About Me

My photo
Hello, Ciao,안녕하세요, Hallo, Hola, Selamat tengahari! My name is Rachael and I am a travel enthusiast. Ever since I can remember, my parents have taken my brother, sister and I on good ol' American road trips. It's safe to say that was where my interest in new places, people and experiences was ignited. As my parents always encouraged my siblings and I to explore and ask questions, I developed a sincere curiosity for new adventures. In addition to seeing much of the United States with my favorite travel companions (my family), I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Rome, Italy, as well as a semester in Seoul, South Korea during my college career. Now, I am honored to be taking part in a Fulbright ETA Scholarship to Malaysia for a year! My family's favorite motto is "Life is all about the journey, not the destination." I invite you to join along in my journey of cultural exchange and mutual understanding in Malaysia! After all, the more, the merrier.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Divide and TEACH!

Divide and Conquer TEACH!
Malaysia ETAs with our Bahasa Malaysia tutors
It is hard to believe I have been here for over two weeks. In a way, it feels like I have been here less than that, while in another way, it feels like I have been here longer.

Orientation was extremely beneficially, and I feel like my knowledge of Malaysia as well as knowledge about my responsibility as a Malaysia Fulbright ETA has increased stupendously. For instance, if on a scale of one to ten, ten being most certain about everything, I probably came here as a three. I came having just the most basic, fact-based knowledge of Malaysia and my responsibilities. Now, I feel like I am at least a 7/8. The things I still do not know, I will figure out when I get settled in Terengganu and get familiar with my new environment.

A group of us working on a project for
The training was a fantastic way to get thoughts flowing and it inspired me to think big and set challenging yet achievable expectations for my students. Orientation also allowed us the opportunity to connect with other Fulbrighters that may not be in our state. I admire everyone in our group, because although we are connected by our passion of experiencing new cultures, we are all so different and diverse. That aspect in itself is contributing significantly to the amazing experience I have had and will continue to have.

I am excited to be heading to Terengganu. It will be drastically different than my KL life during the last two and half weeks, but I am ready for the unknown. I am ready for my life in rural Malaysia and I am beyond excited to meet my students and get acquainted with my new life for the next nine months.

In addition, I found out that I have a private house with a roommate, so it will be exciting to experience rural Malaysia life with a friend. Her name is Christina and she is an ETA from Florida teaching in a secondary school as well. We are excited to move in to our place and get adapted to life. We are expecting some big bugs waiting for us in our future home until we do a clean sweep, and we also see some motorbike lessons in our near future as we have to purchase one.

Before moving to our town and starting at our schools, we have about ten days for another state-level orientation in Kuala Terengganu before moving to our separate villages.

As for our last morning all together, the fifty of us gathered at the Ministry of Education in Putra Jaya to have a meeting and breakfast with the representatives of the Ministry. They presented us with strong thoughts and sincere encouragement. Following the meeting, we once again gathered for a picture and then the 50 of us said “see you soon” to each other, as our big group is now divided into three. Our new friends may be headed to different states, but it is comforting to know that we have people to visit in other Malaysian places as well as new friends that will be going through similar experiences. I look forward to seeing how individuals in our large group stay connected throughout the course of the year while we are divided and teaching.

I said “see you soon” to my home, friends and family over two weeks ago and I anticipated culture shock as I boarded the plane to come to Kuala Lumpur. However, in a way, I feel as though I am doing it all over again. As I write, I am sitting on the bus to Terengganu with the 16 other Terengganu folks headed there with me. I am surrounded by now familiar fellow Fulbrighters but cannot help but notice the buildings and cars being replaced by smaller roads and endless mountains and vast rainforests in the distance. Moreover, we just stopped to grab a bite to eat. As we sat there eating, we all drew attention to the fact that we definitely are not in KL anymore.

As our Director Dr. Coffman mentioned, we were in KL before, not rural Malaysia. I feel as though an entirely different Malaysia awaits us at the other end of this 6- hour plus bus ride. As I looked forward to meeting KL, I cannot wait to approach Terengganu with open eyes, an open heart and an open mind.

Selamat tinggal Kuala Lumpur! Here I come Terengganu! 

Fellow Fulbrighter Julie and I on the bus!
Julie is headed to Terengganu also!

High Tea with the Prime Minister of Malaysia

Thursday, January 19th was our last official day of Orientation.

Thursday, January 19th was the day we also got to meet and have high tea with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato' Sri Mohd Najib. 

