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Monday, October 5, 2009

Camera Hunting and Couchsurfing in KL

By now I understand KL's wonderful public transit system, and wonderful it is!

Only 5 minutes of reentry formalities at the airport and then I was on a SkyBus bound for KL Sentral, a big transit hub.  Mila (short for Hazmilah) had arranged to come and pick me up there.  She was to be my Couchsurfing host, but unfortunately her roommate was having a guest so she couldn't.  She went out of her way to check for me with my CS backup people who I had originally contacted a month or so ago, and Ken was nice enough to say yes and host me last-minute! 

So Mila drove me all the way out to his place in the suburbs of Petaling Jaya/Subang.  Ken was not around, but I met his roommate Gabriel who was from Switzerland and living in Malaysia and teaching graphic design.  Ken later joined us and we chatted for quite a while about things including alternative medicine and medical miracles that cannot otherwise be explained and that sort of thing.  We also talked about the sad fate of my previously trustworthy camera, and my need for another.  Due to the modern KL miracle of wi-fi, I was able to check Amazon for pricing on the model I had decided I coveted (one step up from the one I mentioned the German girl on my earlier Malaysia trip had had).  Unlike many things, cameras are not cheaper in Malaysia but at least they have the same selection of upscale ones that we would in the States.  So it was suggested I spend the next day camera shopping at the downtown area malls including Sungei Wang, Bukit Bintang, and Low Yat.

That was my mission for Saturday.  However, my fun started out at Sungei Wang on the ground floor when I semi-idly wandered into an optometry shop, with my old, almost-impossible-to-see-through, scratched-to-hell glasses, and a recent prescription for new lenses.  I had heard these were much cheaper to get in Malaysia.  Unlike cameras.  So this was my attempt at dollar-cost-averaging, I guess you could say.

The proprietor of the shop could not have been nicer.  He told me my old lenses were shit and the scratchproof coating had long since worn off, that there would be no problem making new ones with high index so that they did not resemble coke bottles with my rx of -6.50, and that instead of leaving them in KL for 2 weeks so that they would be finished by the time I returned from Indonesia, they could be ready within less than an hour.  I thought I was not hearing correctly!!!  My own optometrist, bless his sweet and high-priced soul, took a week to make up glasses.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, 40 minutes later I was the proud owner of a perfect pair of lenses I could see through with no weird foggy, cloudy, scratchy barriers between me and the outside world!  All this for the price of 160 Ringgit (about US $45), and payable by Visa yet!  Will the wonders never cease!  I told the guy I had actually come looking for a camera and he then introduced me to his camera store friend who he assured me would give me the best deal.  The price was still higher than Amazon, so I decided to check prices throughout Low Yat Plaza (a techie mall with cell phones on one floor, cameras on another, computers on another, and so on).  I told my optometrist friend Mr. Soong that I first had to head to the internet and asked him where there was a nearby cafe, and he insisted I use his computer for as long as I needed, for free (hence one of my previous posts, done from the optical shop after a dearth of internet availability).

After torturing myself at length in Low Yat Plaza, it turned out, lo and behold, that Mr. Soong's friend at Bintang Electronics was not full of shit -- his price quote was actually the best of the ones I got! 

So back I trudged to his shop and bought the camera, for more like $400 USD but that's the best I could do in Malaysia.  I comforted myself slightly in knowing that at least in the US I would have had to pay tax, bringing the price closer to $360 or $370.  I guess that's the price of having brought a terminal camera on holiday... Back at Ken's place I thanked my old Canon for its previous good service, and wished it well, and buried it in the trash.  A solemn moment.

My next order of business was a Hari Raya party that Mila wanted to take me to, at her friend's place in Shah Alam (another suburb).  She is still close to all her friends from her university days and though this would be a good cultural experience for me to have, in the spirit of the Hari Raya open houses that continue for a month after Ramadan ends, her friend was sort of combining it with her 3 year old's birthday party!  First Mila took me back to her place to have me change into one of her baju kurungs.  (

I may have fit in to some extent wearing this, but on other fronts I was still the only redhead among 70 or so people.  What a food fest!   Brilliant barbecued lamb featured prominently, and the birthday cake and desserts were particularly fabulous looking.  I hung out with 5 or so of Mila's friends and really enjoyed their company.   One cool thing about KL is that there are all levels of observance and no one makes a big deal of it.  So mostly the older people were headscarf-clad, but some younger people too, and while most women were wearing baju kurungs, others were wearing jeans, and anything goes!


