July in June

Long time, no blog! Well, at least not a travel/KL-related blog. I’ve been great about Wordless Wednesdays, as it is pretty easy to pull a photo from our cache and pop it up while I eat my Cheerios on Wednesday mornings. (Those Cheerios are like gold, so I set my alarm early enough that I can leisurely enjoy them while perusing blogs or People.com first thing in the morning. I usually ship my cereal in from Amazon, which while not always as cheap as you can get it at Albertson’s, is much cheaper than the $8-10 a box they would cost here in Malaysia. And don’t judge my People.com fixes. I am sure to his the news sites as well and I do spend much of my free time writing papers about contemporary travel writing, so I get a few guilty pleasures when it comes to my internet browsing. People, Lamebook, Yahoo comments…you know, all the classy stuff.) I’ve also put up several Top Ten Tuesdays over the last few months, so blogging is happening, just not always travel blogging.

Anyway, I could give you a laundry list of excuses why it has been a month since I’ve written anything travel-y: I went temporarily blind in my left eye; I am working on a second graduate degree; I work full time at the US embassy; blah, blah, blah. But they would just be excuses since we’ve also watched ten seasons of Friends on Netflix this year, I rarely let a Saturday get past me without taking at least a brief nap and I have time to make cookies for the office on a semi-regular basis. It boils down to two things: 1) we’ve not been out of town much recently, other than the recent, unplanned/unwanted trip to Singapore and 2) laziness.

Probably more #2 than #1, as we have definitely been busy.

Lately, life has been all about the 4th of July. That’s right. It is just passed the middle of June and not only have we thought about Independence Day, but we have celebrated it. Twice.

Since Ramadan falls pretty early this year (tomorrow is the first day and it goes until mid-July), embassies in Muslim countries have to work our holiday around the fast. A big party just isn’t much of a party when your guests aren’t eating or drinking. So, rather than throw a drink-free, food-free party close to the actual 4th of July, Kuala Lumpur opts to do it ahead of time. We had a huge event at the Marriott Hotel in KL last Tuesday night and then a smaller, more intimate event in Penang just a few days ago.

For the KL event, I was assigned to be on the decorations committee, which meant many meetings ahead of time, but then a lot of supervisory work on the day of the event. While it took a bit of coaxing to get the hotel to bring our vision to life, in the end the red, white and blue bonanza that is Independence Day looked great! There was tons of food (most of which I didn’t eat, as I’m just weird about food other people make), a great band and lots of patriotic pizazz. The evening of the event, I didn’t get to see the actual ceremony with the presentation of the colors or the ambassador’s speech, as I was on check-in duty at the front door all evening, but judging from the smiles on the guests as they headed home, it was definitely a success.

This is the first year KL has done a second event, this one in Penang. (I think the Ross family brings the second 4th of July event with us. When we were in Chengdu, the first year we were there was the first year they had held a second event as well. Maybe we just look like party-planning folk!) Penang is a great island off the northwest coast of Malaysia. It has an amazing art scene and a totally different vibe from Kuala Lumpur. (Click here to read my post about when I went there on vacation last fall.) The party there was smaller, but maybe better. Without hundreds and hundreds of guests, it was easier to actually spend time chatting with folks and the whole thing just felt a little more relaxed. Once again, I missed the color guard and remarks, as I was checking people in at the front desk (somehow that ended up being my gig all-around this year!), but I did get a chance to wander through later in the evening and it was great! Again, red, white and blue ruled the night, with numerous flags flying. It’s funny that for a bunch of people who have chosen to live mostly outside the US, you probably won’t find a more patriotic group. Foreign Service officers took their jobs to do just that- to serve their country and they are mighty proud of it!

So now, it is just mid-June and I’ve already celebrated the 4th of July twice. Looking at the calendar, I’ve got two more celebrations to go: one with the embassy community on the afternoon of the day I fly out for the US and then the *real* one on July 4 when I am home in Idaho. I hear that one is going to entail homemade ice cream and sparklers, so not a bad way to round out the quad-fecta (it’s like a trifecta, but with four!) of Independence Day parties.
Happy birthday, America (X4)!!

