Indian visa madness, food adventures, and a wee bit of luxury in Kuala Lumpur

Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was supposed to be a short stopover between Sydney and Kochi, India, where we were meeting my sister Lisa. As this was to be her first travel adventure halfway around the world, I’d planned to arrive before her so that we could make sure everything was in order and pick her up from the airport. However, thanks to the glitchy visa application website of the Government of India (GOI), which failed to process payments, my visa was not approved in time for our flights. 

To make matters worse, although my Chase Sapphire Reserve visa card offers trip interruption insurance, a rep with an irrepressibly cheerful voice I spoke with said that our missed flights would not be reimbursed, because our case represents “a change of plans” which are not covered. (Ironic, since I was trying to stick with plans.) I will report back here whether this absurdity is actually the case.

But the biggest problem of all was that, as time wore on, I was getting knots in my stomach thinking that my sister would arrive alone in India and feel scared.

There was a silver lining to all of this, however. Given the lower cost of living in Kuala Lumpur (56% cheaper than Sydney, according to expatistan.com), as well as sponsorship of our travels by Elise’s wonderful godfather, Tony, I was able to book much nicer accommodations in KL than I had in Oz. For the first time, I used “infinity pool” as a search term on booking.com, lol, since Elise had been longing to try one out, and found one at the Royale Chulan Hotel. I learned too late, however, what every 10 year-old apparently knows: it’s a “real” infinity pool only if it has a glass wall. But the indoor skating rink(!), fabulous buffet, and very helpful manager more than made up for that.

One thing in particular that struck me about the Malaysian people is that they are extraordinarily empathetic about the loss of loved ones. Many asked where Elise’s dad was, and when I told them that he had died of cancer in 2015, each and every one of them stopped what they were doing, softened their voice and expressed sincere condolences. A taxi driver even waited until I had finished telling a few stories, saying “To get back to what you told me, I am so sorry about his passing.”

After two days there, we moved to The Majestic Hotel to be closer to the center of town. As Marriott members, we got upgraded to a suite. As we walked in, Elise squealed with delight and ran all around the room patting things – I’m guessing to make sure they were real. She immediately got in the tub for a bath, and then put on a robe and chatted with her friends in Europe. Truth be told, after a week in a Sydney youth hostel where cleaning staff seemed to ignore the restrooms that required the most attention, I was ready to follow suit.

As the visa saga wore on and we needed to stay longer, we tried a third hotel, Traders, which was connected via long underground passageways to the impressive Petronas Towers which lit up the night sky like giant faceted gemstones. They were splendid, but looking up at them from the ground near the entranceway, I shuddered, thinking of the Twin Towers in NY, and wondered whether the conspicuous consumption taking place in the Western-style stores there made them a target for terrorist attacks. Comforting, however, was the fact that Malaysia appears to have had far fewer attacks than neighboring Indonesia, and the State Department travel advisory designates it a benign Level One, i.e. exercise normal precautions.

The towers are so tall my lens couldn’t capture them in one shot, so I took multiple shots from the ground up and auto-merged them in Photoshop. Still, the towers look much shorter in this photo than in real life (and Elise looks like post-blueberry Violet in Willy Wonka).

The Towers are featured in a number of movies, such as the 1999 film Entrapment, which set the climax on the skybridge.  170 meters above the ground, the skybridge is not actually attached to the towers, but slides in and out of them to prevent breaking as they – gulp – sway several feet towards and away from each other in high winds. Other fun tower trivia includes the fact that, in 2009, French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert scaled to the top of Tower Two with his bare hands and feet in just under 2 hours. His first two efforts had ended in arrest. How on earth did they nab him, I wonder? Yank him in with a hook? Point a gun at him at the 60th floor? Git in here, Spidey, or we’ll shoot.

