Kuala Lumpur – Vicky and the Russians

After the mini heartbreak of the previous night, I suffered the blues for a couple of days and didn’t feel like doing a lot or going anywhere. I felt hollowed out knowing that I might have missed a glorious opportunity to initiate a real relationship with another person. Thankfully, the arrival of Natasha, Mikhail, Alex and Vicky, a group of three super tall Russians and a small Indian guy helped me get over the blues. The hostel, which until then had worn a dull, sedate, well-mannered look, instantly turned into party central and the Russians rounded up everyone who stayed there to form a big group to invade the most raucous pubs on Jalan Alor. We hopped from pub to pub not because they were particularly different to each other but because it was more fun to mingle with a different crowd and vicariously indulge our ADDs. The ample socializing and guzzling of alcohol drained away my sorrow and I felt happy and cheerful again.

Alex was the most boisterous of the lot with a seemingly bottomless capacity to consume alcohol. He had a particular affinity to Chinese girls and would flirt with over a dozen of them before taking one back to the hostel to spend a night with. Natasha and Mikhail weren’t far behind in their inebriative enthusiasm and would burst into atonal versions of popular English and Russian pop songs. Vicky would sit in a corner, smiling coyly, nursing a glass of Coca Cola, keeping largely to himself.

At what must have been the 132nd pub we hit that night, I went up to Vicky to learn what he was doing with these guys because his reserved, reticent, teetotaller self didn’t fit with the loud, noisy Russian group he was hanging out with. We broke the ice like any two solo Indian backpackers do when they meet on the road. First, a look of surprise that says “what the hell are you doing here?”, then wondering aloud how great it was to see another of this rare species on the road and then finally, getting to an actual conversation.

Vicky had been backpacking across South East Asia for many months. One evening, he met the Russians in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh City where he heard of their plans to set up a travel agency in the beach hub of Nha Trang to draw Russian tourists. Vicky loved Vietnam and thought it was a great opportunity to settle down and make some money. His brother ran a travel agency in Jaipur and when he offered to ferry Indian tourists over to Vietnam for custom-made/package tours, the Russians lapped it up happily and made him a partner in the company.

They were in Malaysia not just for a vacation but also to renew their visas. They were working in Vietnam with their tourist visas using a local Vietnamese family as a front. Once they returned to the country with a 6 month visa, they would neither have to nor be able to move out. But Vicky wasn’t complaining. He loved everything about Vietnam, the people, the food, the beaches. He was a vegetarian as well and while he didn’t find it easy to get pure vegetarian/Indian food, it wasn’t as difficult to adjust to after the time he spent backpacking in China and Europe.

Both Vicky and I were happy to have someone to talk to, someone who would get the many cultural similarities between Malay and Indian cultures. Vicky wistfully wished he loved Malaysia as much as he did Vietnam because the vegetarian food in Malaysia was a lot more palatable to his taste than what he was forced to get used to in Vietnam. He missed the dosas, the rotis and the dal-chawal-sabzi. But Vietnam offered many other pleasures, most prominently a girl he liked with whom he wished to settle down forever on one of the country’s numerous beach towns.

“Why didn’t you bring your girlfriend?”, I asked.

“Because she hates to travel”, he said, mournfully.

“As a traveller yourself, wouldn’t it be frustrating to live with someone who doesn’t like to do what you love to do?”

“My traveling days are over”, he said, “Now I just want to sit on a beach with my wife and relax.”

“But you aren’t married yet, no?”

“But we will be soon. I have no doubt about it. Just last month, I gifted her an iphone. She was really happy.”

Vicky and the Russians were flying to the island of Langkawi in a couple of days. He insisted I tag along and found me dirt cheap 100 RM air tickets on the same flight they were taking. I had no idea or plan about where I was going to go after KL, so I happily bought the ticket. While the Russians’ hectic party-hopping style wasn’t my cup of cappuccino, Vicky was good company to have for a few days.

The next evening, the hostel was so full that two Australian dudes who had exhaustedly sauntered in had to crash in the common area. But since the Russians were around, the last thing anybody was doing was crashing. The Australians, the Russians, a Japanese girl, two French girls and a big Singaporean group had joined hands to invade the pubs again. It was like lighting fire to a room full of oxygen.