We were sent word on Wednesday that the Prime Minister wanted to meet the 50 Fulbrigthers going to teach English in Malaysian schools. After all, the program was expanded from a State-level Fulbright Program in Terengganu to a Federal –level Fulbright Program that is now in Terengganu, Pahang and Johor. The expansion of the program was a direct result of a meeting that the Malaysian Prime Minister had with President Obama back in 2010 at an ASEAN conference in New York City.

The Prime Minister personally requested that President Obama send more ETAs to Malaysia in order for Malaysia to better achieve its goal of being ranked as a “Developed Nation” by 2020. Hence, now over a year later, I am a here as an ETA, as well as all other 49 ETAs because of that request. Needless to say, the Federal governments of both USA and Malaysia are more involved with this Fulbright Program than ever.

On January 19th after our orientation wrap-up, we headed out to Putra Jaya. Putra Jaya is home to all governmental buildings and about forty minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. Meeting the Prime Minister was probably one of the more surreal events of my life.  After all, it is like meeting the President Obama of Malaysia, just that the Prime Minister does not lead my own nation.  However, he does lead my future students’ nation as well as my future community. Knowing that I as a foreigner and visitor to this country had the opportunity to meet Malaysia’s fine leader was an incredibly humbling experience.

Our Fulbright group assembled in a large banquet room at their head government building, which is like the White House of Malaysia. There was a ton of media taking pictures of all of us, and anticipating the arrival of the Prime Minister. In the meantime, Mr. Ambassador Paul W. Jones greeted us all once again and came around and reintroduced himself and shook each of our hands. Then, entered Deputy Prime Minister (who is like the Joe Biden (Vice President) of Malaysia). He also greeted us all and shook our hands saying how pleased he was to have us in Malaysia. After these two distinct individuals welcomed us, the commentator announced, “Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome the Honorable Prime Minister Dato' Sri Mohd Najib.”

We all stood in respect for the Prime Minister and he came around to each of us once again to say hello and welcome us to Malaysia. When I shook his hand, he asked me where I was headed, and I said, “Besut, Terengganu.”

He smiled and replied, “Beautiful place.”

That definitely made me smile.

The Prime Minister then addressed his guests as the media took an infinite number of photos, and Mr. Prime Minister explained the importance of our program. He also reemphasized the impact that we can make on our students and communities, and how we are helping to build bridges between the USA and Malaysia as cultural ambassadors.

Following the Prime Minister’s remarks, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner with fresh fruit, chicken and steak skewers, mini fajitas, rice cake, peanut dipping sauces, a corn pot pie as well as brownies and mini cheesecakes for dessert. And, a great cup of coffee.

As we ate, the Malaysian Secret Service stood close to our table to monitor the room. I could not believe my friends and I were in Malaysia having dinner and discussing Fulbright matters with the Prime Minister of Malaysia. All of us Fulbrighters had a fabulous time. More importantly, I think all of us left with even more of an understanding of how we came to be here and what we are capable of doing the next 10 months.

Fellow ETAs and I after High Tea
After a picture out on the steps in front of the government building with the Ambassador, we walked back to our buses. Excitement was buzzing and smiles were exchanged.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Did that just happen?” As with every experience I have had thus far during my time here in Malaysia, I am extremely humbled and sincerely appreciative of the opportunities available during my Fulbright here in Malaysia. 

Me with Olivia and Raymond, who
both work for MACEE.
Olivia was a 2011 Malaysia ETA.

Included below is a link from a conversation President Obama recently had with the Prime Minister. During the conversation, the importance of the Malaysia ETA program was highlighted. The conversation was one of many that directed resources and energy towards sending ETAs to Malaysia and this conversation is one of the many reasons I am here today.


The Geographer

On our last Tuesday of Orientation, we took another field trip. However, this one was not in Kuala Lumpur, and was instead an excursion to Melaka.

Drinking teh tarik (tea with sugar and
condensed milk) at a rest stop. 
Melaka is a World Heritage Site of the world, and is a historical city. Melaka was originally a Portuguese settlement, and therefore, Melaka is quite different than KL. Melaka’s architecture looks drastically similar to the places I have seen in Europe such as Italy and France. The buildings were little and quant with bright colors.

On the boat with Nazeeha
(my orientation roommate)
and Christina (my soon to
be roommate in Besut for
the year)
Buildings with vivid colors along the river

When we arrived, a big group of us decided to take a riverboat cruise where we boated through the small town on a canal. The way the houses and buildings were situated around the river reminded me exponentially of Venice, Italy. In fact, the only aspect that differentiated it was the use of vivid colors on the facets of the buildings on the canal in Melaka.

