been home, I've felt so relaxed, so calm, not frazzled and frustrated with life the way I used to. I feel more of a stillness. I want to hang up a sign to say "Days That I've Been Patient" - I'm up to three right now, and that feels pretty good. Maybe I need more vacations. I wonder where I can go next...

Kuala Lumpur, Sunday

On Saturday I told Brad that we were going to try to go to church out here, but that it was far away and so we weren’t sure if we would make it. In typical child fashion, he called me to task and said, “Mom, we always go to church. And some people spend a whole day getting there.” He was absolutely right, and boy did it make me feel good to hear it!

We looked up the Kuala Lumpur Branch’s address and schedule on, and found out they meet at 9:00 on some remote street in KL which wasn’t on our map. (I also looked up the weather in Seoul for Tuesday – remarkably, the weather man is predicting 100% chance of rain. So there’s really no chance whatsoever that two days from now it might not rain? With that kind of accuracy, he might want to consider playing the lottery. Or maybe writing fortune cookie fortunes. I’d like one with 100% accuracy.)

Anyhow, we got a taxi to take us out to KL, but naturally he had no idea where he was going once we got to the area the street was in. We had seen a map online but couldn’t print it. Why in the world would a taxi driver not invest in a city map? Could we possibly have been the first people to stump him with a street he didn’t know? If so, do we get points for that?

He eventually found it, with some help, and dropped us off. The building didn’t look like a typical church building, but when we saw the standard “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” sign on the side near the door, we both sighed, relieved that we were at the right place. Must’ve been exactly how Brigham Young felt.

We were greeted by a Malaysian woman and an American man (not together) – I think the American man was in the branch presidency. They were both happy to have us, as was everyone else we met. If the country had been surprisingly friendly before, the branch was just as friendly as I had expected them to be to a visiting family. Which is to say, very friendly.

The branch had about 60-70 people there, with several visitors, including a doctor from the Philippines who showed up with us at 9, going from the information on the website, when in actuality the meeting started at 10. A missionary who had served in the branch was there with his parents, they were there to pick him up and had come back to this branch to see everyone he knew there. There were four full-time missionaries, all American. I counted about 4-5 American families attending, the rest were Malaysian and all varieties of Asian races, which seems typical for the country. (It is incredibly multi-cultural here. I love that.)

While everyone was friendly and many people came and shook our hands, a couple of American women went out of their way to talk to me and we chatted for a while about living in Malaysia. They both happened to be here because their husbands work at the US Embassy. The one woman had her six children with her, ages 6-16. I asked what they did for schooling, and she told me about the international school her kids go to. Her 10 year old daughter, who is starting 5th grade like Brad, said that she is friends with a princess! Her mom said, well, it’s actually the niece of the King. Wow, that’s something.

It was fast and testimony meeting, and it was, like everything else on this trip, similar to what I’m used to and different at the same time. It was such a small group of people that everyone was familiar with everyone else. It wasn’t quite as reverent, between testimonies people would turn and start chatting with their neighbors. Those who bore their testimony talked less formally, like they were just in a room with all of their friends. It was great to see the love they had for each other. Those were the differences, but the similarities were that I could feel the Spirit there just as strongly as I do in my super-active Orem ward. The woman who talked about the difficulties of motherhood made me cry. The father of the returned missionary was so proud of his son and grateful for the branch that had shown his son so much love. There were teens that spoke, and converts, and it was just a terrific meeting.

Afterwards, I changed Darcey’s diaper and found Ryan near the side door, talking to the second American woman. Her family had moved to KL from China. I asked her how she gets around town – does she take a taxi everywhere? No, she has a car and drives herself. I couldn’t believe that a regular American could ever adapt to this driving lifestyle, but she told me that it’s actually better here than in Beijing. Wow.

We left church and I hailed a taxi, something else I’ve never done before. The taxi took us to the Petronas Twin Towers, which unfortunately had already run out of tickets for the day. There is a mall right there, another monstrous mall, like 6 floors, and we headed inside for some lunch. I have to say that all of this makes me a little uncomfortable, because we are a pretty strict Sabbath observing family, and it seems hypocritical to toss the rules right out the window on vacation. I don’t have a justification for this, so judge me however you will.

The place was absolutely mobbed, and at one point I looked around and saw not a single other white person in the entire crowd. Ryan says that now he knows what it must be like when a lone black person walks into our ward in Utah – we have never been a minority before but man, we sure are now. Most of the time we don’t even notice, though, it doesn’t generally hit my radar on most days, but every so often it does with a vengeance.

We ate at the food court, and then got out of there just as fast as we could. It was just too crowded, too clautsrophobic. We got on the hop on hop off bus, which Ryan had never taken, and drove around to stop 9B, Central Market. Ryan liked the bus because it gave him a good overview of the city, which he didn’t really have before.

If the mall was too crazy for us, getting off the bus in Chinatown was no improvement. Sundays in KL mean “Sunday markets” where everyone and their mother’s dog has a booth under a tent, selling something. The bus dropped us on the side of the road, and we had the daunting challenge of crossing the street. No sissy crosswalks and traffic lights here, no sir. After standing, waiting like obedient children for the sign to change from “don’t walk” to “walk” we realized that if we were ever going to get off the street corner, we needed to make a break for it. So when the next pack of locals decided it was “safe” to cross, we went with them. This meant weaving between cars stopped at a light and running so as to avoid being run over. Knowing the likelihood of these cars stopping instead of hitting us if we took too long, we got through there just as fast as we could.

Once we got into Central Market, I pulled Ryan over to one side and just stood there for a minute, enjoying some personal space. The market itself was not nearly as crowded as I had imagined, and it was actually enjoyable to be there for a while. Yesterday the zipper on Brad’s backpack broke, so we picked up a new one while we were here, and Ryan switched the contents while I changed Darcey’s diaper. The bathroom I used costs 50 cents to get in, and you are handed a pile of toilet paper when you go through the turnstile. I came back out, checked the now-empty backpack, and then threw it away.