The night was long. We hit a pub where a competitive beer pong game was on. I was absolutely pathetic at this idiotic game and suffered a humiliating loss in the very first round to a Singaporean girl. Vicky nursed his glass of coca cola sitting on a sofa in a corner while I dejectedly watched the proceedings sitting by his side gulping down a long glass of Long Island Iced Tea. Alex and one of the Australian dudes joined us a bit later.

Alex looked out of sorts. It wasn’t his day so far because none of the girls were paying any attention to him that evening. So he began throwing barbs at Vicky and I.

“Ah, Vicky, you found yourself an Indian friend eh?”, he said, smirking sarcastically at the two of us.

“Yeah, he’s also coming to Langkawi.”

“So you are boyfriends now?”

“No”, I said, angrily.

Alex ignored my feeble response completely. He turned to Vicky and said, ‘You know, you should get yourself one of these girls and take them to Langkawi. It’ll be good for you.”

I said, “I thought Vicky already had a girlfriend.”

“Vicky? Hahahaha. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Since when do you have a girlfriend, man?”

Vicky looked at me with a fiery expression on his face suggesting, “Why the fuck did you have to bring that up?”

Then he turned to Alex and said, “I was telling him about Cao. About the iphone.”

“Yes, you gave her an iphone. But she’s not your girlfriend. I tell you, you should pick up one of these girls…”, said Alex.

“I think he misunderstood. I didn’t tell him she was my girlfriend. Just that I gave her an iphone. He must have thought that meant she was my girlfriend. Indians have weird ideas about these things.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me”, I said, and left the place shaking my head to mingle with the beer pong crowd. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened later that night because we were all getting ingloriously zonked. Some Malay friends of the Singaporean girls had joined in and after the pub closed at 1 am, we went over to an after party to drink even more. So inebriated was I that when I opened my eyes the next afternoon, I found myself slumped over a beanbag in the common area of our hostel with no idea of how I got there. Alex and Natasha had sprawled over each other in a corner. Mikhail had passed out in his dorm room. The only person fresh, awake and looking spectacularly angry was Vicky. As soon as he saw that I was awake, he came over to me and said, “You idiot! We had to catch a flight 4 hours ago!”

“Hey, calm down”, I said, “What flight?”

“The flight to Langkawi that you booked two days ago.”

“Holy shit! I have no memory of what happened last night.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No, tell me. What happened?”

“You got wasted and went off to sleep while we were partying in the Malay guy’s house. But that’s okay. At least you didn’t do anything nasty. Alex was frightening all the Singaporean girls because he was really desperate. They ran away and he got into a bad fight with the Malay guys. Mikhail tried to help him and broke a window in the guy’s house with his fist after he banged on it too hard thinking it was a wall. Natasha knocked herself out and left a trail of vomit all the way back to the hostel. After you guys got knocked out, I hailed a taxi and the Malay guys, who were very pissed off, were kind enough to help you guys into a cab. You were blabbering some nonsense about some girl. Aren’t you glad I was sober? Aren’t you? I saved your ass, you fucker! You idiots might have been rotting in a Malay jail right now!”

The hostel was running full that day and the staff weren’t willing to entertain any of us any longer. So we were stranded in KL without a bed or a place to go.

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Kuala Lumpur – Conversations

To learn why people hated this city so much, I got in touch with Sara, the Malay girl I got acquainted with in Melaka. We met at the food court of the Pavilion Mall in Bukit Bintang, a mall that looked so big and expensive, it could have been a city in itself. I ordered a laksa and she got herself a teh tarik and we talked about Kuala Lumpur.

“You may not like to hear me say this but I’m liking your city a lot”, I said.

“That’s okay”, she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “All tourists like the city. It’s an easy place to like for 2-3 days.”

“I met this dude yesterday who hated it.”

“Was he a white person? White people don’t like this city.”

“Yeah, an American. He lives in Thailand with his wife.”

“Those are the worst. He must have come here for a visa run. These people think all of Asean is one big country and they have a right to roam around wherever they want without respecting rules.”

“I thought you would agree with him! He hates it because of the crowds and the pollution and all that.”

“Which city doesn’t have crowds and pollution? I’ve been to New York and Paris and KL is a lot cleaner and easier to live in than both of them.”