The hotel buffets and Twin Towers restaurants provided opportunities to explore Malaysian food, including the national dish, Nasi Lamak, made of coconut rice served with anchovy hot chili sauce, fried peanuts, cucumber, and egg wrapped in banana leaves, a tidy, healthful, delicious, portable snack, and one we may well include in the travel cookbook we plan to create. We also tried Sayur Lodeh, veggies in coconut curry, and tasted various Chinese steamed buns stuffed with sweet potato, mushroom, and red bean paste. Strangely, the food Elise most likes seems to resemble her headband puffs.

The cultural highlight of our visit, though, was the Museum of Islamic Arts – a spacious, airy, modern building with five domes and gorgeous ceramic tapestries flanking the entranceway.

The embellished Qur’an and manuscripts were works of high art.

Elise particularly liked the gallery of miniature mosques and thought of how her dolls might visit them. She also had a nice science lesson at the exhibition on healing traditions in Islamic medical manuscripts where she learned that human arteries, veins, and capillaries, when laid end to end, can stretch around the Earth two to four times (a fact that would later be heartening to me as I waited for many smaller veins to open up to compensate for blood clots in my calves).

Back at Traders Hotel, Elise put the finishing touches on her drawing of a little town in a magical world, which has towering cherry trees the size of Singapore’s Supertrees with blossoms as large as beach balls, which the people of the town hang on their doors for good luck. Visitors to the town like to take boat rides in the lake at night, where the moon shines brightly and the cherry blossoms fall into the water releasing pixie dust. The central structure is the mayor’s house. To its right is a swanky high-rise hotel and an orphanage.

In the meantime, my Indian visa finally came through…the day after Lisa had arrived in India all by her lonesome. And yet, when the hotel car I’d booked for her failed to show, she grabbed a taxi like a pro, checked into the hotel, and then slept for a whole day, safe, comfortable, and blissfully unaware of all my unnecessary worrying.

Singapore’s Supertrees and Sentosa Island

There are some places on earth that are so naturally beautiful or imaginatively designed that they send you straight back to childhood when discoveries still had the power to blow your mind. Well, Singapore’s Supertree Grove at night, where 18 towering, otherworldly supertrees glittered and flared to the thunderous refrain of O Fortuna, was one of those places. Photos only hint at the magic.

The trees are about as tall as a 16-storey building and are covered with 200 species of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers. Some harvest solar energy and others serve as air exhaust receptacles. Elise and I took the elevator up to the walkway between the trees that is 22 meters high and 128 long. The dazzling, slightly ominous-looking Marina Bay Sands Hotel (Espheni base in Falling Skies?) glowed in the distance. When we walked into the hotel, Elise, who enjoys watching the antics (and luxury purchases) of famous Youtube stars, gleefully pointed out a Lamborghini in the valet parking.

Also somewhat mind-blowing, though in a more dreamy Oh man, what a lifestyle! kind of way, was our wonderful friends Barbara and Christian’s waterfront condo on Sentosa Island on Singapore’s southern shore. Centuries ago, the island was called Pulau Belakang Mati, which meant ‘Island of Death from Behind’, likely due to attacks by pirates. Its current name, which means ‘peace’ and ‘tranquility’, reflects today’s luxury lifestyle on the island.  Barbara, a fabulous cook who literally saved our Thanksgiving dinner in Prague by coming to my rescue with her cooking savvy and calming disposition, serves up delicious dishes on her terrace overlooking the Straits of Singapore. Many floors below is a sprawling pool where she swims every morning and then soaks in the jacuzzi, where blossoms drop from the trees and swirl in the soothing water.

She took us on a bike tour of the marina, where we saw a yoga studio for humans and their dogs.

We also saw a strip of stunning waterfront homes which have pools integrated into the design of the home. Simply awesome.

Singapore has some of the lowest crime rates in the world thanks to strict laws and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Taxi drivers carefully adhere to the speed limit, there is no spitting or smoking in public places, and women leave their purses hanging from their chairs behind them. A very welcome thing for this traveling mom! However, one drawback is that one doesn’t dare take photos of private property, so the pix above I borrowed from this website.

