Category Archives: Asia/Pacific

Who are you calling a tramp?

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Where: Lake Waikaremoana, New Zealand

Plate of food: Seeing as we had to bring all of our supplies with us for our party of 15+, I don’t have a lot to say about the food. The area is very remote and the accommodation very basic. We brought everything in by boat: our food, the cooking fuel, and the two hot plates we used. I will say, however, that nothing tastes better after an 8 hour hike than a bowl full of instant noodles. In fact, that may be the ONLY time that instant noodles taste great.

Also, “scroggin” was along on every hike we did; this is the New Zealand word for trail mix consisting mostly of nuts and dried fruit. I decided my scroggin needed some pizzazz so I added wasabi peas. Do you know these? They are dried and roasted green peas with a dusting of spicy wasabi powder that will tickle your sinuses (that’s what we look for in a snack, right?). Needless to say, I was alone in my passion for wasabi peas. Wimps, I say! (Just not to their faces.)

The best: The New Zealand walking tracks. “Tramping” as it is called in New Zealand (hiking to the rest of us who don’t want to sound promiscuous) is very popular and there are well-maintained tracks to explore all over the country. Lake Waikaremoana (“Sea of Rippling Waters” in Maori) is special because of its 46 km track around the remote lake set in amongst spectacular native bush.

This is waiting for you in New Zealand.

Our first hike was from where we left the cars to our hut which would be home for the next few days. There was no road access. Some of our group went by boat to bring in the food while the rest of us ambled across a swing bridge and through marshes to reach the lakeside hut. It was composed of two modest wooden buildings, one with a communal cooking/eating area and one with 40 bunk beds. It was surrounded by dense forest and flax bushes with views out over the lake.

No cars. No electricity. No cell phone coverage. The real New Zealand. Unspoilt.

Lush brush. Green scene. Boss of moss. Good woods. (What’s wrong with me?)

From there we had a number of day hikes which were incredible in their variety: some tracks climbed up great rocky bluffs while others forged through long golden grass near the water’s edge. At times it was all moss and shade, at others it was slabs of rock and sun glinting off water. All the hikes we did were satisfyingly lengthy and just demanding enough to make it a huge relief to tug off  your boots at the end of the day. And tuck into those instant noodles.

Story that needs to be told: On the final day, 4 of us decided to take a boat across the lake to another point along the track. The motor boat picked us up bright and early – most of the hut had not woken up yet – again, I say wimps. We had to wade into the lake to get on board the boat. I gasped as my feet plunged into the icy water (I heard you whisper “Wimp”).

Gaily waving! 8 hours later it would be a different story.

We jetted across the silvery water to the distant shore. The air was cold and damp, but the sun was shining. The water taxi dropped us off, assuring us that he would be at the pick-up point at the pre-arranged time that afternoon. It was imperative that he pick us up before dark.

From the shore, we climbed up through dark, mossy, otherworldly forests with trees twisting and towering above us. Ferns and fungi luxuriated in the misty undergrowth. At the highest point was a trig marker (1180m) next to a small hut where we rested for a bit before continuing down along the bluff. This rocky outcrop allowed us breathtaking views out across the shimmering lake in one direction and , in the other, views across the green hills of the North Island. The path was steep and the bluff dropped off suddenly to the bush below carpeting the ground all the way to the water’s edge.

View of the lake from Panekiri bluff

We finally descended off the bluff back into the forest and the track widened. After 8 or so hours of hiking, we reached the lake shore and looked around for the boat. It wasn’t there, but we were a bit early so we sat on some rocks and took inventory: sore feet, one grazed knee, not much scroggin left, but absolutely exhilarated by our day’s adventure.

Still no boat, so we took some photos. Took our shoes and socks off and dipped our toes into the cool water.

Still no boat, so we took turns peering out across the water. Raise hand to your brow, squint, repeat.

Still no boat. Now we started to worry. With no cell phone coverage, we had no way of reaching anyone. We had no way to walk back to the hut because that would take days. Where was the boat? What happened to the boat? Where’s the bloody boat?!