“But I thought you didn’t like this city.”

“I don’t like it for very different reasons. It’s the city I grew up in and I don’t like how we’ve destroyed the old culture to build these ugly new malls and high rises.”

“Yet, here we are, meeting in a mall.”

“That’s because I work here. If you’d come on a holiday, we would have met in Kampong Baru, where you find the best food in Kuala Lumpur.”

“But don’t you think the fact that you’re earning a living through the existence of this ugly capitalist building means it has done some good to your city?”

“I’m working here because I have to. I don’t have a choice if I want to live independently. But if this place didn’t exist, there might have been a street food market where I would have found a job. Maybe I would have been happier.”

“What’s stopping you from finding work in one of the street food markets in the city?”

“Because I have bills to pay and there’s no money in street food. This job is much easier to do. I just sit around all day and go home and get paid for it. It’s just not as satisfying as making food for people. I don’t like this city because it doesn’t have a soul anymore. It’s just become this ugly mass of buildings everywhere. When I grew up, the city used to be much greener but now you won’t be able to spot a single tree in central KL.”

“But all cities change, don’t they? I grew up in Mumbai and the city that I saw growing up is completely different from the city that exists today.”

“Do you like Mumbai?”

“I don’t mind it. That’s where my home is. So I don’t have a choice I guess.”

“You don’t like your city. If you did, you would be living there. Not traveling without a job all the time.”

“That’s true. And I probably don’t like it for the same reasons you don’t. It’s become more crowded, more mechanical and a lot busier over the years. Most of my friends live in Mumbai but it’s impossible to see them because they’re always so busy with work. But, on the other hand, lots of people travel. That doesn’t mean they hate the cities they come from.”

“Well, if I had the money to travel for many years, I’ll be very happy never to see KL again. The people who like the places they come from go on vacations. They don’t travel for years to find another place to be happy in. If you meet that American guy again, ask him what he likes better, Thailand or the city he lived in before. I’m willing to bet he’ll say Thailand.”

“Well, he found a wife and a job in Thailand. He has a reason to be happier there.”

“You can also find a wife in Thailand if you try like he did.”

“The last thing I need in my life is a wife.”

“Yeah because she’ll tell you to get a job and live your life properly instead of roaming around.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that. Any tips on things to do in KL?”

“Yes. Don’t go to Genting Highlands. Don’t go to Batu Caves. Unless you want to mingle with busloads of tourists from your country.”

“That’s good advice.”

“If you hang around till Saturday, I could take you to the street food market at Kampong Baru.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

The Kampung Baru street market was right behind KL’s most recognizable icon, the gigantic Petronas Towers and was the oldest part of the city where a glimpse or two of the traditional timbered architecture could still be seen. Sara was highly sceptical that anything here would last.

“You’re lucky to come here now when these old buildings are still around”, she said, “In a few years, they’ll all be gone.”

We walked around, got ourselves some rojak, some nasi lemak, a few glasses of Teh Tarik, endless sticks of satay. “The satay here is good”, I said, “but the satay I had in Melaka in the restaurant we met was a lot more flavourful and delicious. What do you think?”

“Kuala Lumpur is the worst place in Malaysia for local food,” she said, “If you want to taste great Malay cuisine, you have to leave this city and go to Ipoh and Penang. But by KL standards, this is the best and the most authentic food you get.”

Then she took me to Pisco Bar, a hip new bar she loved to visit on weekends. It was a cool place, a mix of the classy and the chic, walls decorated with black and white photographs. A raunchy band lit up the stage at one end belting out 80s pop hits. Some of Sara’s friends joined in and we all had much fun, laughter and conversation.

At around midnight, Sara wanted to go back home and since her house was on the way to my hostel, I said I would drop her. We were both somewhat inebriated and Sara went on about how easy it was to connect with people if we tried. After all, we had barely known each other until I met her at the mall.

The taxi drove into a lane populated with high-rises and she pointed to one of them and said, “That’s my house. Do you want to come up? I make good coffee. We could sit down and watch Friends.”

“Friends?”, I said, “I don’t like Friends.”

“You don’t like Friends?”, she said, arching her eyebrows disapprovingly.

“No I don’t. I’m more of a Seinfeld guy”, I said.