In the meantime, Elise and I explored some of Singapore’s international culinary delights at hawker centers with dozens of stalls, including steamed buns and gyoza. We also had custom-made bowls of Chinese soup where you fill a bowl with all of the raw ingredients you want and then the cook parboils them in broth for you, and you top them off with seasonings.

1 Golden Temple + 1000 red Shinto gates

Today we visited one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites: the Golden Temple. I was first taken to see it nearly 30 years ago as a freshly trained English teacher with the JET Programme. I was in awe, and I thought Elise would be, too. But the crowds were thick and we felt rushed as groups of tourists vied for photo ops, and the day was hot and sticky, etc, so our visit ended up feeling more perfunctory than magical. Elise did, however, enjoy the samples of traditional Japanese snacks for sale at the tea garden.

We said prayers for our loved ones and headed next to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The path to the entrance was lined with food stands. The sign at this one looked, um – how to say it? – the opposite of appetizing.

Unlike the short path around the Golden Temple, the route up and down the mountain at Fushimi Inari was nearly 4 km and passed through 2,000+ red Shinto gates. As we got closer to the summit, the crowds disappeared.

There were many mini shrines along the path with statues of foxes, which are regarded as messengers.

As we neared the top, Elise asked “Is it going to be what heaven looks like?” When we got there, it looked like same as the path we’d been on, just level. And there were Oreo cookies for sale.

A soft, cool rain started to fall as we headed down the mountain, and in the falling light, the magic missing from earlier in the day was suddenly all around us.

Nijo Castle light show, Kimono Roboto, and packaged eyeballs

To make up for a lazy day of zero exploration, we finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel after nightfall to see the light show at nearby Nijo Castle. Everything from the massive, stately walls, to the cherry blossom trees and gardens was aglow, and there was a light show on a towering wooden gate reminiscent of Miyazaki’s magical Spirited Away with flying birds, dragons and swirling cherry blossom petals.  And, of course, because Japan would not be Japan without something a little futuristic and weird, there was a multi-media show called Kimono Roboto with a moving C3P0-type robot in a kimono flanked by two twisted, blob-like robotic arms. The footage behind them alternated between close-ups of gleaming robot heads and staggeringly gorgeous models in kimono strolling a moody beach. For just a flicker, I felt the same dazzle that I felt eons ago photographing NY Fashion Week, and I felt happy.

Afterwards we shopped for food. It was a treat seeing shoppers in kimono as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But then we discovered a package of what looked liked clear eyeballs in the refrigerated section next to seaweed and potato salad. I couldn’t even bring myself to google what they might be.

Monkeys on mountains and Elise in kimono

At the shops near Arashiyama Mountain Elise tried on her first kimono. Various undergarments were wrapped and hooked, and the hem was fitted to her by hoisting up the excess fabric and folding it under a wide obi belt (so different from the Western cinched-waist silhouette). She was given tabi split-toe socks to accommodate the traditional wooden shoes, and her hair was twisted into a bun and embellished with a flower.

Parasol in hand, she was ready to head outside.

Even with the restrictions of the clothing, she did not move like Japanese ladies in kimono, with tiny forward steps, but instead clumped in the unusual shoes and struck poses like the cartoon characters she draws. I wanted her to stay in the kimono all day, but the shop was closing so we returned and she changed back into her normal clothes. While I waited, I took in the sumptuous patterns and colors of the kimono and obi and was practically floating by the time we left.

After that experience, a bowl of udon noodles and veggie tempura was in order. We try to avoid fried food in the US and Germany, but in Japan, the tempura batter is so light that it does not feel as sinful.

But the best part of the day was our hike up Arashimaya Mountain, where monkeys roam free.

Feeding the monkeys outside is not allowed, so Elise was delighted to discover that it was possible to buy tiny bags of peanuts and chunks of apple and feed the monkeys through a screen at the visitor’s center.

