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.

Guayaquil, Ecuador – the Angry Chinese Lady, big bottoms, and new Sharpies

Guayaqauil is a big, gritty city with blaring horns and many dreary facades, but it also has some grand parks – there’s even one with land inguanas! – and many good restaurants…some with a high entertainment factor.

On our first day we ate at Chifa Long Ge, a modest Chinese restaurant around the corner from our hostel.  The waiter was gracious and helpful. I ordered what I thought were two vegetarian noodle soups (“sin carne, por favor”). We heard some yelling in the kitchen while we waited, but didn’t pay much attention. The soups arrived and I discovered that mine had pieces of chicken and pork. When the waiter saw my surprise, he motioned towards the kitchen, where there was still yelling, and indicated I should put the pieces of meat to the side on my plate. Something in his look made me not want to make a fuss, so I nodded and decided to look out for a hungry-looking person to whom I could give the meat. When I noticed that Elise’s soup did not have noodles, I asked if we could order a portion of noodles for her.

Shortly afterwards, the source of the yelling emerged from the kitchen. It was, somewhat incongruently, a cute, blonde Chinese woman in a cheerful pink smock. I figured she was just in a bad mood, and didn’t pay much attention. It would seem, however, that our request for extra noodles had pissed her off.

Our waiter appeared with the noodles. Minutes later, another waiter appeared with what looked like the remaining portion of noodles and said “Shhhhhhhh!” while sliding them into Elise’s soup. There was more yelling and it suddenly became clear that the cute Chinese lady wasn’t just in a bad mood – she was a cute, angry Chinese lady.

A smiling merchant selling smudged magnifying glasses and selfie sticks appeared in the store and I quickly handed him my plate of meat. He looked incredibly surprised, but grateful. As he was putting the meat into a plastic bag, the Angry Chinese Lady stormed over and shook the plate to speed up the process and then yelled at him. Arrrrrrrg. I was expecting her to yell at us next, but instead, she made me walk over to the register to get my change. I left feeling a strange mix of wariness, satisfaction (the soups were good), and amusement. Would she not have been perfect for an episode of Seinfeld?!

Elise later commemorated her in a drawing with lines above her head to indicate that she was fuming. The drawing also included an accurate representation of the restaurant sign, a snoozing iguana, Elise’s newest Littlest Pet Shop figurine, and the Simpsons, which were playing while we ate.

The next day, as we strolled past the restaurant, we saw the Angry Chinese Lady wiping tables and I dared to ask if I could photograph her with Elise. She put her arm around Elise(!!!) and I took a shot. Unfortunately, the camera was on the wrong settings and the photo came out blurry so I dared to ask if I could take a second shot. But by then she was fed up, and let go of Elise to get back to wiping tables. I worried she would start yelling and quickly took one more shot, thanked her, and then we scurried away, giggling.

Although far less entertaining than Chifu Long Ge, the place we had breakfast the next day, Dulceria La Palma, was treat. With high ceilings, black & white photos of Guayaquil, and a wide vitrine with dozens of trays of little pastries, it had great, old-school charm. The breakfast menu included eggs, tiny, crispy croissants, yogurt with granola, tropical juice, and strong coffee. I was a happy camper. At 32 cents a pop, the little pastries were too good to pass up, so I ordered one of each to take with us.

As we walked back to our hostel, we marveled at some of the street scenes. There were shoe shiners with customers reading the paper on nearly every block which almost looked like clones of each other. There were also tangled wires and potholes that would make officers from the Ordnungsamt (Regulatory Office) back in Germany apoplectic. I considered creating an Instagram channel dedicated to such shots, but there was too much other interesting stuff to capture – such as newspaper stands with photos of big, bare-bottomed ladies just above coloring books for kids.

Although our hostel was recommended by Lonely Planet, we couldn’t stand the ornate blue/gold decor and dank bathroom, so I used points to book a stay in the local Marriott. Elise was thrilled beyond belief, poor thing, and vlogged enthusiastically about the room. It was then that I realized what a toll the less-than-stellar accommodations had taken on her.

Since our points freed up a portion of our daily budget, I treated her to a set of Sharpies.

I drew the line, however, on Build-A-Bear-style doggie outfits. I’ve promised Elise a dog when we return to Berlin (we’d both love a Pomeranian), but a doggie tennis dress or embroidered jumper? No. Just no.

Elise’s drawing of Isabella Island

Elise drew her (part-wolf) alter ego, Sunny, and her sister Ashlyn on Isabela Island, where they mountain biked along the coast, touched a giant tortoise, went body boarding and snorkeling with colorful fish and tortoises, and saw the Wall of Tears (gray volcanic rocks in the upper right). Also depicted are sea lions, volcanic rocks, and Opuntia cacti on the beach, a water taxi in the harbor, and the tiny bird with whom Elise shared an apple.