No panic yet! The thought of spending the night in the bush had not yet crossed our minds! Yay!

More than anything we were aware that the rest of our group, including some of our parents, were expecting us. Or rather had been expecting us half an hour ago. We realized with dread that each passing minute was another minute for them to think the worst.  As spellbinding as the isolation is, it also poses a real threat if something goes wrong.

With growing concern and darkening shadows as the sun set, we stood and paced along the shore. Suddenly we heard voices and saw the boat bobbing next to a pier, not even 200m from us.

I’m not sure if the water taxi guys wanted to hug us or wring or necks (ditto for our parents), but they were pleased to see us, and perplexed as to how we missed each other. They had been moored there for the entire time and we had sat just on the other side of some bushes from them for an hour at least. It sounds unbelievable, I know. They were only able to wait another 5 minutes before they were going to leave for the night. Now THAT would have sucked.

Relieved and exhausted, we arrived back at the hut to a mixed welcome; of course, there was great relief that we were okay, but there were a fair amount of frayed nerves, too. Fair enough. We were pretty frayed ourselves.

It had been magical to be separated from the world for the day; alone with our thoughts, the fresh air, the inspiring views. It was as if we were the only 4 people in New Zealand. Fantastic. But the truth is that at the end of any great experience, you long for your people, for that boat to safely return you to the candlelight and the warmth of the camp stove, to the well-deserved glass of wine and charades by torchlight.

Both the remoteness and the company are sweeter because of the existence of the other.

Leaving Waikaremoana…reluctantly

Take a moment and watch this video as it gives a great sense of the Waikaremoana track, and even shows the hut we stayed in. Plus, you can snigger/swoon over the Kiwi accent.

So, a Dutchman and a Prairie girl walk into a bistro…

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Where: Mount Maunganui, New Zealand

Those Kiwis love the Mount! They honour it with beer. As all good things should be...

Plate of Food: I went on a – wait for it – DATE with my husband while in New Zealand this past month. And to honour such a rare, special, no high-chairs/spilled drinks/bag of things to entertain the kidlets kind of a night we went to a wonderful restaurant, The Mount Bistro. You should not read the following on an empty stomach. Go have a cracker and come back. I’ll wait.

I told you in my last post about my menu-stoppers. As soon as I opened the menu at Mount Bistro, I saw PORK BELLY. Done. Menu shut. My dear friends, you will never, ever regret ordering pork belly. Ever.

This particular dish was deliciously composed: tender, succulent pork belly on a bed of julienned green apple, with pork crackling (Amen) and “cider pearls”. Say what? These were translucent beads of apple cider, much like caviar, that burst on your tongue to release their tart, fresh flavour. Oh, man. I don’t know what magic they are doing in the kitchen to make those pearls, but keep doing it!

My main course was salmon which although pleasant, it could not compare with my husband’s meal of rack of lamb. As we always do, we swapped a small portion of our meals so the other could taste it. (You do that, don’t you?) The unfortunate thing was that his was so much better than mine. I then spent the rest of the meal gazing longingly at his plate until he finally relinquished another lamb chop.

The rack of lamb was perfectly cooked and cut into individual thick chops. Alongside was a pea puree with a hint of wasabi, baby potatoes, shiitake mushrooms and spiced, roasted whole macadamia nuts. Everything on the plate had been prepared with such care and creativity. It was simply fantastic. Why didn’t I order that??

For dessert (because when you only go out once a decade, you need to maximize the experience) I did not hesitate to order another of my menu-stoppers: Crème brûlée. This dessert sent me into orbit with how gobsmacking good it was. My spoon tapped on the top and I swooned at the dense sound – the caramel was thick and golden. I broke through to the custard which was cool, smooth, and delicious. At the bottom of the ramekin were some hidden treasures of poached cherries and strawberries. Normally I’m a Crème brûlée purist, but these soft, sweet fruits were a welcome addition. I would eat this every day, for every meal…if elasticized pants weren’t so taboo.