This little gal surprised me by scooting over and plunking herself down behind my chair. It was fun, but after having had monkeys clamber all over us in the Amazon trying to get our bananas, I longed to scoop them up in my arms and hold them – or at least let them hang out on my shoulders for a while.

To round out the day, we headed to Gion, the oldest part of the city and Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. The tiny alleys are atmospheric, and if you’re lucky (we weren’t), you may catch a glimpse of apprentice geisha disappearing behind sliding wooden doors into one of the traditional tea houses or restaurants.

Also atmospheric at night is Yasaka Shrine, which overlooks the bustling Shijo-dori shopping avenue. By the time we wandered inside, however, the vendors had started packing up, and so we decided to call it a day and headed home, tired after the long day.

Shibuya’s beloved dog Hachiko, tiny treasures, and soba noodles

Elise was moved by the story of a beloved dog, Hachiko, who came to the station every day to meet his master, a professor. At one point, the professor died, but Hachiko kept coming to the station for 10 more years until he died. Hachiko’s loyalty was so moving to the townsfolk that they erected a statue in his honor. Even today, crowds throng to get a shot of the statute. A cat has apparently taken up residence at the statue, but wasn’t to be seen the day we were there.

Shibuya is also know for the Pedestrian Scramble, one of the largest pedestrian crossings in the world. It struck me that there is a lot less smoking today than there was when I lived in Japan 1989-92, which is a fantastic thing. Or maybe everyone’s e-smoking and we just can’t smell it.

The neighborhood is full of funky shops selling gadgets, school supplies, zany clothes, character figurines, and toys. Elise spotted My Melody, the character on the dress she bought in Harajuku and got a matching pen, and then struggled over whether to spend her Tooth Fairy money on tiny furniture for a tiny Pikachu. I was pleased to see that she decided not to acquire anything else new.

After a day of lots of walking while dodging the crowds, it was very pleasant to sit down to a meal of soba noodles. Elise chose a bowl with hot broth and kelp, and I choose my old favorite, cold Zaru Soba noodles with a delicious soy/mirin dip with seaweed and sliced green onions.

Extreme cuteness in Toyko’s Harajuku, petting owls, and Meiji Shrine

We finally made it to Tokyo! Since Elise is a girly-girl, our first foray into the city was to Harajuku, ground zero for über kawaii toys, clothes, candy and necessary accessories such as bunny ears for your cat.

We happened upon a crowd oohing and awwing over these life-size dancing bear characters and their little chick friend. The chick accidentally tipped over and the reaction was as if a real baby had fallen.

Elise found a froofy dress she loved in a little boutique. I was afraid I was going to have to say No, but a 70% discount meant it was within our budget. As she came out of the store excitedly clutching her bag, Japanese ladies walking by beamed at me and said “Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

We then happened upon a cat “forest”. We sat on the floor while Bengal cats curled up on our laps. Instead of music, the soothing sound of twittering birds was piped through hidden speakers. It was supremely relaxing, and the perfect break from the thronged streets outside. We thought fondly of Chaos, the Bengal cat that lives across from my Mom.

Downstairs from the cat cafe was an owl forest, with a dozen or so owls perched on branches throughout a phony cherry blossom forest. Elise felt like she was a character in Harry Potter. We were instructed to pet the owls only with the back of our hands. I couldn’t believe that we were allowed to touch these beautiful creatures! It was a rare treat being able to look into their eyes and to feel the astonishing softness of their feathers, but I worried about their well-being and hoped that all visitors were closely supervised.

We then made our way to splendid Yoyogi Park to see Meiji-jitsu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. At the entrance, Elise purified her hands with water using a bamboo dipper.

A tiny Japanese girl in a kimono was posing for photos while her parents looked on proudly. It seemed that it was expected that everyone photograph her – that not doing so was actually impolite. We guessed that she was part of the wedding that was in progress at the shrine.