“What’s Seinfeld?”

“Seinfeld was a sitcom from the 90s that aired around the same time as Friends. You see, that’s why I like the 90s so much. The pop culture was neatly and helpfully segregated. You had Seinfeld for all the people who liked smart comedy and Friends for those who liked dumb comedy. You should try watching Seinfeld. It’s fantastic”, I blurted on idiotically.

“I love Friends. It’s very funny. You think it’s a dumb show?”

“Well, yeah.”

She sighed. “Okay, maybe you don’t want to come up then. I like dumb shows.”

“Haha it’s okay, I could come up for coffee.”

“You think I’m calling you up so I could serve you coffee?”, she said, with a grin.

“Yeah, I could come up for anything…”, I stuttered clumsily.

“You’ve killed the mood, lah”, she said, giving me a hug, “Maybe you should watch dumb shows instead of smart ones.”

We said goodbyes and after she had gone inside the building, I got rid of the cab and walked 3 kms back to my hostel on the desolate streets of midnight KL feeling desperately hollow and stupid.

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Kuala Lumpur – First Impressions

The bus from Melaka dropped me off at Kuala Lumpur’s premier bus station, the Terminal Bersepadu Selatan, an enormous air-conditioned complex of ticket windows, food courts, arrival lounges and shopping centres. I felt like I had landed not at a bus station but in an International Airport. An electronic board announcing arrivals and departures to myriad Malaysian and SE Asian cities only served to enhance the illusion. As I walked around in a giddy daze trying to find my way to the train station to get to the center of the city, a tall, anxious figure walked towards me, stopped and said, “Do you speak English?” I said yeah, I spoke English.

“Do you know the way to Bukit Bintang? I’ve been trying hard to wrap my head around this map but can’t seem to find a way to the right station”, he said pointing at the indecipherable map on the Lonely Planet guidebook he’d been lugging around. I said I had no idea and that I’d never been to the city before. He apologized. Given the number of “Indian-like” faces he’d seen in the country, he mistook me for a local, he said. His casual racial profiling made me simmer with anger inside but since we were trying to solve the same puzzles, I chose to forgive and forget and we teamed up to find the train station.

Kuala Lumpur had many metro, railway and monorail lines connecting different parts of the city and many of them were privatized necessitating the need to buy different tickets for different legs of the journey if you didn’t have some kind of interlinking smart card. Neither Steve (the tall American guy) nor I had the card and this somewhat complex web of railway lines was making Steve very angry.

But having grown up in the chaotic mish-mash of BEST bus routes and the Western, Central and Harbour Lines of Mumbai, I thought it wasn’t too difficult a task to figure this out, especially considering the fact that the maps at the Bandar Tasik Selatan station were practically handholding you through the route and the people manning the counters were immensely helpful in answering any doubts we had. So we took the KLIA Transit to KL Sentral, the gargantuan junction where many of the lines intersected, and the monorail from KL Sentral to Bukit Bintang.

I hadn’t booked a room or a bed in the city and followed Steve to the hostel he had booked on Jalan Angsoka. The hostel (which, alas, no longer exists) was on the first floor of a building above an odorous Bangladeshi restaurant. It wasn’t exactly a winning first impression but the squeaky clean interiors and good-humored reception staff made me forgive the fishy odours we had to wade through to get there. They had run out of dorm beds and offered me a boxy single room that cost 10 RM more than a dorm bed, an offer that I gladly accepted.

Steve was hungry and wanted to have Indian food. So we went to the Nagasari Curry House around the corner from the hostel where sumptuous plates of roti cinai, tandoori chicken and rava masala thosai invaded our table. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the prices for the Indian dishes here were cheaper than what you would find in a similar setting in India.

As we washed the food down with masala chai, Steve told me a bit about himself.  He was from Indiana but had moved to Brooklyn back in 2004. There he worked in a retail store for over 4 years before being kicked out of the job when the recession hit. He had to move out of his house and live as a homeless for another year while working odd jobs. His mother lived in Indiana but he had no money to go see her and he sure as hell didn’t want to live in Indiana. But one day, his mother died and he got her house and a decent amount of money in inheritance. Sick of life in America, he sold the house, withdrew all the money he had and began traveling in Asia. He set up base in Krabi in Thailand where he worked with the ping pong bars to get white people in. There he fell in love with a Thai girl who worked in one of the bars and began building his own house from scratch on a plot of land he was given by a friend from the sleaze industry.