After that party and taking some photos with Mila, and of the great view from her apartment window,


I had a call from Ken.  There was a big Couchsurfing get-together going on and he wanted to know if I'd like him to drop me off there on his way to a dinner.  Though I was exhausted already from all that eating, I said sure, why not.  The get-together started at a food court in a place called Ming Tien and then continued at the housing development of one of the CS members who may possibly be the first woman I've met in Malaysia (or the Islamic world in general)  who admits to being a burlesque performer!  I met another woman named Hafizah at the party who is somewhere between med school and a psychiatry residency (the distinctions are not quite as clear in Malaysia) and a really cool person!  Poor thing, her special interest is borderline personality disorder!  This qualifies her for sainthood, I dare say.  I also met some scruffy Italians, a scruffy guy from Portland, and Jasmin, one of the people I had been in contact with originally, a journalist who almost hosted me.  She was very cool too.

Ken and Gabriel came to the party late and picked me up and I got to bed at 2 am.  The next morning was spent in pursuit of *non-halal meats* I could bring to Indonesia as a special contraband gift for one of my CS hosts there.  Mission accomplished, and I also found some very nice unagi sushi for my own lunch.

On the way from KL Sentral to the airport by SkyBus once again, I sat next to and struck up a conversation with a gentleman sitting next to me who turned out to be from Kuching.  He had not only heard of the hospital at which I was sort of offered a job opportunity, but said it was known as an excellent specialist centre and encouraged me to check it out.  We'll see.  Life is full of weird little occurrences leading from one thing to the next :)

I bid a fond farewell to the shopping capital (and for me social capital) of Malaysia and was on my way back to Indonesia ... this time to Yogyakarta, in Java. :)

For more about Hari Raya festivities, see

My Time in Medan (culinary and other delights)

I made it to Medan by bus from Berestagi in just under 2 hours.  I had explicit instructions from my Couchsurfing host, Andi, what to do next.  Got off at a certain stop, Padang Bulan (not sure if it's named after the earthquake region) and then took a moto-becak to a gym next to Universitas Prima.  Andi had to work till midnight that night, so he was having his friend Tiaz who lives a few houses away host me. 

Tiaz works as a chef of sorts at a gym, making food and drinks for the hungry and thirsty of the sweaty men who frequent the place.  It was pretty funny arriving into Medan via the Agy Gym -- I felt like I was in a gay male nightclub...  Now, it's just possible that that was not exactly the case, but there were serious vibes.  Could have been the music selection, just possibly.  Anyway, Tiaz felt obligated to feed and water me as I had missed dinner, and gave me some delicious chicken and tempeh he had cooked, and then made me a yummy shake from terong belanda -- a fruit I have never seen before.  For a photo of it, check out -- sorry, it's not in English, but you'll get the picture!

I then spent the night at Tiaz's lovely place after he closed up, met his livestock,

and then for a special treat he took me to the terrific public local fruit and veg etc market in the morning -- Pasar Petisah.  Since he buys all the ingredients for the cafe there, all the merchants know him really well and are pretty funny characters and enjoyed posing for photos and such. 


They of course thought it was bizarre that I would want to take photos of food, but humored me.  They teased Tiaz about how did he know me, and I heard the "just a friend" response in Bahasa Indonesia many times.  I imagine they're probably also wondering why *he's* not married, as that topic is far from inappropriate to delve into in Indonesia.  Tiaz also insisted I try a traditional breakfast food called "Lontong" which is hard to describe, but delicious:

We went back and dropped off the huge order of various fresh ingredients at Tiaz's gym, and then Tiaz insisted on making me a delicious tomato soup from scratch.  He also bought a "bika ambon" from the best place in Medan so that I could try it-- for more info see

If I had hung out with Tiaz for any longer I would have gained back any weight I lost from this trip!  Truly a great chef!  I told him to move to the Bay Area and open up a restaurant.

Next I met up with Andi, who was truly sorry he couldn't host me the night before.  He took me to the biggest Buddhist temple in Medan in really nice upscale (probably mostly Chinese) neighborhood, and it was there that I realized my camera had just conked out.  The mechanism that brings the lens in and out when you open and close the camera had been slowingggggggggggggggggggggg downnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, and it just went kaput in Medan.  That was that.  Nothing could be done.  Tragic, but how much luckier than if it happened at the beginning of my Sumatra trip and then I wouldn't have been able to find a suitable camera at all for a while! 

