Saturday, December 18, 2010

NRP Sagres

It was an invitation for the boss, filtered down by editorial discretion and busy schedules to the photographer and me. There may have been a slight departure from the norm, wherein the sibling went along on my pass to see the beautiful Portuguese sail ship, but better sense prevailed. We needed to get the picture captions right.

So I went along in my Raggedy-Ann best, looking fatter than ever in a certain polka dot (not large, I might add) number. We got lost to start with. Not surprising - I was present. No matter, when we finally arrived, there was a certain chill in the air snatched away by the lights picking out the outline of the masts. But the light mist was undeterred by a stealthy wind creeping across the Arabian Sea. Clicks and I paced the length of the three-masted barque on the dock, ignoring our bladders and awaiting the signal to step onto the gangway.

The Consul General of Portugal Antonio Sabida Costa shook hands with the other guests waiting outside and nodded at Clicks. I melted into the tarmac. Best to be unseen for fear they might turn me away on account of shabby dressing. When it was time, the first few guests climbed the gangway and down onto the deck, to be greeted by the commanding officer Luis Pedro Pinto Proenca Mendes and several other important looking people. The Portuguese were perfect hosts, staid and reserved in their crisp white uniforms. The trainee sailors, uncomfortable in their new waiters' roles, weaved through the crowd carrying wine and bites. Clicks and I left the wining and dining for later.

Not many were familiar; they all looked high-society and proper in their starched shirts. The band struck up, softly picking out the soulful melodies on the Portuguese guitar strings while Sonia Shirsat's versatile voice broke through the whispered conversation with melancholy Fado renditions. We positioned ourselves in a spot where no champagne flutes would be tipped and no fancy china would be bumped off the tables. Watching the ambassador's wife sing along, seeing the wistful look to a far-off countryside in her eyes, made me belong in a small way. A very small way. Most of me felt like a sore thumb with bright blue nail-polish. After the guitars were packed away and the good-looking sailors began weaving through the crowd with tasty tid-bits from Portugal, we made our way to the important people. Work beckoned.

Predictably, Clicks did his job well. Predictably, I tagged along like a lost puppy, jotting down names and trying not to get pushed away. When our stomachs decided we'd caught enough in frames, we planted ourselves within reach of the buffet table. That's when we met him. Adrian Melo de Melo. South American-born Portuguese who liked "making funny". Actually, we met his voice first. A deep polite timbre from over the shoulder which suggested we try the bacalhau. Needless to say we pigged out on the tender cod fish. I tried, very hard indeed, to listen to the voice explain trivia about Portugal, but I was more interested in the bacalhau for the moment. Then Adrian lost himself in the crowd.

Just when we were deciding whether to leave or take some more pictures, the voice piped up again. Would we like to see the bridge while we wait for dessert? Yes, we would. We found him clicking away at a computer showing us how the navigation worked, giving us perspectives on how much of the sailboat disappears under water in a storm and how high the waves rear before they crash onto the deck. Dessert was being served when we got back on deck. The pasteis de nata were quite unlike anything I'd ever tasted. They appeared savoury but were incredibly delicious, lightly crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth soft and sweet on the inside.

Then my bladder sent urgent signals to my brain. I needed a pee spot before a puddle (not made of sea water) appeared on deck. So it was back to Adrian and he took us downstairs to the loo before we got a private tour of the spaces below, spaces most other guests did not get to see. First up came a showcase of ancient navigational instruments that are apparently still used by the greenhorn cadets as part of their training. They were taught to steer their course with the help of the stars and the sun, and find out other important data that would take them safely around the world and me over the edge.

The officers mess, with plush seating and fancy paintings, along with an ancient map of Goa caught my attention. We spent a while there before moving on to the Captain Proenca's office, where Adrian handed us a tiny Sagres tie pin. It was a deep red in the office, and although it appeared a little cramped, it was fancy when you thought of what the ship was actually meant for - training sailors. We were shown into the room where presidents met and treaties had been signed, the long oval wooden table standing testimony to names that made decisions affecting millions... And not everybody gets a chance to have a picture with the ship's captain (unless you're on a cruise, which we were most definitely not!).