If you are in New Zealand, go directly to Mount Bistro and order the pork belly, lamb and Crème brûlée. If you are not in NZ, don’t worry about the price of the plane ticket, this meal is completely worth it.

The Best: Walking up The Mount. Yup, believe it or not, Mount Maunganui has a mountain. It is actually an extinct volcano, now covered in dense bush, and it sits solidly at one end of the glorious beach. There is an easy walking path up to the summit which I have done a few times. It is not too demanding of a hike, but enough of an effort to warrant Eggs Benedict at one of the cafes after you come back down. You see how this works for me?

It is the view from the top that gets me every time. Stand facing the glittering blue ocean and on your right you see miles and miles of perfect white sand stretching off into the distance. The beach is sandwiched between grassy dunes and white frothy waves. There are the streets and houses all arranged in tidy blocks. Behind you is the bustling port and the quiet blue expanse of Pilot Bay. Off to your left is another peninsula reaching across to you, dark and shadowy with trees. Basically spin me in any direction and I am happy…well, don’t make me so dizzy that I fall off the top. Geez, take it easy.

From the peak of the Mount, with main Mount beach on the left and Pilot Bay on the right.

Story that needs to be told: There is no earthshaking story that comes out of my many visits to Mount Maunganui, but let’s just have a couple of humdingers…

  • A group of Dutchmen were dining at Mount Bistro that same night as us. They obviously had menu-stoppers too, but they were all on the WINE menu for they were heavily intoxicated. Their evening ended with one of them shouting and gesticulating to his fellow countrymen, then drunkenly swinging his arm directly into the face of the guy next to him and – get this – knocking one of his teeth out. The tooth and the mouth from whence it came were shown, with what could only be pride, to the staff of the restaurant. Photos were taken. Now, imagine if that had been how my night ended. Do you ever do that? Imagine the most embarrassing possible circumstance and then snicker…no? Just me then? What if I had delicately licked the last of my creme brulee from the spoon and then shrieked at Matt, “Who?! Me! Who, who, huh? Me! Me! Me!” (this is a direct translation of what the man was shouting. No joke). What if I had followed that eloquent gem with a backhanded slap across the face for not sharing more of his rack of lamb, then stumbled out the door, but not before veering dangerously into the plastic curtain wall of the patio (this, too, happened. I thought the whole place was coming down.)…? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time…
  • Years ago, we were enjoying an afternoon on the main beach at the Mount. The day was hot and sunny, and the water was so inviting. A girl from the Prairies, however, does not know what to do when faced with a wave. Cow tipping? Yes. A wave? No. So I was promptly knocked over by a wave and then dragged up onto the beach in a seated position by the force of the wave. This deposited approximately 3 tonnes of sand inside my bikini bottoms. Not wanting to be stranded up on the beach with what appeared to be an unfortunate bowel movement, I crab walked back into the surf (yes, I would have paid money to see that, too). I crouched in the sea and waited for the swirling waters to remove the grit from my nether regions. Ahem. Like I said, Prairie girl.

Rather let this be the image left on your mind after that little story...

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure.

There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”  Jawaharial Nehru

Where women glow and men plunder

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Where: Burleigh Heads, Queensland, Australia

This flag means that there are approximately 35 things in the water that can kill or maim you...or maybe I am making that up.

Plate of food: The morning we arrived we plunked ourselves down for a snack which swiftly turned into full-blown brunch when I saw the following menu item: Zucchini and Sweetcorn pancakes with bacon, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce.

There are certain foods that cause me to stop in my tracks and look no further on a menu. Bacon, asparagus and Hollandaise sauce are all menu-stoppers (so is pork belly…or rhubarb…or truffles…or salt & pepper squid – you get the idea). It was a culinary holy trinity.