There were some other places he wanted to show me but we kinda ran out of time.  We went driving to a mall among some other places with his foster mom, a really lovely woman who is apparently controlled by her husband who is crazily suspicious about her whereabouts and doings.  My heart ached for her as in the US we call this "abusive" -- but she had married him when she already had two daughters and could not afford to raise them as a single parent, so she was kind of trapped in the situation by her financial dependence.  I tried to tell her some nice things translated through Andi, as she only speaks Indonesian and Hokkien.  Most of the people of Chinese origin here speak Hokkien since I guess they came from the Fujian region, but really in general you would be surprised by the number of languages most people here speak.  Americans are damned spoiled by this English-dominated world!  Anyway, I was starting to realize that while most people think Medan is an absolute armpit, there are actually some very cool things to recommend it (other than the traffic jams) especially if you know someone there!   Yay for Couchsurfing!

Andi and Nur took me to the airport.  I later regretted having had to cut short my time with them, because as it turned out I was way early and didn't need to be there that early by any means and then had to kill some time.  I was over on my baggage, but the nice AirAsia personnel looked the other way and lied and said it was 15 kg on the baggage sticker.

An hour later I was back in Kuala Lumpur -- relative civilization, away from the whole Sumatran earthquake thing, but you know what?  Sumatra was really really amazing, despite the hardships!  I heartily recommend it to all intrepid travelers.  The people I met were absolutely wonderful and generous and kind and caring.  Once again, here's a plug for donating some money to the victims of the earthquake, who have absolutely nothing.  We are so lucky in our lives and don't even realize it most of the time. 

Volcano Climbing and Karonese Culture...

In my last entry, I wrote about Tangkahan.  It was great, especially the elephant part of course, but I was a bit lazy and missed the hot springs and butterfly area, so may put it on my list of places to go back to ...

My next plan was to get from there to Berestagi.  Because of the crappy roads in Sumatra, the best way is not direct -- one must go back to Medan and then from there to Berestagi.  I was told there were only 3 busses a day so I'd best be on the 0730 am bus.  Mega made sure I got a motorcycle ride to the bus.  I boarded it ... and quickly realized it was just me and about 30 schoolchildren, average age 8.   They were in hysterics, they were so excited to see a bizarre-looking foreigner in their small home village! 


(Did I mention the approximate population of Tangkahan is 100 people and 7 elephants?)  The kids surrounded me on the bus and just about forced me to take photos of them and show them their photos.  Not an area that has made it to the digital age ... given the presence of electricity only 5 hrs a day in the evening and such.  Anyway they were delighted, and kept me company on the bus for the first half hour after which point they got off to attend school and some adults got on.  The bus next made two lengthy stops in the middle of nowhere, the first time for no apparent reason, and the second because the bus drive had some friends he wanted to chat with.   Then the third lengthy stop was due to getting trapped behind a palm oil truck on the roads from hell.  Big business reigns, so the bus had to drive backward to make way for the palm oil truck.

A short 5.5 hrs later, we arrived back in Medan.  The total distance covered was probably less than 100 miles, who the hell knows.  The good news, however, is that the bus people took me directly to the bus leaving for Berestagi and even transferred my backpack.  Full service.  The minivan going to Berestagi was tiny and cramped and of course had the typical 90% of adults smoking in it, but we arrived there in just 2 hours and I checked into the Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse.  I decided I could tolerate the room with the bathroom next to it instead of inside of it, for $5 USD a night.  The air was markedly, markedly cooler in Berestagi -- it's at an elevation of 1400 meters and very very green and agricultural.  Oh, did I forget to mention -- Smiley met me at the bus and took me everywhere on his motorbike.  Smiley was referred to me by Andrea from Bukit Lawang.  When I asked her how I'd recognize him, she said "Oh, you'll know" --

he is well distinguished by his huge smile and his extremely lengthy Rasta dreadlocks and his English pronunciation which seems to have been learned in Jamaica though he's never left Indonesia.  A super friendly warm guy.  He took me around in search of an ATM that would give me more than $120 or so in cash.  It was not to be found but after checking 8 different ATMs (hey!  at least there ARE ATMs here!) I decided to take the $120 in Rupiah and shut up.

I was exhausted and cold and wet and decided to turn in early, so instead of enjoying the culinary delights of Berestagi I ended up eating a chicken curry at the guesthouse.  Actually, I had ordered an eggplant curry, which they didn't have, and french fries with avocado, which they didn't have.  (Asia is notorious for huge lengthy menus filled with dishes they "just ran out of" ;-)  Why do I remember this chicken curry so well?  Because, for the first time this trip, I was up all night ill with diarrhea.  It started about 2 hours after I ate dinner (and I'd missed breakfast and lunch so I know it was the dinner!) and ensued every half hour to an hour.  Of course this was the one night I had opted to not have a bathroom inside my room!  And it was cold and raining.  Just grand.  After the 4th time I woke up by 3 am, I started to think "Damn.  I am supposed to be touring around on a motorbike all day tomorrow where there might not even be squat toilets available..." and then I calculated the 20 minute life cycle turnover of E. coli and decided to just abort it then and there with a single dose of Levaquin and Imodium.