It was a lovely day, and it allowed our group to unwind before departing on the 20th. To add, with the endless amount of cafes and eateries, we satiated some deep cravings such as American food. A group of us splurged and ordered fries, chicken sandwiches, pastas, iced coffee and ice cream at this little café called, “Geographer.” It actually is quite ironic because I read about Geographer in a travel book as a recommended place to eat. Thus, I wanted to at least buy a coffee from there while in Melaka. When my group was wandering and trying to find a spot to eat, we stumbled upon this adorable café without a truly noticeable sign or name. So, we went in because it looked comfortable and air conditioned (thank goodness… it was my hottest day yet in Malaysia). As we were handed the menus, my friends said, “Rachael, it’s the Geographer!”

The Geographer Cafe
The café had brick with green and red tones, as well as dark finished wood tables and chairs. Around us the windows were left open without a screen and instead some light flowing fabrics breezing slightly in the light wind. It reminded me of something from Disney World Adventure Land, except this was real life and a place that was not merely modeled that way.

A street in Melaka!
With some sun on my collarbones, sweat on my forehead and a Magnum ice Cream bar in my hand, I headed back to the bus to catch our ride back. The whole way back to KL I kept trying to envision what my town, house and school will be like! 

Naperville to Seremban

Back in July, I searched around like a lunatic for a Malaysian tutor. Although we were not required to learn the language to pursue a Fulbright here in Malaysia, I wanted to learn some basic language skills before entering the country to teach English. I believe it is more encouraging for others to learn your language, if you have made an attempt to learn theirs. After searching and searching, I decided to email the Malaysian Club of Chicago one evening. The next morning I got a phone call from Parvathy (Para), the wife of one of the leaders of the Malaysian club. She was so kind, and told me that she would be happy to teach me Malaysian. Para was from Malaysia, and her family still lived there as well as her two- year old son. However, her husband’s job took him to Chicago, so she had been splitting her time between the two places.

Soon enough, my time at home this past summer consisted of one afternoon a week at Para’s home in Naperville, which was only about forty minutes from my home. Beyond learning the basics of Bahasa Malaysia, she taught me about the culture, and her and her husband even hosted my parents and I one night for dinner.

The flower's outside Para's home
Para recently moved back to Seremban, Malaysia, which is about 40 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. Therefore, I have yet another familiar face in an unfamiliar place. Her and her family invited me to come spend the day with them in Seremban. On Sunday morning, Para and her niece Tam picked me up in KL and brought me to their beautiful home.

It was so nice to be in a home with a family after being in a hotel for two weeks. It was also nice to experience a bit of Indian culture in Malaysia, as her family is Indian and Hindu. I was introduced to the family, and they welcomed me in with open arms. The home was a beautiful, white concrete house with a swinging bench in front. Inside, it was an open layout, ideal for catching the cool breeze on those warm days as well as letting the bright sunlight illuminate the home.

My Indian food in a big banana leaf
After meeting the family, Para, Tam, Meena (Para’s sister) and Sashween (Para’s adorable two year old son) headed to eat lunch at an Indian restaurant. As I was outside KL, there were many stares and curious looks probably wondering about how in the world a young American woman came to be in Seremban with an Indian family. At the restaurant, Meena helped me put rice, different curries, and some fish on a banana leaf. The banana leaf is used as a plate of sorts sometimes and it can actually be eaten. People here swear that food tastes better on a banana leaf. I sat down to eat and they showed me how to eat with my right hand properly. For some reason, I was nervous, probably from the many people looking at me as I struggled to eat neatly with my hand. Meanwhile, Sashween was unsure about me and therefore, acting a little malu (shy).

The lunch was full of flavor, but it was far too much food to eat especially when I was attracting a lot of attention. From lunch, we wandered over to a lovely little Catholic Church in Seremban. The inside of the church, like Malaysian homes, was simple and open. I said a little prayer, and headed out to the courtyard where there was a little grotto. I looked at the statue of Mother Mary, put a hand to my heart and was brought back to the many nights at the Notre Dame Grotto with my Saint Mary’s friends where we would pray, think and talk. Yet again, a familiar feeling in an unfamiliar place, for this was the first Catholic Church I saw here in Malaysia.

A fifteen-minute ride and we were in Meena’s village. Their mother also lives with Meena, so we decided to stop by and visit. At Meena’s home I was able to meet her mother who sat peacefully in her sari. I was immediately summoned into Meena’s room where Para and Meena offered me clothing options. Para gave me a beautiful gold colored kurta (long Indian shirt) with glitter and light lace. Meena gave me a bright, blue gorgeous kurta with sequins and beads. I could not wait until I had the opportunity to wear these. In addition, they offered me calendars and asked me about how I liked Malaysia so far.