The pancakes were golden and savoury, stacked high with slices of back bacon between them. The asparagus spears were balanced on top, perfectly cooked and vibrant green. The sauce was velvety and rich. I ate in complete rapture, not even disturbed by my son pouring salt on his blackberries. You’re 2! Throw caution and your blood pressure to the wind, my boy!

To elevate this meal to yet another level, I drank 2 large flat whites, which is the Antipodean way of saying milky coffees. Happiness on a plate. Happiness in a cup. This meal made me smile. And gain 3 lbs, but who cares?

The best: My, but this country has some fine beaches! It’s no surprise that an area known as Surfer’s Paradise, Gold Coast, Sunshine State, etc is going to have stunning beaches, but WOW! We stayed a few steps away from a beach that was clean, pristine, and so beautiful.

The water varied from bright blue to bottle green and formed perfect white waves that curled and crashed as if offering a tutorial to all the world’s waves on how to be outstanding. The sand was white and fine; it squeaked as you shuffled your feet. It was dotted with smooth, dark, round pebbles and shells that ranged from dusky pink to deep purple. The hunky skilled lifesavers jogged in groups along the beach while I tried to distance myself from my mania: my daughter obsessively collecting every blessed shell on the beach and my son shouting at the waves “IT”S A BIG ONE”. Huh? What kids?

In one direction was a headland that loomed over a collection of cafes that could fulfill my need for flat whites/good food. In the other direction was the pretty skyline of downtown Brisbane which I imagined as a ghost town because surely no one works when there is a beach nearby like this one.

Brisbane beckons in the distance, but I'm not going anywhere!

For all this loveliness, it must be said that it is my belief that you will die if you swim in Australian waters (please refer to sharks, jellyfish, poisonous fish, sting rays, rip currents, and – for fresh water – crocodiles). My first trip to this fine country involved me pouring over a book that outlined all of the deadly things in the water and on land in Australia (bad idea to let me loose in that bookstore). I have decided that you can only truly be free from harm if you are in the air. So, I don’t swim. But I LOVE the beaches!

Story that needs to be told: Sometimes crappy things happen when you travel.

Someone came into our holiday apartment while we were asleep and stole our things. I KNOW! Take a moment.

It was the 4th night of our stay. Matt had gone to bed while I stayed up late checking emails and critical celebrity gossip. At some point I felt uneasy and locked the patio door which led out to the communal garden area of the apartment complex. The kids had slept from 2:30 p.m due to sheer exhaustion and were still asleep. I brushed my teeth and settled into bed at 12:08 a.m (gotta love digital clocks burning the exact time on your memory).

At 12:20 I was just drifting gently towards sleep when I heard the patio door open. I lay perfectly still and listened intently. All I could think was that it was IMPOSSIBLE that the door opened because I had locked it. Then I heard the pile of coins we had left on the kitchen counter clinking together. Everything came rushing together into one pinpoint of panic.

I shook Matt hard. Twice. Then I whispered, “There’s someone in here” which is something you only want to hear while watching a horror film.

Matt launched out of bed and went down the passageway where he saw someone at the door holding our laptop and our backpack. His still-asleep brain struggled to make sense of the scene. The guy was so dumb/drugged up/hearing impaired that Matt walked right up to him and grabbed his arm. The intruder turned and screamed in such an animalistic and frightened way that, for a brief moment as I sat in bed with my heart in my throat, I thought that maybe it could be just a curious Australian marsupial who…managed…to open…a door. Like I said, it was a BRIEF moment.

Then I found myself propelled into the passageway by fear and I screamed because it seemed like a good way to make an entrance. Poor Matt thought that I was in danger behind him so he turned and the guy ran off, jumped the fence, and was gone.

That pinpoint of panic then exploded and crashed around, barreling through my veins and around the room. Not pretty.

Luckily the goon had dropped our laptop and backpack at the door as he fled, but we quickly took note of the other things missing: Matt’s wallet, a lot of a loose cash, and my watch. We also took note of things that he had strangely left behind: an iPad sitting on the couch, Matt’s watch, Matt’s phone. Did I mention that he was dumb?