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Penang- Where Street Art Meets Street Food

With yet another long weekend upon us, it was time to venture out on the first road trip of our “Ross’ in Malaysia adventure-time.” (I have no complaints about another long weekend- the holidays are one advantage of this lifestyle, as Thad gets both American and local holidays. Last weekend was Hari Raya and this upcoming weekend will be Columbus Day. We celebrate all the things!)

Maybe we chose poorly.

You see, it seems everyone in Malaysia owns a car, or maybe two. The government has done a lot to subsidize the prices for vehicles, so many families actually own more cars than they have people able to operate them, which makes for some horrific traffic, any day of the week. Then, add on top of that a national holiday and maybe one should consider holing up in the house for the extended weekend.

But of course, we did not do that.

Instead, we joined the masses leaving the city, heading to a variety of vacation spots around the country. Our destination of choice was Penang, an island off the west coast of the country, known for two main attractions- the street food and the street art. A mere four hours away, I thought this would be the perfect getaway for a few days.

But, there was traffic. Lots of it.

Oh yes, and a monsoon.

We headed out for our four hour road trip at 3:45PM and finally made it to Paradise (Who wouldn’t book a hotel on the beach called Paradise?) at midnight.

Eight hours.


Really, traffic was flowing okay until we got to about twenty kilometers outside of Penang. (Yup, I now judge distances in kilometers. I still have to look up the Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion every time I turn on the oven, but my driving references are all KM these days.) Once we hit that last stretch though, our path was blocked first by the most inanely set-up toll both known to man (three lanes of traffic filtered into no lanes- just a jumble of cars trying to get through the station) and then by the pouring rain. After finally paying our toll and getting across the bridge to the island, we came to a literal standstill on the surface streets of Penang, as the heavy rain backed up traffic for hours. From the edge of the island to our hotel should have taken maybe twenty minutes, but it ended up taking nearly two hours. I can’t even begin to tell you how excruciating that last stretch was! (But, we did get to list to the entirety of Ryan Seacrest’s Top 30 Countdown, so I am up on how to “Shake it Off” with Taylor Swift and that Demi Lovato “really doesn’t care” anymore.)

Not wanting to let Friday night’s journey get us down, on Saturday morning we headed into George Town to check out the sights. The sky was cloudy, but the roads were dry, which made it seem like a perfect day to take a walking tour of the area. In retrospect, we should have taken some umbrellas along with us. (They were in the car, but we figured we wouldn’t need them. What were we thinking?!) Before long, Thad was drawn in by the lure of the hawker stalls, because who couldn’t resist steaming bowls of noodles, plates of fried chicken skin or a bit of offal? Luckily, his tummy rumblings coincided perfectly with the start of Saturday’s rain. It rained.

And rained.

And rained.

With our umbrellas safely tucked into the trunk of our car, we were stuck at the hawker stalls for almost two hours! A bowl of noodles and several skewers of chicken gizzards later, we decided the rain had let up enough to make a break for it. The food was good and bountiful- possibly too bountiful. I am not sure Thad will be craving the gizzards anytime soon!

Our hours-long journey and shorter, but still seemingly endless wait at the hawker stalls, was rewarded though with some fantastic street art. Scattered throughout the old city of George Town, visitors can find graffiti/murals on alleyway walls, many incorporating 3D artifacts into the images. My favorite was two young kids playing on a swing, but I was also drawn to the Asian dolls in a pool of purple. With an art map in hand, we searched high and low to find the various installations, Thad getting good shots of nearly all of them. (Most of the photos below, as with most of the photos on this blog, are his doing.) As we wandered, I couldn’t help but think of a few friends at home and one particular former student who is now an artist in Seattle, all of whom would have absolutely loved these narrow city streets and inventive public art.

Penang is definitely an island worth visiting and we’ll be headed back there, after rainy season has passed. I still need to ride the funicular and check out the national park on the tip of the island, none of which were accessible through the sheets of rain and, at times, heavy winds.

Knowing that the traffic back to KL would rival that of Friday night, we headed back in the morning, hoping to beat the rush. And that we did. As it turns out, Penang really is only four hours from Kuala Lumpur!

Holiday or no though, I think next time we’ll be flying.

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