Tombi dan Aka
Para's son and I
By the time I got out of the room from trying on my new clothes, Sashween decided that I was not scary anymore and immediately warmed up to me. He started calling me “Aka,” which means “big sister” in Temmel (South India language) and so Para told me I could call him “Tombi” which means “little brother.” He was so excited when I started calling him that. For the rest of the afternoon, he wanted to hold my hand and whenever I left the room he would cry.

Para, her son and I in front of the gorgeous
After making the rounds and meeting the family members, Para and her two sisters took Sashween and I to their local beach at Port Dickson. We made it there just in time for sunset. I have to say, the ocean looked beautiful that night. I have seen the ocean before, but there was something about this specific sunset on a beach in Malaysia that made me completely awe struck. The pink, blue and purple colors faded together, and different shadows of boats and people were created with every seemingly downward motion of the sun. It was miraculous. If it is this miraculous in a city area, I cannot wait to see what ocean view awaits in rural Terengganu.

The beautiful sunset over the ocean!

In that moment, I was so thankful. I was thankful that I pursued getting Bahasa Malaysia lessons and I was happy that I put myself out there last July. Without putting myself out there and seeking opportunities for what I thought was important, and without those lovely Malaysian afternoons in Naperville, I would not have been standing on a far off beach outside Seremban with a welcoming family.

I look forward to visiting them again! Terima kasih! Jumpa Lagi!

Wet Markets are Wet Indeed

On Saturday morning, I awoke very tired from the late but awesome night a big group of us had the night before. Although I was a bit drained along with many of my friends, we headed out for our Wet Market excursion that Fulbright organized for us. We had Malaysian individuals around our age guide each of our groups, which consisted of four to five people.

We departed from our hotel, and headed on our way. After a half hour walk, the environment changed from big buildings to older, less maintained buildings with clothing lines hosting clothes and rags, as well as some shoes. As I looked up, windows of the apartment buildings opened up to Malaysian people going about their Saturday morning routine. As I looked ahead, the vast number of tents, stalls and stands overwhelmed me with people summoning us to come in and try foods or purchase items.

There were big blue bins with live fish swimming around, cages with chickens, durian (yes, durian again- It is the King of Fruits) and thousands of fruits, some familiar and others far less familiar. As we continued down the street, we left the streets with cars and apartment buildings, and squeezed our bodies in as we entered an absolutely enormous covered tent area. It was like the department store of food markets. Somewhat dilapidated umbrellas and tarps of many colors covered the entire, mass area. As I squeezed between the many avid Saturday wet market shoppers headed in the traffic opposite of me, I looked to my left and saw an endless amount of market workers cutting meat with big knifes, bagging vegetables, pouring juice, catching fish out of buckets, wrapping items and shouting things back and forth to co-workers in Bahasa Malaysia (none of which I understood).

Similar to the way I explained China Town; to say it was mass chaos is to put it lightly. However, I say that with the most sincere sense of fascination and admiration. I have no idea how these markets are managed and how they stay sane or organized enough to serve the thousands of shoppers every Saturday.

To be honest, I was too intimidated initially to purchase any fruit or foods. I simply stayed focus on hunching down a little, holding my purse tight, squeezing in my shoulders close to my midline and keeping track of my group member, David who was making a trail for me through the market crowds, as Julie and Morgan followed behind.

I was overwhelmed as I tried to take in all the scents, the colors, the people and the foods. Meanwhile, my feet stomped through the puddles lingering in the holes in the concrete. There was literally water everywhere.  I quickly realized it was from the stall owners watering their fruits and vegetables, refilling fish buckets and wiping down their meat cutting tables. I finally got a moment to stop and watch as water dripped off a vendor table onto the pavement.

As I walked, I was intrigued as I came to a stand with chickens chirping and calking very loudly. I was very puzzled. Do people buy these chickens to keep at home? Then, I realized what the chickens were for. This was not any pre-packaged chicken breast that I merely could throw on a George Forman like I did it college. No. This was fresh chicken. I watched as a buyer summoned to the stall owner that she wanted “satu” chicken. One chicken. The man reached into the cage, grabbed a chicken by it’s neck, bent and cracked its neck to the side and placed the chicken on the scale as the chicken stopped moving and making noise. The lady then paid and took the chicken. Just like that.

For those of you who do not know, I have always been weird about meat. I absolutely love meat, but if I see meat in its original form (such as turkey on Thanksgiving), it makes my stomach churn. Needless to say, this was quite an experience for me. It also allowed me to realize that I am going to be exposed to many different cooking techniques this upcoming year as I cook in my house. This is not my senior year of college when my roommates and I threw frozen chicken breast onto a George Forman and called it a meal. I may just have to learn how to actually create a meal from a real chicken. This is one of the many things I will keep you updated on- my adventures with food and cooking. However, I do have to say, the chicken must taste so much better, because it is literally as fresh as you can get.