We were done there and headed back outside to race against death while we crossed the street, and waited at the bus stop for the hop on bus. It only comes by every half hour, and we were beat, so we were just going to take it to the KL Sentral train station stop so we could catch a taxi. But we decided to use our new-found taxi catching skills to grab a cab right there. It was Ryan’s turn this time and if he is as effective at catching fish as he is at catching cabs, our family will never starve. Except that if it looks like a fish and not fish sticks, the kids won’t eat it and will actually starve.

So we took our taxi back to the hotel. After a brief rest (napping for Ryan and Darcey, writing for me) we headed out to try some Chinese food. I wasn’t necessarily in the mood for Chinese, but Ryan talked me into it, and I agreed mostly because it was one more type of food to say I had eaten while I was here. So far the list includes: Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Swiss, Italian, and Malaysian.

We picked up dessert at Cold Storage grocery store at the Ikano Power Center, the mall across the street. The most overpriced thing we’ve seen since we’ve been here is real American ice cream, whether it be Baskin Robbins or Haagen-Dazs (which I know is not American strictly speaking, but you know). They clock in at an astounding RM30 per pint, which translates to $10 each. Now, I love ice cream probably more than the next guy, but it was really hard for me to pay this much for something I will buy for $3.50 when I get home in two days. Ryan has two weeks to go, so it was worth it to him to splurge.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Saturday

We saw the coolest, coolest thing today, so cool that I can barely stand it. Ryan said that it's the first thing we've done that makes it feel like we are really in a foreign country. This ultra-cool place? The Batu Caves.

The Batu Caves is another thing from the KL episode of the Amazing Race, but this time we wanted to see it on it's own merits, not just because it was on the show. It was one of the only two things that Ryan went into the trip saying he really wanted to see. (The other was the KL tower. I guess he can go home now, the whole country has satisfied him.)

We got off to a slow start that morning, which is okay, it's a vacation, although it meant that we ended up at the caves in the full heat of the day. We took our time getting ready, and it seems like it always takes longer to get somewhere when Darcey needs attention. By the time we got down to the lobby, it was around 11:30ish, and Darcey was so whiny that I sat and fed her right there. Then Ryan mentioned that he was getting hungry, and come to think of it, so was I, so we proceeded into the mall for some fantastic Malaysian food before we left.

Tummies full, we went back to the hotel and I asked at the front desk for a taxi to get us to the caves and then bring us home. The man I dealt with was different than the woman I talk to every day, who seems used to all of my questions. He said that a taxi wouldn't take us to the caves and we'd have to take a limo. "Limo" just means "nicer car with seat belts" not an actual limousine. And they are more expensive - retained hourly, the limo costs RM50 while a taxi is only RM25. The man said that to get us to the caves and back would be RM100 total, and I said fine, because we just wanted to get there and I'm hamstrung by my complete lack of public transportation knowledge. It kills me.

But this turned out to be a perfectly acceptable way to get around. We all had seat belts on, which is a comfort, and since we weren't going into downtown, the traffic was light and there was no need to drive like it's the final turn of the Indy 500.

The caves are a natural formation inside a huge limestone cliff, inside which is a shrine to a Hindu god, I can't remember which one. Every year there is a festival called Thaipusam, where a special gold box (the significance of which escapes me right now) is carried by foot from the temple of Sri Mahamariamman, which I went to a couple of days ago, all the way up to the cave. The interesting thing is the way it is carried - people have some kind of poles stuck through their skin, which the box then is hung from. There was a picture of it in one of my books. It's acupuncture meets moving van, and it's the grossest thing ever. Of course, Brad was interested in that in the way only a 10 year old boy can be. Sadly, I saw neither box nor pierced parishoner. (If you want to read more about the festival, here's a good page:

At the foot of the caves is a gigantic gold painted statue of, again, some Hindu god. It would help my credibility if I knew the names of the gods in question, but I think that is the last reference to the actual religion of the place. The statue is enormous. I'd say bigger than the rather disappointing Statue of Liberty, but I could be wrong. It's mammoth.

Our driver dropped us off and waited in the parking lot after telling us that we were the first foreigners he's taken to the caves. That doesn't mean that we were the only tourists, though. There were plenty of Muslims there, easily identifiable, and a couple of white people (like maybe two), and the rest were probably Hindu. There's no telling the religion of the monkeys, though.

Oh, the monkeys. They were like the pigeons of New York, not the exotic animal you'd see in the zoo, but just oversized rodents of some sort. And they were everywhere inside. That's not to say that I wasn't absolutely fascinated by them. How often do you see an animal other than a typical house pet, wandering around at their leisure? The only wild animals I tend to see in my life are deer, and they aren't exactly interesting anymore. We were starting to climb the stairs, 272 of them, which doesn't seem like a lot until you are at about stair 50 (they are numbered for your convenience, so the obsessive-compulsive amongst us don't feel the need to count) and your knees start shaking and your thighs are burning. At about stair 100, we saw the first monkeys - two of them, sitting on the stairs, hanging out, one guy picking bugs off the other. Then they turned and headed up along with us. I took a million pictures of the two of them, before I realized that they weren't the only monkeys around.

Once we got to the top, we looked to the left of the stairs at the limestone cliff which was covered with vines and trees and monkeys. When we started looking, we could see them everywhere, like a close up of an ant farm. These seemed cooler than the stair monkeys, because they were in some kind of natural habitat. Inside the cave there were dozens more of them, everywhere, all over the place. They were engaged in their natural actions of scavenging for food, unfortunately all they could find was people's garbage. I felt so bad for the poor creatures at that point. One had a juice box, but had it upside down and was trying to eat his was into the box. I wanted to point out the straw but I suppose opposable thumbs does not a gourmand make.

When I stopped looking at the monkeys, I could not help but feel completely awed by the cave itself. The ceiling was so high you could fit an apartment building in there, and at the top were natural holes in the limestone, letting through some ambient light, though not enough to take away the creepy-cave feeling. There were stalactites hanging down that had green stuff growing from the tips because it is so humid and drippy in there. The texture of the walls, the rough hewn look was so rustic and natural, it was like being in a real cave. Well, it was a real cave, I just have never been in a cave before, and it looks just like I would think a cave should look, except with higher ceilings. Not so claustrophobic.