The next few hours were a blur of phone calls, police reports, cancelled credit cards, cups of tea and more tears.

Matt found my watch outside on the grass. Thank you for sparkling in the moonlight. Thank you for having the eyesight of a fighter pilot.

After processing all of this over many days I have this to say:

  • I hate that little punk –  he was all of 16, Matt reckons – for being so brazen, for lacking in morals, for feeling so entitled, for scaring the crap out of us, for violating our space, for shattering our bubble of security, for walking right past my sweet babies’ little shoes by the door – heartless git.
  • It is cruelly ironic that we live in Rio de Janeiro where this kind of stuff is, dare I say, commonplace, but it happened to us while on vacation in suburban Australia.
  • We were complacent. We left all that stuff out on display on the countertop. Lesson learnt, but I still maintain that we were in a pretty low-risk area.
  • I ache with regret that when I locked the door the latch did not catch because the patio door was slightly misaligned on its tracks. Ah, I love the “What if” game…
  • We are so very grateful that he only got away with cards and cash. It’s a huge hassle, especially when there were cards from 4 different countries in the wallet, prompting the police officer to ask Matt if his name was Jason Bourne, but it is all replaceable. I shiver when I think that he was mere steps from our room, from our kidlets’ room. So grateful that he was dumb rather than aggressive.
  • This does not make me fearful of travel or of being in other countries. It makes me fearful of people. That’s a bit of a stinker because I know some people who are incredibly lovely, but it makes me wonder about what is happening in society. And, man, that is a slippery slope if you let yourself ponder the state of humanity. Give me 10 minutes and I am rashly deciding to homeschool, live in a bunker, trust no one, x-ray the mail, and have a royal taster suss out my food first. Wowzer.
  • Banks need to stop asking for the card number when you report a card stolen. Because I don’t know the card number. Because my card was stolen. Shall we go round one more time?
  • Doofus was wearing a hoody. I mean, can we get any more cliché? Is there not a young delinquent out there who dons something more unique or imaginative? Seriously, people, just because you are a deadbeat doesn’t mean fashion has to go out the window.
  • I feel no shame in hoping that this guy had to change his shorts when he got home. That kind of scream can set off a rapid chain of events that no sphincter can keep up with, y’know?

All this to say that we had a terrible fright, but we are all fine and feeling thankful more than anything else. I have nothing against Australians in general, except for the mandatory hatred of the Wallabies rugby team based on my husband’s rugby affiliation.

I think the sad truth is that this kind of thing can happen anywhere. So be vigilant, be careful, but keep traveling, keep looking people in the eye, keep enjoying the adventure. Just don’t wear a hoody, okay?

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” Barbara Hoffman

Who needs credit cards when this is out there?

All hail the King

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Where: Rarotonga, Cook Islands, South Pacific (Look at that! You can click on the link to see where this is. Three cheers for me becoming more tech savvy!)

Lovely, tranquil Rarotonga

Plate of food: During our stay in Rarotonga, we ate at a fantastic restaurant, called The Flame Tree, which offered an eclectic mix of flavours on its menu. With fresh fish and seafood as the base, the dishes melded influences from Japan, India, New Zealand, Indonesia and beyond. I remember enjoying our dinner there, but after 12 years, the food has faded from memory. All that remains in my mind is the short drive to the restaurant.

I was perched on the back of a small motorbike (ubiquitous on the island), my skirt tucked in around my legs, as Matt drove along the one road that circles the island. On our right, I saw flashes of shimmering sea between small bungalows; on our left, there was only dense forest sloping up into the hills, all shadows and night noises. The wind rushing by my face was distinctly tropical: salty, warm, and scented with frangipani. It started to rain as we drove – large, heavy drops that seemed in no rush to fall. As they hit the asphalt it released its pent-up heat in small bursts of steam. After a drive like that, who cares about the food?