On our way out, we stopped for dango, sweet rice flour dumplings, which were gooey and icky sweet. Feeling the effects of jetlag, we picked up sushi for dinner to eat at the hotel, and then fell into a deep sleep…until 2am.

Street markets of La Paz

We left the steamy Amazon behind and returned to brisk, bustling La Paz. Flying saved time and offered a glimpse of the Cordillera Real, but also eliminated the adventure – this time there were no edible insects, no smashed mirrors…and no driver wearing a top that said ‘Bridesmaid’.

We saw what might have real bridesmaids, though, at the airport, in long, fringed shawls and jaunty bowler hats.

Around the corner from our hostel in La Paz was a sprawling street market. I absolutely loved the faces in the crowd.

Witches’ Market in La Paz

We visited the famous Witches’ Market in La Paz, which was just two blocks from our place.  Mostly, it was a tourist market selling all the typical sweaters, bags, jewelry, hats, etc. But there were also strange remedies and good luck charms for sale (like the one that the lady in the blue smock is holding, which I bought) and Halloween-type decorations.

Most gruesome and heart-wrenching for Elise, were the mummified baby llamas. We stared in disbelief – looked away in horror – and then couldn’t help looking again. What on earth??

Turns out, they were all stillborn, and instead of being buried, they are carefully preserved to bring luck to one’s home or farm. It was only when Elise discovered this fact that she could handle looking at them – she even managed to vlog about them.

But there was a much lighter side to the market. As usual, Elise actively checked out all the little figurines. Here she is comparing prices between a small and large llama with a good-natured merchant (10 vs 25 bolivianos or $1.45 vs $3.60).

And here she is making sure that the hat she bought as a Christmas present for her beloved stuffed animal, Paws, matches a tiny sweater. It was an astonishing $2.89! (Anyone up for a handcrafts import/export biz?) When we got back to the hotel, she announced that Paws was sleeping and tried the sweater on him. It fit.

A few more Witches’ Market scenes.

Full disclosure: I did not want to be impolite and photograph the woman in the photo below without her consent, so I offered to pay her. She drove a hard bargain! But it was worth it. I love her faraway eyes, bowler hat perched jauntily on her head, and her colorful scarves. Other ladies I’d tried to photograph in the produce market would accept the money I’d offered, then hide their faces with their hats, much to the amusement of their friends around them.  When I would say “Awwwwwwwww!” and not take a shot, they would laugh and return the money.

Remedies for all your ailments. Not sure what the one at the bottom left is with the cross. Maybe for those who’ve lost their faith?

I don’t even want to know what those things are.

Continuing on the spooky theme, we checked out the masks at the Ethnography & Folklore Museum…and the less scary ceramics, hats and feather creations. I hope you enjoy the pix – I was nabbed by a guard for taking photos without a photo permit (didn’t know I needed one). But then I paid the 20 bolivianos – same price as the entrance fee – and was allowed to shoot with impunity.

Oh dear God is Puno miserable

After spending a week in charming Cuzco and then traveling through the wide-open Peruvian countryside, arriving in gritty Puno was a shock to the system.

Already the suburb of Puno – if you can call it that – started to elicit a feeling of depression with its jumble of shoddy brick buildings. But at least the suburb had spacious streets.

From the bus window, Puno appeared to be nothing but endless decrepit brick structures – bleaker even than New York’s bleakest inner city neighborhood.

It had a terrible effect on both Elise and me. We got into a bad mood, and I struggled to point out anything that would cheer her up. Even the lakeshore was depressing, given its nearly treeless cement walkways. Fortunately, once we’d dropped our packs at our hostel and were able to walk around, we discovered a pleasant pedestrian zone and a great vegan restaurant, Loving Hut, which had a phenomenal Asian soup and smoothies packed with nutrients. But it would all be worth it in the end, given what was to come next!

Postscript: the next morning on our way to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Puno looked a lot more cheerful as the sun was out and the townsfolk were celebrating Puno’s 349th anniversary.