Thursday, December 18, 2008

Malaysia: Settling In

Once I stepped off the airplane in Malaysia, I immediately felt that I was no longer in familiar territory. Whereas in Hong Kong it seemed as if I could have simply been visiting New York City's Chinatown, my first Malaysian breath even seemed steeped in "otherness." It made me a little nervous while making my way through the airport that first evening, but being in the minority culturally, linguistically, racially, and spiritually proved to be a enjoyable and instructive experience.

Our first day in-country was one of rest. The plane tickets came packaged with a three-day stint in a hotel, so we were able to gradually ease into the transition to different culture. (Strangely, the plane tickets were cheaper with the hotel package than without them!) It felt a little odd, being on a missions trip in an emerging nation and staying in such a nice hotel. We were spoiled with a pool, internet, beach access, and -- my favorite -- the most elaborate and delicious breakfast buffet I'd ever eaten at. It was amazing -- they had tons of fresh fruit like papaya (great for helping to digest all the flatbreads I would soon be eating!) and pineapple, exotic fruit juices including kiwi and mango, curries, dried fruit, pastries, a huge selection of artisan breads for toast, noodles, western breakfast options (which I stayed away from -- why eat what I can get at home?), yogurt, muesli, and Chinese finger food-sized pastries. This was where I had my first taste of dim sum, a steamed bread made from pao flour and stuffed with sweet or savory fillings.

Enough about the buffet, as good as it was. On my first day in Malaysia, I went with most of the group to visit the local butterfly farm. It was a very beautiful place. A netted enclosure was filled with exotic plants and flowers, little waterfalls and a koi pond, and, of course, innumerable varieties of butterflies. I've never seen such colors! The butterfly farm also had some interestingly camoflagued stick bugs, a scorpion pit (I definitely shuddered at that one!), and both local and exotic beetles, snakes, and insects.

After the butterfly farm, we walked to catch the public bus back to our hotel. It was on this short walk that I first truly realized -- Malaysia is hot. Doubly so, having just traveled from a Montana winter. When I was in Malaysia, it was the country's cold season, if you can believe that the phrase "cold season" can be used in conjunction with ninety degree (F) weather.

When we reached the hotel, we were all famished, so we headed across the street to an Indian restaurant. This was my first time eating true Indian food, and I wasn't sure of what to order or what to expect. I ended up ordering some ciapati (tortilla-like bread, pronounced cha-PA-ti) which came with dahl that reminded me of spicier split pea soup, some kind of okra masala, and an order of chicken satay kebabs with peanut dipping sauce that I split with a team member. I also had an iced ginger tea that had actual slices of fresh ginger in it. The verdict on this Indian lunch feast? Amazing! This initial brush with Indian food quickly developed into two weeks of exuberant indulging in every kind of curry, masala, and naan bread I could get my fork into. How do you say "yum" in Tamil, which is the language spoken in northern India?

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"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King