I do remember, however, the breakfasts that were delivered to our small hotel room each morning. A tray full of fruit, coffee, and pastries would appear and we would take it outside to the front stoop. There we would eat the most delicious papaya (locally known as pawpaw) – deep orange in colour and sweet as honey. We would sip our coffee and contemplate our next move: reading on the beach or snorkeling in the shallow lagoon? Hmm.

Wild chickens and roosters darted through the hedges and streaked across the grass, bobbing their heads at us. Our view of the white sand and the turquoise water was unobstructed, except for two tall palm trees. Any time I eat papaya now, I return ever so briefly (too briefly!) to that front porch.

The best: One evening near the end of our trip, we walked along the beach at sunset. The falling darkness was a relief after the heat of the day. The sand felt cool between our toes and the breeze blowing in off the sea was fresh and gentle. We sat at the edge of the palm trees to watch the moon rise and the stars blink. Behind us was a small community church hidden behind the bushes. We could hear the inflection of conversations drifting out to us. Suddenly low singing started and quickly gained strength. Soon many voices were singing in beautiful harmony in Rarotongan/Cook Islands Maori. The sound drifted out to us on the beach, accompanied by the rhythmic rolling of waves. We sat in silence and enjoyed this impromptu concert. The foreign words held no meaning, but the lyrical, uplifting sounds felt like a special celebration of Rarotonga. Best moment on the island!

I swear you can hear the singing if you listen hard enough...

Story that needs to be told: We briskly set off walking one day – to the local shop, I think – and soon the heat radiating up off the road and the sun beating down on our backs slowed our steps. We must have looked fairly pathetic/crazy/sad (take your pick) because a small pick up truck pulled over and the driver offered us a ride. Matt immediately said “Yes”, and vaulted into the back.

I hesitated; I don’t hitchhike. It’s not safe, we all know that, right? Matt looked at me questioningly and reached for my hand. “It’s Rarotonga”, he said. Good point, I thought. I sat down in the back and tried to look carefree and trusting, but in my head I conjured up images of us being kidnapped and dragged off to…somewhere scary in Rarotonga (a place, let me remind you, that has a man standing on a wooden crate at the tiny airport, playing the ukulele to welcome you). Still, hitchhiking is dangerous.

Luckily we survived the short trip and we thanked the kindly man who saved us from heat stroke. He then revealed with great pride that we had been picked up by none other than…the Coconut King! Um, who? It turns out that this man was Piri Purutu III (a name fit for a King, no?). He does performances around the island, showing off traditional fire making skills and scaling tall palm trees to retrieve coconuts. He offered us the chance for a private performance the next day at our hotel.

He appeared the following day in full Coconut King regalia, which consisted of a wig and a loin cloth, both made from coconut fibers. The wig was styled in a rather smart-looking bob. The loin cloth was, well, shorter than I would have liked.

This is going to take NY Fashion Week by storm.

Across the street from our hotel he regaled us with tales of the traditional island ways, then he stripped some fibers off of his loin cloth (easy, now!) and tied them in a figure eight. He put his feet through the loops and shimmied quickly up a tree. Quite amazing for a man in his 60s! Once at the top of the swaying palm tree he climbed through the fronds and stood on the very top. From this vantage point he plucked a coconut and threw it up in the air. The sickening smack of a coconut on the ground is not the sound you want to hear as you watch a man perform stunts at the top of a tree – it might be something he should consider changing for future shows…

At this point I was really hoping he was wearing something under that loin cloth.

Safely back on the ground, he showed us how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together and using the coconut fiber as a nest for the glowing sparks. The whole show was impressive, but mostly because of his enthusiasm and energy. By all accounts, the Coconut King still reigns in Rarotonga; you should find him if you ever go. Just promise me that you won’t hitchhike.

Photos: Just a note to say that these photos were taken, wait for it, on a camera that took FILM. Thus, the photos have been scanned and look as though they were taken in 1978, not in 2000. If there is anyone reading this blog who thinks 2000 might as well be 1978, then you probably listen to Ke$ha and we, unfortunately, can’t be friends.