We walked down some more steps into the cave, and then up some more to the shrine itself, which looks a lot like the ones in the temple that I saw already. We spent some time in there, looking around, absorbing the ambiance. Darcey had her fans up there, not the monkeys thank goodness, but a family that had hiked up there also. The liked her so much that they asked if they could pose with her while I took pictures of them with their cameras.

Heading out, we passed the requisite souvenir stand, right there at the mouth of the cave. It makes me think of Christ throwing out the moneychangers in the temple - if a Hindu god showed up at his shrine and found some guys selling bottled water and cave magnets and baseball caps, what would he think? Maybe he'd be more pragmatic, I picture Hindu gods being fairly laid back. Although any god that required people to pierce their bodies with sticks and hooks to carry burdens 8 km and then 272 steps to prove their devotion is not the quintessential picture of "laid back god."

There was also piles and piles of litter on the ground outside the cave, which the monkeys were picking through. Was it all from tourists, who have no reverence for another religion's holy place? Or is it acceptable behavior by all? If I lived here, I'd make Brad have his Eagle Scout project be picking up trash at the cave.

At the top of the stairs, I turned to talk to Ryan while I walked backwards, until he very calmly said, "There's a monkey right behind you." It's funny how the calmness in his voice is the exact opposite of the amount of panic his statement is going to induce. I turned around and, startled, jumped back, because the monkey was so close to my back I almost bumped right into it. I mean, I almost knocked the poor thing right off of his perch. Monkeys are nice and all, but I think I prefer them at arms length. A really long arm.

Ryan was right, going down was a lot easier than going up, although we had the added fear of falling straight down and breaking our collective necks. The stairs are steep and narrow, so I ended up trying to place my feet more sideways to get a little more purchase. This was probably the most interesting thing I've seen the entire week I've been here.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. We went out for dinner, again, although to say it that way sounds like I'm tired of it but I'm really not. Then we did some browsing at Cineleisure, the other mall next to our hotel. On the weekends there is a street market with all sorts of semi-interesting stuff - some junk, some knock-off clothing, surprisingly no pirated dvd's (not that we were looking). I was tired and fed up with maneuvering through crowds (no one here pushes a stroller) so after a while we headed back to the room for the evening. It may not have been a good sightseeing day quantity-wise, since we only went one place, but it was the best quality-wise.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Friday

My sightseeing trip today was so easy that it's almost not worth writing about. But I've got an hour until my taxi picks me up for dinner, so I may as well go ahead and write anyhow.

Yesterday when I finished my rounds of the city, I made plans with Mr. Chong to take me out again today, after we dropped Ryan off at work. The plans were obviously more concrete in my mind than his, because when I got in the car he said, "Oh, you go to office today?" I said, "No, I wanted to go see the National Mosque, like yesterday." He tells me that he has another booking, but that he will get me someone else to take me around. After we dropped off Ryan, he drove around through a part of town that was so unfamiliar I started thinking that maybe I should be dropping breadcrumbs so I could find my way back.

Eventually we pulled up in front of a bus stop, and I was ushered into a new taxi, this one driven by a younger man named Mr. Lim. I like Mr. Lim better because his taxi is not quite as worn out and has all of it's seat belts. I finally felt safe driving through town, with Darcey and myself safely buckled against the inevitable car accident. Honestly, I'm surprised that there can continue to be so many crazy drivers on the road here with how dangerously they drive. Maybe the driving population has already undergone its Darwinian evolution - all of the worst drivers were, shall we say, selected for extinction, while the remaining ones have learned how to survive these conditions. Surprisingly, though, none of the drivers seem angry as they continually cut off and get cut off by other drivers. It's like Los Angeles on speed and prozac.

My first stop was the National Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world. I think it holds something like 10,000 worshippers. It's located over near the Lake Garden area, which is turning out to be full of great attractions. If I had had my act together from the beginning, I would have hit all of them in one day, instead of over three successive days. Oh well. Because I did not have my act together, I ended up here at the Mosque on Friday. Which is the Islamic holy day. Which means the mosque is closed to visitors. This would be a bad thing except that when I decided I wanted to go see the mosque, it was because I was looking at the wrong building. The mosque itself is not the traditional mosque-y design, it's more angular and pointy instead of that Arabian Nights look. The building I thought I was going to see was actually the old train station, now converted to government offices. So I wasn't disappointed. I still got out of the taxi and took a few pictures, but I was just as happy to get going.

The next place I went was Merdeka Square. "Merdeka" is the Malaysian word for independence, which is a big deal here as this year the country is celebrating it's 50th anniversary of independence from British rule. I'm not the most world-wise person, but to me it seems amazing that a country so young and newly independent can have made so much progress and be so advanced. But I could be completely wrong, my dad will probably let me know.

The square is bounded by the Royal Selangor club on one side, an exclusive club formerly just for white people, now for VIP's of all races, and the current Supreme Court building on the other. The court building (maybe this is the one that used to be a train station, now I'm confused) is in that beautiful Arabian Nights style, just like the movie Aladdin. I'm really taken with that style of architecture. I got lucky today, as a marching band, I'm guessing from the government, was on the square practicing for the August 30th Independence Day performance. The song they were playing was an American western standard, which I can't remember right now because MTV is on in the background, but the song cracked me up, as if they had no idea what a campy song they were playing. (On a side note, MTV and other channels are cool to watch here, if disturbing, because the majority of swear words are bleeped out. Great for me, bad for freedom of expression in general.) I saw the world's tallest flagpole. It's funny to see all of these flags, and none of them American.