He had to do a visa run every couple of months to take advantage of a visa loophole that let him live in Thailand indefinitely for as long as he wished. He usually went to Penang but was sick of Penang and since he had to fly to Singapore to meet a “business acquaintance”, he thought KL would serve the purpose better on this journey. “This city sucks”, he said, “It has zero charm or character. It stinks of oil and money. I hope I never have to come back here again.”

“So why didn’t you get the visa done in Singapore and fly back?”, I asked.

“They ask too many questions in Singapore. My guy knows everyone in the Malaysian consulates. So if I’m in a pickle, it’s easier to get it resolved in this country. You have no reason to be here though. Get out soon. Come see me in Krabi on the way out. Lovely beaches, good beer and some nice girls waiting for ya.”

I drank my masala tea to that.

I didn’t find KL to be as terrible as people had been telling me. For one, there was the free bus service called GoKL which linked some of the central districts. As a perennial pennypincher, I used it frequently to get around. Unlike bargain basement services in other cities, the GoKL buses were maintained as immaculately as the more premium bus services and were comfortable to travel in. It also helped that the route maps were clearly laid out making it incredibly easy to navigate the central parts of the city like Chinatown and the Petronas area.

KL wasn’t obsessively clean but it was shiny enough. The Chinatown area of Jalan Petaling was typically old-fashioned with some sanitized chaos and hubbub revolving around its old shophouses and squares. It had a gallery of legendary food stalls and cafés to choose from serving all manner of wicked Cantonese and Hainanese dishes from watan mee to char siew to roast duck to char kuay teow to the most adventurous of offal ranging from pig intestines to chicken hearts. The street not only had a wide range of food I’d never seen or tasted before, it was also ridiculously cheap.

And that’s one of the reasons I spent a longer time in the city than I had planned to. It had the comforts, the glitz and the metropolitan air of an expensive megapolis without threatening to burn a hole in my wallet. For the price of a dorm bed in the Singaporean suburbs, I could get a small private room in a hotel in a central district of KL, eat a ton of delicious food and have money left over for commutes. Yes, it was a bit rough around the edges and not exactly as sanitised, ordered and convenient as Singapore was, but it offered a far better value for my money.

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Melaka – Museums and Food

It’s impossible to visit Melaka without stumbling into a museum. There’s a Museum of Literature, Museum of Architecture, Museum of History, Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Chinese Jewellery, Museum of the Democratic Government, Museum of Toys, Museum of Stamps, Museum of Islam, Museum of Prisons, you name a human endeavour, they’ve built a museum for it in Melaka. Now I’m no museum person and my first inclination when I pass one by is to keep walking but I found a couple of the ones dedicated to specific ethnic groups somewhat interesting.

The Chitty Museum, dedicated to the Tamil trading community that had settled down in Malaysia in the 16th century, was housed in a remarkably well preserved old Chitty house. They were ethnically similar to the Tamil Chettiars, a gloriously wealthy trading community in Tamil Nadu whose business acumen was much envied. The Chitty’s, though, had assimilated Chinese, Malay, Portuguese and Dutch influences in their religious iconography, clothing and food, making them a distinctly different ethnic group culturally with faint echoes of the Chettiar past, and the artifacts, photographs and illustrations in this museum illuminated their lives and their culture beautifully.

The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum , on the other hand, has to be the most elaborate museum dedicated to the life of a single person, that I have ever been to. Here, spread across a number of Chinese shophouses, lie the antiques and the treasures and the miniaturized ships that belonged to the legendary Chinese mariner Zhang He. Immortalized in the accounts of explorers as diverse as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta and Niccolo De Conti, Zheng He commanded a massive fleet that undertook treasure voyages into South-east Asia, India, Africa and Arabia and was among the most influential figures in Chinese history. The museum is built on what is believed to be the site of an old warehouse that Zheng used to stash his treasures.