Miraculous.  Better living through chemistry.

By 7 am when I had arranged to meet Smiley, I was fine.  We started out for Gunung Sibayak, one of the two local volcanos.  We went by motor bike most of the way up and then there was about an hour's hike over various crumbly bits as well as parts that resembled the Garden of Eden.  And finally we arrived at the steaming parts of the volcano, which stank like rotten eggs.  The ground was mostly a yellowish green from the sulfur.  And there was a big crater just beyond.  Pretty amazing and though I just barely made it up there due to my laziness/ankle combo, I have Smiley to thank for pushing me.  Just strange, looked like a landscape from another planet!  Luckily my camera was still functional then.  Check out


After that we happened to drive past some people working in the fields,


a Christian cemetery where people are buried above ground which reminded me of the style in New Orleans, 
and then a Karonese wedding ceremony which apparently takes 2 or 3 days, has huge amounts of people and fabulous clothes, and Smiley assured me I would be welcome and that my presence would be considered so lucky, so gate-crashing we went!  I got to take a few photos and wish the people well, despite my being such a big fan of weddings I have to say the costuming was excellent.

The next place we went by motorbike was all the way to the edge of Lake Toba (a huge, huge lake probably bigger than Lake Tahoe, in the middle of north Sumatra, with a huge island in the middle of it called Samosir Island and a town there called Tuk Tuk which I did not make it to).  On the way to the northern edge of Lake Toba, we passed Sipiso-piso waterfall, which was pretty spectacular, and then we drove down to a town on the lake called Tongging, where we ate the most amazingly delicious fish called "nila bakar".  We watched the whole process from selection to vicious killing to cleaning to frying.   Total yum.  Maybe my best meal yet, served with sambal and red rice.



We bumped into some schoolchildren who ran across the road when they saw me.  Then their English teacher came over and wanted them to talk to me but they were way too shy.  Mostly they wanted me to sign an autograph in their notebooks.  Then the teacher convinced us to watch some practice exercises they were doing for some sort of flag-day celebration.  He was so excited to have a visitor!

From there we drove through some more agricultural areas, including one of Smiley's friends who gave us some fruit from his garden.  I did see some coffee beans -- and then I was on a quest to buy Sumatran coffee.  No beans were available, so the recipients of my gift will have to put up with the powder stuff and the knowledge that it was grown in Sedikalang (that and Aceh are the two best coffee growing regions in Sumatra).  The store owner, on finding out what I do for a living and that I am from "Amerika", wanted to know if I was married yet, and then offered to marry me.

We next went to visit a small traditional Karo village called Dokan where people live in shared longhouses with 8 families to a longhouse.  The roofs are very stylistic and the houses are supposed to resemble some sort of cubist impression of the body and face of a woman. 


There are always buffalo horns on top and gecko tails as decor in the midsection to give protection.  Those of you who remember my visit to the Iban longhouse in Borneo (and who could forget that nightmare) -- here's the difference: these people were actually FRIENDLY!  Very much so.  I talked with them in my limited Bahasa and Smiley translated the rest.  There was a lovely old lady whose teeth were stained red from betelnut chewing, and an old man who was 90+ (so I decided not to tell him he really should quit smoking -- he's more likely at this point to get killed by a motorbike, or, come to think of it, an *earthquake*).  When they heard I was a doctor they asked if I would take care of them if they got sick.  They quickly added that if they were not sick, no need for me to operate on them, thank you very much ... Anyway after a lot of chatting and some collateral breast-feeding, I was on my way.


Smiley got me back to town by 6 pm as he had promised so that I could get on a bus back to Medan.  He had become quite a friend in just a day or so, I really enjoyed every moment I spent with him except the point 2/3 of the way through where he mentioned that he didn't have a license (or of course own a helmet) but that the police couldn't really demand fines from him as the tourism business was not good enough.  I suggested that perhaps he should have told me instead when the trip was *finished* that he didn't have a license ;-)  In any case we only fell off just once and again it was minor while going slow and uphill like that ride to Tangkahan.

Thanks Smiley, you totally rock!