Next on my list was Carcosa Seri Negara. This is a beautiful house which used to be the home for the British governor, and more recently was the place where Queen Elizabeth stayed. I didn't care about any of those facts, the reason I went out of my way to see this house/hotel is because it was the pit stop on the KL leg of the Amazing Race. The fact that I could see it meant that I wanted to. I went inside and the place was deserted. I poked my head around a little, saw a dining room set for high tea, then an employee came and showed me some of the rooms. The place was opulent, but not ridiculous, and I felt a little special finding a cool place to see that no one else cared about. Of course, that could just make me a nerd, but that's okay too.

My driver today, Mr. Lim, decided that I should see the king's house. It was in the Lake Garden area, near the Carcosa Seri Negara, so I figured why not. All you could see was the great big gate, and then maybe 1/4 mile down the road was the house. So when I took pictures of the house, all I was really taking pictures of was tourists, taking pictures of each other. I just fed into the vicious cycle. I accidentally came at the best time, though, because I was only there for like 1 minute looking at the crowds and the gate, when three horses with guards on them showed up - it was the changing of the guards. The two old guards (which had to stand there on their horses while people came up to get their picture taken with them, what a horrible job. If it were me I might be tempted to spur the horse so that it would kick all those dumb camera-wielders.)

My final stop was the best, the butterfly garden. I think this was also the first time I had to pay an admission fee, which in America you know they would have charged for most of the things I've seen. I went in and paid, not only for me, but RM1 for my camera to get in as well. I hope the camera had a good time, at least one ringget's worth of fun. After I paid, the woman told me that there's a lot of steps. I said that's okay, I figured she meant there were a lot of short steps up and down throughout the garden. Nope, it was one really steep staircase which I was fine to tackle by picking up the stroller and carrying it down. But there was Mr. Lim to save the day, he grabbed one end of the stroller and I grabbed the other and we carried it down together. That was above and beyond, I think.

I loved seeing the butterflies all over the place, but it wasn't just the butterflies - they had to be attracted to something, so the garden was covered with lush greens and beautiful flowers. The whole area was covered by a giant net to keep the butterflies in (and the predators out, is my guess). After I got down the stairs, there were still the predicted small stairs all over the place. The garden was a maze and I wandered, not knowing really where I was, but not really caring either. At one point I turned a corner and ran into a pond full to the brim with turtles! I tried to get pictures of some of the butterflies when they sat still long enough. There were about 6 or so butterflies on a path, just flying around and landing on the ground, but between them and me was a family that was more interested in ripping leaves off the foliage and feeding it to a cage of rabbits. Rabbits, I tell you! What the heck is the point of that? We aren't at a rabbit garden! So I missed that, although I think I got a pretty good picture of one of the kids' legs.

I stopped a woman who looked like an American tourist and asked her to take my picture, since before then I didn't have any photographic proof that I was actually here. The woman was not, however, an American tourist - she was a middle eastern woman wearing a tank top with bleached blonde hair. Once I took a good look at her (and heard her speak) she was more like a faded Hollywood star that is still trying to look good, but ended up just looking vaguely trashy. But she was nice enough to take my picture, and in return I took a picture of her family. I swear I have never been around nicer people, ever. The whole country, we should somehow find out how to bottle their niceness and sell it to some place like Iraq.

Back in the taxi, I had to tell Mr. Lim that I wasn't interested in the planetarium, and so he took me back to the hotel, with plans to come back and get me at 6pm to take me to the KL Tower (or Menara KL in Malaysian) where Ryan and I were going to meet for dinner. Back at the hotel, I rested for a little while, then headed out to the mall. I ended up at Paddington's House of Pancakes for lunch, it was pretty much barf-a-rama, but that's okay. Then I went to look for a new camera, as the one I have is falling apart, literally. I'd take a picture of it to show you, but that is a physical impossibility. Oh, I guess i could take a picture in the mirror. Anyhow, I was thinking with the exchange rate and the fact that Asia is known for cheap electronics, I might find a good deal here. I did pick out the camera that I want, a nice, pocketsized Canon, but when I compared the prices online, they are charging the equivalent of $500, but it's at Amazon for $292. Which means that haggling is required, and that just isn't going to happen. I'll buy it when I get home.

Haggling or bargaining is de rigeur for items bought in a marketplace and, apparently, sometimes in the mall too. I think I knew this at some point before our trip, but blocked it subconsciously because I dislike it so much. I didn't remember that I needed to bargain until I got back to my hotel the day I spent shopping at Central Market. I spent about RM300, or about $87 total on several pieces of certified authentic pearl jewelry from Borneo and some wooden toys for gifts, probably from an authentic factory in China. At the hotel, I was perusing my tour book again and read that not only do I need to bargain for the prices, but I should start as low as one-third the asking price!! Which means this Americano got completely suckered. Ah, crap. And this from the girl who can't walk away from a good deal that she's got her teeth into until she's shaken every last penny from it. I'm like a money-saving animal. But instead of a tiger, the animal is a cute little puppy, who meekly pays what she is asked and then slinks out with her tail between her legs while the shopkeepers cackle over her gullibility.

It goes without saying that I felt sick about this. I shouldn't have paid more than $50ish bucks for the whole pile of stuff. Oh, wait, and what about the things I bought at the Craft complex, too? That artist who sold me some of her handmade batik, maybe she wasn't smiling in the picture, but I bet she started smiling the minute I handed her the asking price for her work. Dang it, I hate this so much.

But here's the thing. Stuff here is so cheap anyhow that I don't think I got too bad a deal. Not the best deal, certainly, but was the price I paid for the item plus not having to confront someone about how much to pay for it worth it? I think so. I think in hindsight the only thing I paid too much for was the batik from the artist - it was a little pricey now that I've seen it for sale other places, but how cool is it that I got to see the person hand make the stuff? And I hate, hate, hate bargaining - how could I look at this piece of art that someone sweated over, literally, and say, RM65 is too much, how about 20? I think I paid a decent price for everything. Not the best, but certainly not bad, all things considered. And I've made some shopkeepers really happy, or at least given them a good laugh at my expense. No wonder people have been so friendly to us, we've got "Sucker" written on our foreheads. I wonder what the malaysian word for sucker is. I think its "American."