I had my first trip into the roaring heat and noise of the engine room and marveled at things that didn't make much sense, but made me thankful for anyway. We spent ages chatting with Adrian, asking him questions about the things he loved, about sailing and travelling. He seemed to love what he was doing, but he dearly loved home too. We were introduced to the man who made the luscious pasteis de nata, made broken conversation with him in French and laughed at how he was fleeced by the local taxi driver.

Adrian told us about Portugal and the Somalian pirates who still prowl the waters. How many of the attacks are never reported and how it still is perilous to be on the high seas. And long after we called it a night and left with a "Muito Obrigado", Adrian's words still rang in my head. "There are three kinds of people in the world - those who are alive, those who are dead and those who are at sea."

We salute all sailors.

Monday, July 12, 2010


A word of caution to book tickets for our ferry to Langkawi in advance was flung into the hot breeze as we enjoyed our last day in Penang.

We woke up an hour later than usual and had to contend with taking the unbeaten track to Malaysia's spectacular beach destination.

Over-stuffing ourselves with free breakfast at the BnB in Penang, we waddled our way to the ferry station, only to hear the next ride was late that evening.

So we opted for the bus and found ourselves in a rickety unit, not unlike the ones at home, sitting among locals getting to work or returning from school. But it took us from Butterworth to Alor Setar, the capital of the state of Kedah, where we waited at the shelter for a bus heading towards Kuala Perlis. An hour and a half later, the right bus rattled to a stop, picked us up and wound its way to our ferry point.

Heavy-headed from the groaning travel, we endured a 45-minute ferry ride to Pulau Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah. We spied knob-like islands in the sea as the ferry bumped along the surface of the glassy Indian Ocean and we were greeted by Langkawi's sentinel eagle which stood guard at the entry to the tourist destination .

Our taxi driver knew where to take us, and threw in a free conversation about the sights and sounds of Langkawi. A fierce Malay, the squat man with a keen foot insisted that the island was the best part of Malaysia.


This was by far the best hostel as far as value for money goes. Based on trust, you take what you want from the fridge and browse the internet only to add up your own usage and stick it on the front desk. You can cook your own meals, provided you wash up after yourself. Bang opposite the beach and sitting nestled close to brunch spots that served "No American" food, the hostel was our home for three days.

We took a walk to Pantai Cenang that first evening and couldn't stop marvelling at the wonderful blue of the picture postcard ocean. All along the sidewalk towards the beach were stalls selling anything from curios to bikinis, flower-print slippers and bags. It was tourist exploitation at its exorbitant best.

Prawns the size of my fist lay curled up on display platters beside red snapper and some of the largest kingfish I've ever seen as we walked past the numerous shacks, restaurants and pubs juxtaposed with hawkers' stalls on the sidewalk. Five minutes of haggling and we had three pairs of slippers to carry home, all at a "special price".

Another item we got at a special price was beer. At nearly half the price compared to the rest of Malaysia courtesy Langkawi's duty free status, drinking Tiger Beer was no longer a second thought. Hangovers were washed away with a large brunch of beef rendang, nasi lemak and a salty batch of crunchy chicken feet to go on the side.

Hiring our tiny car with Tielke and Anne ensured the road trip around Langkawi was full of chatter and culture quirk swaps. First stop: underwater world. Giant gouramis floated by with grotesque smiles, silent spectators behind protective glass panels to our gawping mugs. Space-age jellyfish glowing neon in the dim lights propelled themselves around their cubic world while sea-horses darted under ocean vegetation to shield themselves from the prying eyes of curious visitors.

Back into the blazing sun, the air-con was turned all the way up as the car wound its way to the cable car and bridge that would give us a glimpse of Thailand. But it was the curse of the holiday horror when we saw the signboard that read: Cable car - Under maintenance for two days. Inconvenience regretted. Bah... something had to go wrong on this trip, and we'd flown across the seas to see this. This was the sight that brought upon the split-second decision to visit Malaysia.

Cursing, we stomped our way up the stairs to the Seven Wells or Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls, where a gushing stream tumbled over stoic boulders to collect in rocky pools, overflowed into a new waterfall and new pool over and over again. At the handicrafts bazaar on the way back, knick-knacks made of bamboo, wood and coconut shells filled up empty corners in backpacks, small reminders of our visit and little gifts for friends and family.