“So much of who we are is where we have been.”  William Langewiesche

Hot soup, please, with extra rat

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Where: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

My, what tall towers you have!

Plate of food: Laksa – a noodle soup with flavours of coconut, curry, lemongrass and ginger. You can find Laksa everywhere in Malaysia from trendy restaurants to street vendors. The delight, for me, was that there were so many variations of this soup. Depending on my mood I could have it with shrimp, bean sprouts, lots of chilli, tofu, not much chilli, chicken, carrots, mushrooms and on and on. No matter what I chose I was always presented with a visually pleasing, heaped bowlful of steaming soup. The fragrance that wafts up from it is nothing less than intoxicating. As you eat it, the chilli warms your throat and belly, while the lime and tamarind refresh and excite your mouth. When was the last time a spoonful of food did that for you?

I am not going to pretend to be hardcore and tell you that I found the best Laksa joint in a back alley of KL somewhere. Truth be told, I enjoyed Laksa in a food court…in a mall…at the base of the famous Petronas Towers. Can’t get more mainstream than that. What can I say – it was air-conditioned. In KL, air conditioning becomes a necessity, like breathing or checking People.com for celebrity gossip. (Who? Me?) The irony, of course, is that I ordered a hot, spicy soup to enjoy in my refreshing air-conditioned environment. I can’t explain the logic, it is just the appeal of Laksa.

The best: Batu Caves, just north of Kuala Lumpur, is the site of an important Hindu temple. Inside 3 naturally formed caves, there are beautiful shrines to various Hindu gods. To reach the main cave you must climb 272 steps past seemingly harmless monkeys (they will cheekily avail you of any food you have on you, though).

Just some light exercise...in 98% humidity. Get cracking!

Once you have sweated off half of your body weight and reached the top, you enter the Temple Cave. The air is dank and filled with whispered prayers of devotees. Above you, through a tangle of vines and moss is a patch of blue sky in stark contrast to the dark, dripping interior of the cave.

The Art Gallery Cave at the base of the steps contains wild, technicolour statues and displays. I found myself squinting in the glare of such vivid colours. It was so foreign to me, being more familiar with sedate, solemn church interiors. These displays struck me as a celebration, as joyful and pleasing.

Bright colours in the caves

Story that needs to be told: After having exhausted all possible angles for photographs at the base of the Petronas Towers, on the skybridge 41 floors up, and from vantage points in the park surrounding the towers; we decided we needed to get some distance from them to really capture their dominating size.

We took the light rail transit out to a station that offered us a better view. The area was just outside of the CBD of the city. Gone were the shiny, modern skyscrapers and in their place were dismal, concrete apartment buildings. These identical blocks were maybe 15 stories high, and squeezed in tight next to each other. Tumbling out of each window were bright bits of laundry, hanging limp in the muggy air; satellite dishes precariously bolted to the wall; and people leaning out into the evening, looking hot and tired.

We walked a short way to the next station along the crumbling sidewalk at the base of one of these buildings. In the dusky light, I saw something move at the edge of the grass. I thought it was a dog at first, but I squinted and the shock of recognition made me stop in my tracks.

It was a rat. A BIG rat. One you could have saddled and ridden in a rodeo, if you were so inclined. (I, personally, would pay money to watch that.)

It paused and looked at us, then continued its lumbering trek across the sidewalk towards the building. I shuddered and my buttocks clenched (don’t pretend that doesn’t happen to you, too).

As we zoomed back on the railway to the clean and tidy area around the towers, I felt uneasy. The people living in those apartment blocks look out their windows and see hundreds of identical windows staring back at them. They look out and see rats big enough to need their own postcode. They look out and see the beacon of the twin towers, glowing on the horizon. It just reminded me how so often places have dual personalities: one for the privileged visitors and one for the people residing there. I felt lucky for where I lived and how I lived, and lucky to be a visitor.

I hope you look out your window and like what you see. I hope you give thanks for the way you get to live. I hope you last the 8 seconds on that rat in the rodeo.

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Aldous Huxley