So tonight Mr. Lim came back and drove me to Menara KL to meet Ryan, who was being driven there by Mr. Chong, his usual driver. The drive into the city is normally about 25 minutes or so. Maybe that's 25 American minutes, because tonight it took 3 times as long to get there - I must have been going in Malaysian time. (Get it? The exchange rate is like 3 to 1 here. Not good if I feel the need to explain a joke, especially since I could in theory rewrite it.)

Like I was saying, it took almost an hour and a half to get downtown because of the Friday night traffic. I don't know where all those people were going - surely not to sightsee, I think, but shouldn't the traffic be out of the city, on the way back to people's homes in the suburbs? It was stop and go the whole way, and by "stop" I mean slam on the brakes literally one inch from the next car's bumper (I am absolutely not exaggerating this) and by "go" I mean hit the gas as if to make up for lost time in the 6 feet of free road in front of us. I was feeding Darcey a bottle, as she tends to be fussy in the taxi. So do I, as a matter of fact. How in the world can people drive like this?

When we got there, I had some serious carsickness issues, so Ryan and I spent ten minutes or so sitting at the base of the tower by a giant water feature. The water shot upwards into a pool above it, and all I could think when I saw it was how badly I needed a drink. We went into the tower itself and I checked about dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower. There were no reservations available, which ended up being fine because the dinner was an astounding RM135 each. I had read online that the food was a mediocre buffet and you only eat there for the view, so we were happy to pass it up. We went up to the observation deck, and there's not a lot to say about it - it's your standard city view from a really high tower. For some reason, and I don't know what, I wasn't too impressed. Maybe it's because it was dark by the time we got up there, but I'm guessing my reaction would have been the same during the day, the only good thing being that I could have taken pictures which always redeems an otherwise cheesy tourist trap. But we had to go there, it is so virtually required of tourists to go there that they may as well funnel you right from Immigrations to the Menara KL and then let you out of the airport. Ryan in particular wanted to go there because it reminds him of the CN tower which he visited in Toronto on his mission.

After the trip to the observation deck, we went down and ate some mediocre but really cheap food at a cafe. It seems like there's generally no smoking indoors here, not as a hard and fast law but more like custom. Since every restaurant and cafe has outdoor seating (it being about 85 degrees year round) people just smoke outside. Which is nice if we want to eat inside, but bad if we want to eat outside. While we ate, we took in a gift shop across the way - it had a really cool "I (heart) KL" canvas tote bag, and a Kuala Lumpur hat that Ryan was eyeing. We went over after dinner and I dithered, trying so hard to get up the gumption to ask for a better price. In the end, though, I couldn't do it. I paid about RM50 for the bag and the hat, so about $15. Ryan had been cheering me on, trying to get me to do it, but consoled me when I chickened out, saying he couldn't have done it either. We're such suckers.

The ride home was more relaxing, if any taxi ride can be said to be relaxing in this city. We had paid Mr. Lim by the hour to wait for us at the tower so he could drive us back, which is a really good thing because taxis on Friday nights or when it rains can be incredibly hard to come by. It's best to arrange for them ahead of time, and most of the drivers give us their name card so that we will call them when we need to go somewhere. If we have the hotel call us a cab (via walkie talkie that connects to the cabs' radio system) the driver charges an extra RM5 fee, which I think of as the Slacker Surcharge. Plus I always have to pay an extra RM1 to put the stroller in the "boot" which is really the trunk. Someone really ought to tell them they are calling it the wrong name.

So that was Friday. By the end of the night, I had spent so much money (from the entire day) especially in taxi fees, that I felt like I was bleeding money and didn't want to leave the hotel again, just to make it stop. Which is too bad, since Ryan hadn't done a lick of sightseeing. I went online and checked my credit card and bank debits to see how much we've spent so far. For the entire week, Friday night to Friday night, including all of the cash we had come with and everything we've taken out since, we've spent a total of about $500. That includes eating out every meal except breakfast and all of the souvenirs and taxi rides. Wow. Ryan's in luck - I guess we can afford to continue sight seeing after all.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Thursday

Today was the best sightseeing day yet! I saw a bunch of stuff, bought some great souvenirs, and was back at my hotel by 1 pm, not exhausted at all. Of course, all this leisure came at a price, but what leisure doesn't?

The plan for today was for me to go with Ryan to work, to see his office and the people he works with and teaches. He primarily wanted me to see everyone's nametags, because he is having the hardest time pronouncing people's names. He's trying to call a girl by name, but he reads the nametag and absolutely butchers it. All the girls around her all giggle (Ryan compares it to the sound Munchkins make) but the poor butchered girl just corrects him and moves on. I honestly think this is the hardest part of the whole job - that and, related, the language barrier. All of the students speak some amount of English, but functional English is not the same as technical English, so the words that Ryan uses to teach this software program are words that they wouldn't normally use to, say, order pizza or watch an American movie.

Our driver today was Chong Yoon Min, and older man and the safest driver I've been with so far. After we got out of the taxi at the school, Ryan tells me that was the slowest the guy has driven all week! For my benefit, I'm thinking, or for the baby's. No matter, it was the first time that I wasn't quite so panicky about not wearing a seat belt. I can't even tell you how weird it feels - I don't know if I've ever, in my whole life, driven without a seat belt when there was one available. I wear a seat belt when I drive from the mailbox back to my house, a total of 5 houses or so away. (The fact that I drive to the mailbox is a different subject altogether.)

Darcey was fussy in the car, and despite the fact that seat belts are not an option, I still can't bring myself to pick Darcey up out of her unrestrained car seat. It would make things easier, I could feed her or hold her or something to make her happy, but I absolutely can't do it. Plus her car seat is always rear facing, the way it should be. As if any of that matters at all if we are actually in a car accident. But I can't think about that. I have to stay in my happy place.