In addition, any type of seafood you could possibly think of purchasing was at the market as well in assorted bins and buckets. The shrimp were still alive, the fish were still swimming. Moreover, the juice was made from actual fruits that were available and blended freshly from rich produce. Finally, our tour guide, Weng, bought our group sugarcane juice. The sugar cane juice was pressed from real sugar cane right then and there in front of our eyes. The juice maker simply slid a huge piece of sugar cane through a press and we watched as juice dripped into a bowl placed strategically under the press.

I left the market with wet, dirty feet, but insight into something I will experience every week in my own Malaysian village. I will buy fresh foods weekly from my local wet market, and by the time I come back home to America, I will probably be freaked out by pre-packaged, pre-marinated Purdue Chicken. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

High Tea with The Ambassador

My invitation to High Tea with the Ambassador

Last Friday, all 50 of the Malaysia Fulbrighters were invited to High Tea at the home of U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, Ambassador Paul W. Jones. He hosted the event at his home, and in addition to the 50 Fulbrighters were individuals from the U.S. Embassy (who we met the prior week at orientation), U.S. high school students who are high school exchange students in Malaysia, Teach for Malaysia representatives (the Teach for America of Malaysia) and about 40 Malaysian secondary students who are leaving in two weeks to study in America for four months.

As I entered the Ambassador’s home with my fellow Fulbrighters, it was pouring rain, but the energy and enthusiasm was overflowing. Individuals from the Malaysian Ministry of Education as well as the Ambassador himself greeted us. It was a tremendously heartwarming experience, and it was on this night that it finally hit me: My dream to get a Fulbright is reality. I was immensely touched by the experience of being among such fantastic individuals who were just as excited about their experiences as we are about our upcoming experience.

The 40 Malaysian students getting ready to go to the USA presented a dance to the Ambassador and all other guests. Their presentation was a coordinated, enthusiastic dance to Cha Cha Slide. Although I immediately got a flashback to being at home and out with my friends and being at Saint Mary’s Formal, I certainly was still in a foreign country. The young Chinese, Indian and Muslim students did a fantastic job, and then motioned to us Fulbrighters to come join them. So the 50 of us Fulbrighters in our twenties did the Cha Cha Slide with young women, some in traditional dress and young men. These students were close in age to the secondary students I will soon be teaching. Although this was just a simple dance to Cha Cha Slide, this collaborative dance was representative of what Fulbright is about, bringing people from two different cultures together. I will certainly never forget dancing next to these young people who were so enthused about their upcoming months in America. In fact, it was somewhat bizarre to know that they are going to be so close to my home, while I will be staying here.

Moreover, I had the incredible opportunity to meet and converse with several Malaysian students. There was a young Muslim girl headed to East Moline, Illinois, several headed to Michigan and many headed to California among other places such as South Dakota, New York and Colorado. In addition, I was able to talk to three young men who are from Terengganu (my future State) and who are headed to America. 

One of these men actually had two previous Fulbrighter ETAs as his English teachers. He explained to me that both of these ETAs inspired him to increase his English abilities and they also told him that someday he could study in the USA if he studied English enough. Now, here he is about to embark on a competitive exchange program to a town in northern Michigan. As we stood around a table eating vegetable egg rolls, he told my friend Melissa and I about his future host father purchased him new winter attire for cold Michigan. This young man told us about his hopes to get involved with drama at his exchange high school in the Midwest. This story was just one of the many stories I heard from Malaysian students that night. I realized first-hand the impact that my fellow Fulbrighters and I can have on even just one student. Through talking to that young man, I felt an extreme sense of excitement to finally arrive in Terengganu, get settled and start teaching. I regret to admit that I forgot this young man’s name, but I will forever remember the advice he gave me for teaching to students his age and the kind words he provided about my future placement. I wish him all the best during his exchange semester in Michigan!

After the High Tea at the Ambassador’s residence we were invited to the U.S. Marine base to converse and socialize with local American men and women at their local hang out spot on base. It was the first time outside of training that all 50 of us were able to unwind, connect and socialize together. Needless to say, we had an awesome night, and probably my favorite memory thus far! I look forward to keeping in contact with members of our Fulbright group during the year ahead. Although only 17 ETAs will be in Terengganu, the other 33 will be spread amongst Pahang and Johor, Malaysia, and all of us plan on visiting one another.