It would be a pity to finish talking about my time in Melaka without talking about its food because every meal I had here was excellent. But there were two that are particularly memorable 7 years on. The first was a place called Pak Putra, run by two brothers from Gujranwalla in Pakistan. Big, hulking tandoors manned by bustling chefs in aprons suggested a joint that meant business. Tables and chairs filled with a mix of largely regular Malaccan patrons and a scattering of tourists meant the Pakistani brothers delivered what they promised. The tandoori chicken was supremely tender and succulent, marinated to perfection while the naan was utterly delectable, subtly garnished with fragrant spices. After the meal, I sought one of the brothers out and when I told him how much I loved the food, he gave me a big hug saying he always found it deeply heartening when someone from across the border loved his food.

The other meal that I remember from back in 2012 is a busy and popular satay celup place whose name I have tried to remember for years on end but can’t (yeah I know it’s useless to talk about a restaurant on a travel blog if you don’t know its name but anyone who’s actually paying attention would know that this blog isn’t particularly useful anyway and usefulness was never its principal objective). It was small, redolent with the aroma of fragrant gravies and choc-a-bloc with people (mostly Chinese/Malay Chinese), all of whom appeared to be families sitting on big round tables dipping their meaty sticks into big bowls of steaming and bubbling satay liquid.

So I thought maybe I should come back on a slower day or seek another satay place out to quench my satay hunger but as I was leaving, this dude ran right up to me, pulled up a chair and asked me to sit on a table packed with 5 people. He pointed to a refrigerator full of sticks with dozens of unnamed varieties of seafood, vegetables and meat and asked me to get whatever I wanted and dip it in the steaming pot of satay gravy that was bubbling in the center of the table.

I learnt that none of the people who were sharing my table knew each other from before. It was a beautiful communal eating experience where the 75-year old Chinese gentleman from Guangdong and the Malay girl sitting next to me were holding my hand through the mystical process of getting a well-cooked stick of satay. When they saw that I was hopeless at this feat despite their elaborate instructions and had been either undercooking or overcooking the sticks, they took over my plate of assorted meats and started doing my satays for me. I don’t know what they were doing differently (the instructions were to dip the meats in the hot gravy for a few minutes and eat) but it transformed my food from thick chewy inedible flesh to soft, tender, scrumptious skewers. Every few minutes the waiters would come to add bits of soup or stir the gravy or offer some special meats like tiger prawns or varieties of shellfish.

At the end of this gargantuan meal, I was filled to bursting but the old Chinese man coaxed the entire group to get some dessert at a place he knew nearby. While slurping my bowl of cendol, I learnt that the Malay girl worked at a mobile phone store in Kuala Lumpur. It was her first time in Melaka as well despite the fact that she had spent all her life in and around KL and it was only 3 hours away by road from the city. She preferred more natural settings, she said, and travelled frequently to the Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara. She was quite a traveller herself and had once lived in a camper van while driving from Melbourne to Darwin.

When I told her that I was on my way to Kuala Lumpur the day after, she tried her best to dissuade me from going there. “Why would you want to go to Kuala Lumpur?” she said, “It’s just a big concrete jungle. I wouldn’t live there myself if I didn’t have to work to save for my next trip! You should go to the Perhentian Islands, Taman Negara, Sarawak, even Penang! There’s nothing in Kuala Lumpur. Just big buildings and malls and expensive hotels.”

Her points were valid and having spent over 10 ridiculously expensive days just the previous week in Singapore, my enthusiasm for another South-East Asian metropolis was fairly low. Melaka was the perfect change from Singapore, a quiet easy going touristy town with quaint old architecture, a place where nothing was too far or too expensive. Kuala Lumpur was bound to be more hectic and challenging. But it would be a pity to travel across Malaysia without a cursory glance at its capital city. So I ignored the Malay girl’s advice and headed to the Melaka bus station the next morning to go to Malaysia’s biggest metropolis.

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Melaka – Jonker 88 and other sweets

“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.

“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.

“Yes, you.”

“Doing fine. How’re you?”

“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”

If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.

“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.

“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”

“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”

She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.

“How do you like it?”, she asked.

“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”

“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”

“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”

“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”

“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”

I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.

“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”

“It’s too expensive”, I said.

“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”

“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”

“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”

“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”

“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.

“Yeah, dessert would be good.”

“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”

She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.

We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.

We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.

I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.

Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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