The studio is located in an office park in some suburb of KL proper. I really wish I knew where things were in this area, it's killing me. We went inside and Ryan took my to a room that is generally empty so I could nurse Darcey before we met everyone. He knew that once people got a hold of the baby that there would be no chance to escape, and at one point when we were in the hallway, he heard someone coming and waved me to hurry around the corner before anyone saw us, like we were some kind of spies or something.

He was right, though. We walked into the studio and people descended on Darcey like flies on a corndog. I don't know if I was able to accurately communicate the serious amount of affection Darcey gets from complete strangers when we go out in public, but these pictures should prove our experience. I felt a little awkward, but I wanted to take a picture of the office, so when someone was holding Darcey I asked if it was okay if I took a picture of them. I opened the floodgates and instantly half the class were grabbing their cell phones and posing for pictures with our white American baby. That's got to be what it is, I can't think of any other reason that she would attract so much attention, and it happens literally everywhere I take her.

When we finally freed Darcey from the hungry masses, Ryan walked me back down to the waiting taxi. Mr. Chong was going to be my personal driver for the day, taking me wherever I wanted to go. It's not the way I wanted to see the town, but I was very slowly learning that KL is much, much easier navigated by taxi. It seems like if you can afford to take a taxi, you do. Alice, who works at the studio, owns her own car but has a personal driver take her around. When in KL, do as the KLians, I always say.

And this is definitely the best way to see things, I've decided. I had him take me to the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple in Chinatown, where he parked outside and waited for the 10 or so minutes I was inside looking around. (If I had taken the hop on bus, I would have had to walk from the stop some distance through Chinatown to the temple, and this is a seriously scary looking Chinatown, and then when I was done, I would have walked back and waited for the bus to pick me up. This way I was on my way in 10 minutes total.) The temple is decorated with tons of statues of Hindu gods, including a huge tower on the top of the temple which must be like 20 feet tall. Maybe more, I'm not good at estimating things like that.

Inside were more statues, and the worshippers walk from shrine to shrine inside, pausing to bow at each one. The temple is open to the public, and I asked some people who were sitting there if it was okay to take pictures, and they either said yes or had no idea what I was talking about. But I felt uncomfortable being around people who were trying to worship with me standing there, a camera in one hand and a stroller in the other. I tried to be inconspicuous and respectful of people while they prayed, and only accidentally took pictures of some of them praying. It would have been nice if I wasn't the only tourist there.

That seems to be a common thread through this trip - not a lot of tourists at the places I've been going. There have always been some, of course, but I've never had to be around crowds of people or wait in a line or anything like that. I'm guessing that the tourism happens on the weekends here, which will be a problem since the most popular things to see are what I've been saving to do with Ryan on the weekend, like the Petronas Towers.

I left the temple, and instead of having to plan how to get to the next place, I just got into my waiting taxi and we left. Oh, that's the way to do it, for sure. We headed to the Central Market, which was built in 1888, and restored a while ago and turned into an indoor pedestrian mall. I was expecting a busy, cluttered, dirty, crowded bazaar, but instead it was orderly and clean and not crowded whatsoever. (Again, I'm guessing that it will be different on Saturday.) I found some great souvenirs here, including a whole stall full of wooden crafts and games, and one of certified authentic pearl jewelry from Borneo.

I stopped for lunch at a stall in the food court, and I could have been in any mall in America, if it was a mall that only served Asian food. I got some sweet and sour chicken from Melaka Corner, which was right next to a stall touting "Carlifornia Rolls." I love the way they get english words wrong, it cracks me up. I had to take a picture of a (clearly) knock-off Nike bag, which was embroidered with the phrase "Must do it!"

And that was it. I got back into my taxi, after stopping at an ATM - the craft complex yesterday used up all the rest of my cash, and I knew I'd need a pile to pay for the taxi. As it turns out, for about 3 hours of driving through the city and back to the hotel, Mr. Chong only charged RM90 - about $30. I had originally planned on trying tomorrow the free-shuttle-to-train-to-touristy-places plan which has failed so spectacularly so far, but instead I asked Mr. Chong to plan on taking me around again. Tomorrow I'm going to try the National Mosque, Merdeka Square, and maybe the Butterfly park at the Lake Gardens. I'm considering lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, just for kicks. Tonight Ryan and I are meeting Alice and Doris (another studio worker) for dinner at an Indian restaurant. But for the rest of the afternoon, I'm going to continue to relax and enjoy myself - this is the way to vacation!

Kuala Lumpur, Wednesday

Today's goal was to go to the Kraft Kompleks, or the Craft Complex for those of you who don't speak Malaysian, the home of a wide variety of native handicrafts. The trick, of course, is getting there. I went into today's adventure with a new game plan. I didn't want to just take a taxi everywhere, it's almost like cheating. I want to get to know the area and if someone is carting me around all the time, how am I ever going to learn? The problem is that our hotel is pretty far off the beaten track, in a town called Mutiara Damansara, which if you look at maps of downtown KL, doesn't even appear on it.

So here was my plan: get out of the hotel early enough to catch the 10 a.m. shuttle from the mall across the street (Ikano Power Center) and take it to the light rail station. From there, figure out how to take a train or bus to Jalan Corley, ("Jalan" means street) where the Craft Complex was. If I can get there, I should be able to make my way around town fairly well. The biggest obstacle is just getting to the public transportation.

I left my hotel at 9:20 and went down to the front desk to see if they would change some US dollars for me. They couldn't. No big deal, though, I've got a mission right now anyways. I went out the front door and contemplated how I was going to get to the mall. If you recall, yesterday I attempted the same feat but was rebuffed by the skybridge being closed until 10. There are about 4 lanes of traffic, nutty traffic, and a cement island in the center. The island would slow me if I tried to make a run for it, since I'm pushing a stroller. Besides, I'm not sure if jaywalking is a good idea in a country that treats drug possession with capital punishment. I'd probably be caned. So I ask a local who happened by how I can cross the street. (It amazes me that I have been reduced to asking such basic, basic questions. I can do college level algebra, but I can't cross the street without help.) He stared at the street for a while, and then said that at each corner, there is a traffic light, and I should cross there. Great idea, I'll do that. It's almost 9:30 at this point and as I look over, I see the shuttle bus that I want to take, waiting for passengers.