This night instilled a further evident sense of Fulbright’s mission to exchange culture and facilitate mutual understanding.  It also reminded me that I am not only embarking on this experience as an individual, but I am going as a representative of my country, my state and my community. Therefore, I am representing you blog readers as well. So, if there is a question you have or a topic you would like to learn more about, let me know. Your questions and interests and ideas will only enhance my experience and better allow me to carry out my ability to bring knowledge back home. I would be happy to have another aspect of culture or the country to research and explore!

Mutual Understanding Starts with Questions

Some of the most important things I have learned in my life so far, I have learned through asking myself and others questions. I believe questions are what make life so fascinating, and I believe asking questions continues to make life a really extraordinary adventure.

I learned today that this year I will be asking more questions than ever. In return, others will be asking me more questions than I have ever been asked before. People here will be asking me my age without any hesitation as well as questions such as where I come from, whether or not I like my home country and whether or not I like Malaysia. People also will be asking me about being a Caucasian American, as well as what religion I am and what my own culture is like. Needless to say, although I am asked my age by people every once in a while, I am not asked these other, more personal questions on a daily basis. However, I am going to be challenged to reflect on my own culture, beliefs, race, background and religion everyday during this upcoming year. The individuals here talk about these aspects of life very openly, and consequently, my students and future acquaintances will constantly be asking me questions as well.

Last Thursday, my group had its turn to go to the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum. It was my first experience going to a Mosque and to be honest, my first semi-submersion into the Islamic community. It was splendid to go on this particular day, because my orientation roommate, Nazeeha, and I had a fantastic conversation the night before about our religions. She was raised as a Muslim and I was raised Roman Catholic. It was a dynamic, inspiring and thought-provoking conversation. It allowed me to approach my trip to the Mosque with additional basic, background knowledge and some prior insight. I was also appreciative of this opportunity, because one of my favorite courses in college was Gender and Race Management, where we covered topics in regards to the Islamic community and Muslim women in America.

Fellow Fulbright women and I in our
conservative wear
During my trip to the National Mosque, I was allowed insight into the Islamic community and I am so glad I had the opportunity to do so. Although I came out of the experience with many questions, it ensures that my year in an Islamic community in rural Terengganu, Malaysia will be a tremendous learning experience and an amazing adventure.

Before we went to the Mosque, we were told to dress as conservatively as possible, although we were supposed to be doing that for the most part since we arrived here. (Although KL is far less conservative than the rest of Malaysia) The men in our group had to wear nice long sleeve shirts with long pants. Then, when we arrived at the Mosque the women in our group had to put on long, oversized purple gowns over their clothing. The gowns covered the entire arm, down to the feet and up to the neck. Then, the women put on tudungs, which are head coverings made with beautiful fabric that the Muslim women wear here. Once our conservative garments were on and everyone’s shoes were off, we entered the Mosque with our tour guide.

Me in my tudung
The first aspect of the Mosque that caught my eye was the fact that there were no statues. It was a beautiful building with access to the outdoors and beautiful gardens and flowers, as well as a large pond with soft fountains. The building was modeled in the shape of umbrellas, which symbolizes power. We were guided through the mosque and we were allowed access to the prayer rooms, which were large, simple, carpeted rooms. On Fridays, it is mandatory that Muslim men go to the Mosque to pray in the afternoon. The mosque brings in thousands of people on Fridays, and on those days, men pray shoulder to shoulder in those large prayer rooms. In addition, both Muslim men and women are required to pray five times a day facing Mecca. In fact, most buildings in Muslim countries, including Malaysia, put arrows in each room that designate which direction faces Mecca.

Walkway through the Mosque exposed to the outdoors

After our tour through the Mosque, we participated in a Q & A session with our tour guide who was a Muslim man himself. It was an opportunity that gave me insight into the backgrounds, community and families my own future students will be from. My responsibility as a Fulbrighter is to facilitate mutual understanding. The opportunity to tour a Mosque and participate in a Q & A session was a great opportunity to take a step in trying to establish simple background knowledge of the Islamic community I will be teaching in within the next two weeks.

Fountain in the Center of the Mosque
Large prayer room where thousands of
men gather to pray on Fridays
An outdoor room in the Mosque
in the shape of an umbrella

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

272 Steps and All Sorts of Monkeying Around

I have not taken a field trip since probably the semester I studied abroad in Rome, Italy and we would do day excursions. So, when I found out we had outings in place of our standard orientation presentations, I was like a little kid anticipating a field trip to the zoo. I was so curious about our upcoming little trips.

Half of our Fulbright group went to the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum on the first day, while the other half went to the Batu Caves and Hindu Shrine. On the second day, we switched.
I was in the group that went to the Batu Caves and Hindu Shrine on the first day, and the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum on the second day.

Honestly, I did not research on the Batu Caves or Hindu Shrine whatsoever before my group headed there. All I knew was that there were a bunch of stairs up the side of a mountain you had to climb up to get to the cave.

A look at the type of housing I saw on the way to Batu Caves
It was about a forty minute ride outside of the city, and as we weaved through the roads (on the left side of the road like the British do) I saw a great deal of Malaysian living quarters and housing. Currently Malaysia is striving to attain first world status by 2020. Although some areas of the immediate city are less developed than others, I did not understand why they put such an emphasis on this goal whose deadline is eight years from now. However, like I said, Kuala Lumpur is quite different than the rest of Malaysia, and this was even more apparent as we drove a bit on the outskirts of the city to arrive at the Batu Caves. There were housing and buildings unlike anything I had seen or experienced before. I actually hope to have the opportunity to get an inside look at these kinds of places rather than a view from the highway. I think it could be entirely eye-opening.

The Batu Caves were founded in 1879 by William Hornaday, an American explorer that trekked through Malaysia backed when it was solely thick jungle and brush. That fact alone immensely fascinates me, because before I came to Malaysia I received vaccines, such as Japanese Encephilitis, Rabies, Typhoid, Flu and some boosters. I also was advised how to get Malaria medicine when I am traveling. As I have travelers' diarrhea medicine on hand, bug repellant, proper hiking gear, mosquitos nets and my vaccines up-to-date, Hornaday did not have all these preventative health care measures. That alone fascinates me. How brave to literally go where no man had been before without information about the insects, the animals and the environment.  The caves are a towering limestone outcrop, hosting a small Hindu Shrine in the open space below.

Giant golden statue of Muruga

The first monkey I saw. It was over my head.
When we first arrived a huge golden statue of Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam, caught everyone’s eyes. The statue stands at the bottom of the 272 steps that lead up to the Batu Caves, and the caves are dedicated to Muruga. When we approached the base of the stairs that led to the cave, the next thing I noticed were not squirrels, but MONKEYS! Now, I have seen monkeys at the zoo, but this was something entirely different all together. They were hanging everywhere. Everywhere I looked there were monkeys. Honestly, monkeys, gorillas and oranatangs have always freaked me out, so this was like coming face first with fear, except there had to be hundreds of them. I felt like they were watching me, and as I conveyed my hesitation towards the monkeys, I was told, “get used to them. They will be all around where you are living.”

Apparently these monkeys can break into people’s houses, jump onto hikers’ backs to salvage food from their backpacks and be immensely distructive. And, that is why I got the rabies shot. 

Hindu Temple with man giving blessings
The peacock I saw! Look towards absolute center
of the picture. It is hiding behind some branches in
front of the red building.

We took off our shoes and entered the Hindu temple. I had been to Buddhist temples in South Korea, and I actually did a temple stay with my Aunt Donna and Aunt Gail for a night as well at a Buddhist temple in Korea. However, this was different. I definitely want to look into more of the dynamics involved with the Hindu religion as well as the Buddhist religion. The temple had gorgeous color and as I marveled at the beauty of the garden, my friend Davina pointed a real-life peacock out to me. It was unbelievable. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that animals you once admired at the zoo, are real animals in the wild somewhere else in the world. And, for the record, they are so much more admirable in the wild.

A picture looking up at the 272 steps to climb

We exited the temple, remembered to put on our shoes and headed up the 272 steps leading up to the cave. Coincidentally, as I was climbing the stairs, the tour group in front of me was Korean and speaking in Korean. “Anyoung haseyo” I said.

“Ahh…Hello. Hello,” they all said in excitement somewhat surprised.

Looking out at the view from the top of the stairs

I continued up the stairs and kept watch above the sparse tree branches above me to make sure there was no monkey business going on above me. My worst nightmare would be one jumping on my head. As I approached the top of the stairs, I looked out over the opening in the mountainous cliffs to see the KL skyline in the distance. It amazed me how quickly environments can change within a forty-minute time span.

The monkey eating the woman's food
I marched down into the huge cave. It certainly was huge with a few Hindu statues in the corners. However, there were monkeys everywhere and that definitely captivated more of my attention, especially when I witnessed a monkey run up to an Indian women, grab a bag out of her hand and eat the fruit inside. The woman and the man she was with just watched just as if there were no use in attempting to fight back, when all the monkey’s friends would come and attack probably. I know…I am exaggerating. But, still…it was freaky. When I got to the other side of the cave, I had to walk up another flight of stairs. The space between one stair rail to another was about two yards, and on the railing sat monkeys just keep tracking of all the many visitors and assessing what the visitors could have to offer them. Thank goodness I was empty handed besides some ringgit.