I start my hike down to the end of the block. It's the length of a mall, plus the length of an Ikea before I get to the corner, but that's okay, I'm tough. I cross the street, and head back up. As I get to the bus stop, I realize the bus was gone. How is that possible? I know it didn't take me a half an hour to walk that far. I get to the sign, and see that the bus was scheduled to leave at 9:30, not 10, and the next one is at 11. Crap. I go in the mall and decide to sit and wait until the stupid skybridge is open so I can walk back to the hotel and start over.

It's now 10:00, and the stores are starting to open, so I go to change my dollars for ringgets. By 10:20 I've done that and decide that I've been walking around for an hour already and I haven't even left the freakin' mall, so it's time to get a smoothie and regroup. I do not heed the advice of Kenny Rogers, and I count my money while I'm sitting at the table. I'm a little frustrated that I haven't even left yet, despite my best efforts, and that Darcey has been sound asleep the whole time, which seems like a monumental waste of good-baby time. I head back to the hotel and throw in the towel - I ask the front desk woman to call me a taxi. While I'm sitting there, waiting for the taxi which took much longer than yesterday, I look across the street and see the 11:00 shuttle pull up. Grrr.

I ask the taxi driver to take me to the Lake Gardens, which was my goal from yesterday. From there, I planned to take the hop-on-hop-off bus around to the craft complex, and then to the Hindu temple of Sri Marinara if I have time. My last stop would then be KL Sentral station to grab a taxi home.

The Lake Gardens is a huge green area kind of on the edge of the city. It has many different attractions, including the Hibiscus and Orchid gardens, a butterfly garden, deer park, aviary, and a planetarium. Most of the attractions are free, too, but to get to each one is kind of a hike. My first stop was the National Monument, which was created by the same artist who did the Iwo Jima sculpture in DC. This was to commemorate the soldiers who had fallen in WWI and II and who participated in some other battle, I can't remember what it was about. It was a beautiful, serene place, with fountains and water and the onion dome that is typical of Islamic design. Just gorgeous to look at.

I picked up a few postcards at the souvenir stand, then asked the employee where to catch the hop on hop off bus. Down the street, cross at the light. I headed out, found the street, looked death in the eyes and laughed while I crossed the street, and headed up the hill in the direction of the Hibiscus garden. There are sidewalks pretty much everywhere, although they run alongside busy streets. I walked along, shaded by huge rainforest-y trees, while sucking in so much diesel fumes I think I feel a tumor growing in my lungs. I felt like I was walking forever, thinking that I must have missed a turn or something, but I kept following the signs. I tried to figure out if the buildings I was passing were anything interesting or if they were likely to be a stop on the bus route, because at that point I was so tired of walking that I didn't care so much about the flowers anymore.

I accidentally came upon what is hands down the most boring museum ever. And you know museums can be boring. This one takes the cake - it's the Public Service Memorial of Malaysia. Yes, that's right, a museum dedicated to the government. It's as much fun as watching a movie about tree stumps. But it was air conditioned, and once I realized what the museum was about, I didn't have the heart to just turn around and walk out. How many visitors can the place get, after all? I walked through, but couldn't even learn anything because it was all written in Bahasa Malaysian.

But when I left the museum, I saw a hop on bus drive past. I knew I couldn't catch it, but it gave me hope that I was going the right direction. Like the pioneer children, I walked and walked and walked. (But unlike them, I didn't sing as I walked. I sweated. I bet they did too, but it doesn't fit in the song as well.) I finally found an entrance gate to the hibiscus garden, went in, and walked some more. This was a slightly prettier walk, but still alongside a road. I took a left and made it into the garden proper, a fairly small area with flowers. I was so wiped out that I gave it a token look, and yeah, they were pretty, but it had lost it's romance for me. I kept walking, and saw a sign pointing me towards the orchid garden, which I was fairly sure was where I'd find the bus.

I came to a fork in the road. I started to head up one path which was uphill, then realized, if I don't know where the heck I'm supposed to go anyhow, why not try the downhill path first? So I headed downhill, which ended up being the backside of the attractions in the orchid garden. Uphill was the right choice if I wanted to see any flowers. Downhill gave me nothing but a dirty guy in bare feet smoking a cigarette. Which was not on the tour, I think. But at the bottom of the hill, there was the holy grail, the bus stop. Darcey woke up at this point, she had been sleeping the whole morning, which was fantastic. I was dripping, pouring sweat, and she couldn't have been much cooler, even though she was getting a free ride and I was doing all the walking.

The next stop on the bus was the National Mosque, which is such an amazingly beautiful building I was seriously tempted to get off and see it, but I was enjoying the A/C too much, plus the bus is a great place to nurse Darcey, since there are so few people on it. I rode the bus for a while, around to stop 5, the crafts complex, which is a collection of buildings that have shopping, museums, and working artists, along with a place to actually do hands-on art.

In the main building was the more formal stores, three of them were upscale, one was the typical junky cheap souvenirs. I'm stymied by the t-shirt situation - they sell them all over the place, but they are ugly! Really bright colors and just not attractive at all. The kids won't care, I'm sure, but I care. I'd kind of like a t-shirt myself. Anyhow, I picked up some notebooks for the kids that had a batik design on the cover, and some other things in the other stores, gifts mostly and a beautiful pearl necklace for myself once I realized that if I didn't start shopping for myself I'd end up back in Utah with a keychain and nothing else.

Outside of the main building, I wandered around the Artist's Village, a series of 14 small huts, each one a separate studio for a variety of artists and their work. Most of them do batik, which is fabric art, where wax is applied to the fabric in an elaborate design, and then the fabric is painted, after which the wax is melted off. It is usually done on silk, and some of the designs are truly gorgeous. Clothing (saris, sarongs, and scarves) made out of hand-made batik is outrageously expense, which is too bad because I really wanted to get a piece. I wandered into one hut where a woman called me over to show me the art she was making. I've honestly never been around friendlier people. She cooed over the baby, naturally, and I looked around. Her batik was my favorite so far, and she had done quite a few pieces on small pieces of silk for framing. I bought one, a picture of a dahlia, and as soon as I left, wished I had bought more.

I couldn't find the demonstration area, which was a bummer, but by then I was so tired that I couldn't bear to look around anymore. (You know, things aren't well marked all the time here. I'm just figuring that out, I think.) I went over to the bus stop, figuring I'd catch the bus over to the train station, and then get a taxi home, when I remembered that the brochure for this place said that the receptionist out front would call a cab for people. So a couple of minutes later, I was on my way back to the hotel, so tired that I'm surprised I could function at all. It was a long, tiring day, which didn't need to be as long or as tiring as it was, but I ended up seeing some good stuff and I loved the craft complex, so all in all, a good day.

Kuala Lumpur, Monday

I am the most underdressed person in the city. I expected boiling heat, but it truly isn’t that bad. It is muggy, yes, but there has been cloud cover alld ay, so the sun doesn’t beat down on you. I packed several pairs of cotton capris and t-shirts to ear with tennis shoes. Nobody I’ve seen is dressed so casually. Long pants, all around, it looks like. Business lcothes are very common, and almost every woman I’ve seen wears heels with their slacks or jeans. And the young women, too, are dressed well – if not too formal, they at least are very fashionable.

Granted, these are locals, not tourists. I plan on doing some amount of sightseeing, where as they are heading to the mall, maybe on their lunch out. I am interested to see what people are wearing at the touristy places, if Asian tourists also dress nicely for their tour of the pewter factory or trip to the zoo or top o the Petronas towers.

I went on my first solo excursion today, to a grocery store similar to a walmart with clothing, electronics, housewares, etc. We needed a supply of food for the hotel room, for snacks for anyone who might have some hypoglycemic episodes. Not that I’m pointing any fingers.

Tesco (or Disco, as Ryan thought someone told him) is located outside of the Curve, the mall that is attached to our hotel on one end. The ground floor of Tesco is kind of a marketplace, full of the trinkets and junk that one would associate with “asian imports” although here it is just called merchandise.

(My quandary – how to tell what things are good quality and what is a junky piece of crap. In the US, it is fairly easy to tell quality from the packaging, English words misspelled, Asian characters, but here none of that is relevant. I find myself going for brand names, which are typically more expensive. Guess jeans in KL, despite the favorable currency conversion, are just as overpriced here as at home.)

To get to the second floor, I rode an escalator that was a ramp instead of stairs. Again with the technology! I thought they did this just to show us how cool they are, until when I was leaving I saw people take their carts down the ramp-elator out to their cars. Well, that makes much more sense. I guess it never occurred to me that there are no two-floor grocery stores in America.

Tesco, like my hotel, is just like what you’d find in the US, but something is a little off. Our room doesn’t have an alarm clock in it. And, naturally, ice machines are non-existent. The bed is so hard I wanted to make sure we were sleeping on a mattress and not just the box springs. There’s an arrow on the ceiling labeled “Quiblat” which, judging by its refusal to follow the “U comes after Q” rule, must be an Arabic word to tell Muslims which direction to pray. Never saw that in a hotel before.

Tesco was similarly a little odd. I coldn’t fins any peanut butter there, or crackers that looked familiar, but I made the mistake of walking down the fish aisle, which, as you can imagine, did not smell so pleasant. There were the typical grocery store refrigerated unitys, but there wer also barrels of ice with fish in them which I suppose you would select and bag like so many cucumbers. There was also a barrel of dried fish, in a bulk, scoop-your-own fashion, that looked a lot more like bait than something a human would eat. In the US, only candy is sold that way. If you think this was snack food you’ve got another thing coming.

The other strange thing is the number of security guards – patrolling the hallways at the mall, standing at the entrances, watching over the kiosk that sells ladies underwear, while women paw through the bins of bras, holding them up to check the size. I’m sorry if I’m cutrually intolerant, but I think that’s an item on your shopping list that’s best crossed off behind the walls of a store. I don’t know how much authority these guards have, if they are as toothless as the ones at our mall back home, but the sheer number is disturbing. If there was ever a coup to over throw the government, the rebels have a built-in militia of rent-a-cops.

At Tesco, I paid about $10 for a loaf of bread, 4 500-ml water bottles, one really big water bottle, a bag of Snyder’s pretzels, a bag of cashews, and a Kit Kat bar marked “International Recipe.” I love Kit Kats and had to see what it was Nestle was keeping from us Americans in the International Recipe. Not much, as it turns out. Ryan preferred this one, saying the chocolate was creamier, but for me, I’ll stick with the “American Recipe” from now on.

This afternoon I went to the other mall that is next to our hotel, called Cineleisure. This is a younger, hipper mall where I didn’t feel nearly as underdressed. Now I merely felt under-hip.
Being a hip mall, it had a Mac store, wehre Ryan had gone yesterday while I slept the sleep of the dead. I needed to pick up the electric adapter for the laptop. Darcey was fussy today, barely slept at all other than catnap, so I loaded her into the Baby Bjorn for this trip. (She gets a lot more attention in that, or in my arms, than she does in the stroller.)

Now, I’m not opposed to buying a part at the Mac store, even though there are 2 of them in Orem, because they had the part we needed. But on the whole, I did not come halfway around the world to eat at Tony Roma’s or TGI Friday’s/ I’m not here to shop at Ikea.

I’m here to shop at the beauty supply store called Shins. Or, my very very favorite, the Fourskin Store. That’s right. Great big sign, called the Fourskin Store. And what do they sell in the Fourskin Store? Well, not what you might think from the name. Rather than selling human anatomy or anything else you wouldn’t want to take home and show your parents, they sell rather pedestrian t-shirts, flip-flops, and in general, nothing you couldn’t find in the mall back home. But with a name like this, how could you resist shopping there? That’s what I came halfway around the world for, the differences between home and here. And the Fourskin Store.