Monkeys hanging around everywhere

There were baby monkeys. Old monkeys. Little monkeys. Big monkeys. Jumping monkeys. Swinging monkeys. Bold monkeys. Curious monkeys. Funny monkeys. People think they are cute. I don’t get it. 

However, by the time I left, I had warmed up to them a bit. At least it’s a step in the right direction, as I will probably have to be acquainted with the fact that they will be my new “squirrels” for the next ten months. Obnoxious squirrels that is.

Another view from the top of the Batu Caves
Monkey and her baby. No this is not zoomed.
It was that close.
As we came down from the Batu Cave, we veered off to the right to somewhat less- trekked stairs leading to the “dark caves.” The dark caves are a huge area in the caves that people can hike and explore with an experienced guide. We only went to the base of the cave trail, but the man in charge of the cave trails explained what a cave expedition would entail; 8 hours, insect bats, plant bats, snakes (not poisonous), native spiders and the most interesting limestone in the world that was once entirely under water. For one to go through the 8 hour trek, they would have to walk, climb, slide, crawl through extremely tight spaces and swim. A few eyes in the crowd lit up when he explained it, and I was one of those people. It sounded like quite an adventure, but I think things like this would need to be taken step-by-step, so I will just hold off on that one for now.

Coconut stand
100 Plus = Delicious
Thosai with sauces!
After we descended the caves, a group of us went to a coconut stand and watched as the stall opener managed an enormous pile of coconuts and cut them open for people to drink out of. I tried a sip of someone’s and it was delicious. However, I wandered inside a little Indian restaurant instead and ordered Thosai with everyone, even though I had it the night before. Too quench my thirst I ordered a 100 plus ,which is a carbonated fruit flavored, sweet drink. It is not as heavy as pop, but not as light as juice.

Having dealt with my first round of monkey business and enjoying my second round of Indian food, I got on the bus feeling particularly happy.

Quest for Naan

Indian food is immensely common here in Kuala Lumpur as there are many Indian people. With that, ever since I arrived here I have heard a lot of talk about this “naan stuff.” I am naturally a curious person, and hearing people rave about naan had my curiosity heightened. What is this stuff?

Tuesday night  (January 10th), I had that question answered, and believe me, I was NOT disappointed.

A large group of us Fulbrighters headed out to Little India after our training. Despite the fact that we had no idea where we were going, we ended up having a fantastic time. With large groups, people naturally branch off into smaller groups, and with that, I ended up hanging out with Owen from New Mexico and Blake from California. They both seemed pretty knowledgeable with at least the basics of Indian food. So, we wandered into an Indian restaurant where us three shared a delicious chicken and rice dish as well as two thosai dishes. Thosai is a sort of thing, baked bread-type pancake that is ideal for dipping into Indian sauces and spices as well as for scooping up rice and curry dishes. Unfortunately and oddly enough, this Indian restaurant did not have this “naan” that I so longed for, but I knew I would experience it soon enough.

The thing that threw me off about Indian food is that it is eaten with your hands. However, at the same time, you cannot use your left hand because here in Malaysia your left hand is seen as “unclean.” It is the hand you use for bathroom things, and therefore, it is disrespectful to eat with it. Eating with my hands, minus my left hand, had me struggling. It was a very new experience for me, and I was just glad that there were washing sinks in the back of the restaurant to tidy up before I felt up my food with hands that touched everything from subway poles to ringgit (Malaysian money) that day. I certainly understand why most restaurants here, especially Indian restaurants, provide available washing sinks in the back. The food was wonderful, and I immediately looked forward to having Indian food again. As we paid for our dinner, Blake suggested that we head back towards the Bukit Bantang area and find naan as soon as possible for me to try. Owen seconded that, and off we went on a quest for naan. They insisted that I would like it.

After we caught the monorail back to the central area, we went to another Indian restaurant.

“Do you have naan?” Blake asked.

My first naan
“Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course!” the happy, nice Indian man exclaimed while trying to summon us into his restaurant.

We sat down and ordered garlic naan with some sort of amazing Indian potato dish. It was a carbo-load kind of second-dinner. However, when the naan came to our table and I tried my first bite, I immediately understood what the hype was about. It is baked bread, garlic goodness and butter all into one. If I ever crave movie theater popcorn, this would definitely do the trick.

Conclusion: Naan = my new favorite food or maybe best put as “my new favorite snack.”

I tried it on a Tuesday night. And, I had it for dinner at the same exact restaurant with other people on Wednesday as well.
A group of us female Fulbrighters eating naan for dinner

It’s safe to say, it was a quest for naan and now, I get it.