Hungover from the beer at 8 the next morning, we dragged ourselves to Pantai Tenggah right in time to hop into the speed boat as it lifted its prow clear of the water. With wind in my hair and water everywhere else we meandered through the smattering of rainforest islands reminiscent of those flying mountains in the movie Avatar only these were in the sea, making one stop at Pregnant Lady island (it really does look like a pregnant woman lying down) and then heading on the Geopark.

I have no words to describe how absolutely awesome it is to swim in the middle of a volcanic lake. The warm water slips away into a bottomless depth, a swimming blackness that is both slightly frightening and exciting at the same time. It stretches hundreds of metres to the other shore at the base of the wall of rock that rears straight up into the sky and stops just short of eternity.

We left fellow tourists still swimming and playing in its pristine waters to walk the narrow bamboo path back to the jetty, tip-toeing past the bands of ravenous, mischievous monkeys munching stolen Snickers' bars.

Colourful fish bounced sunlight off the backs when breaking the surface at the island beach we visited on our last stop. The sea was cool and very clear, and the white hot sand made children skip into patches of shade from the trees where their parents sat on gnarled roots with the picnic bags.

We spent our last few hours in Langkawi on the shores of Pantai Tenggah, wading in the shallows under the heat of the afternoon sun before we paid our bill and said our good-byes.

The ferry would take us back to the mainland, from where we caught our "supercool" bus to spend Vikas' birthday in Kuala Lumpur.

Monday, February 22, 2010


It didn't take long to figure out that night trains between KL Sentral and Butterworth, Penang, were not very popular. There were all of nine people in our coach, five making up a group of giggly schoolgirls on a day trip to the Malaysian capital.

From 34C outside, our bodies struggled to cope with the freezing 16C in the train as it chugged along the coast, lights ablaze and air-con whirring.

I was desperate to find a tandas as soon as we got off, so had to use the ferry toilet as it crossed from the mainland to Georgetown. Bladder relieved, we picked our way to the first hotel we stayed in out of India.

Georgetown is a wonderful mix of culture - Chinese, Malays and Indians living shoulder-to-shoulder in a mass of buildings that trace the city's history as a trading base for the British and later as a waterfront commercial and financial hub.

On our first day, we just walked around the little streets, getting used to trudging in the sun as the humidity hung heavily. Georgetown rightfully holds its UNESCO World Heritage Site title, with architectural samples preserved in the colonial splendour of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, the Islamic Museum and Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (the Khoo clan-house).

Penang revolves around its food - there are stalls everywhere, sending delicious aromas of simmering duck, beef and seafood wafting up to your delighted senses. You slump down on a plastic chair at one of the many tables, thankful for the shade of the large tent just a furlong from the jetty. Now how do you pick your supper?

I have a simple formula for food. First is the price - if it's within your budget, take your pick. After that, I just point to what looks good and say "May I have that please?" Works wonders everytime.

Penang puts on a food show quite unlike anything I've seen. And this is not for the tourists. It's part of everyday life. People walk in, wave to those they know, find their flavour for the day and wash it down with Guinness and Tiger. Perfect. We were part of their lives for three days, cheering on football teams and wolfing down satays until our prawn mee, laksa or thai rice came along, and then alternating between craning our necks to watch the game and struggling with the chopsticks to gobble our food.

Later, we'd saunter down China town, stopping at the food stalls (again!) to see what was cooking, digesting what we'd already eaten and stocking up again. It was a gastronomical adventure at sickening levels. Two things I wished I'd eaten again before leaving was the peanut ball dusted in sesame seeds and the square pork snack. Awesomeness in batter.

There were strange multi-coloured momos steaming on bamboo-leaf stoves, one bite sending a blast of seafood tastes across your mouth and filling it with soft meat and subtle juices. But the fist-sized white bun stuffed with pork didn't quite catch my fancy. It tasted like someone had forgotten to salt the dough, while the stuffing had an odd kept-in-the-cupboard taste. Perhaps I'd picked one that had been in the larder for a while!


With all the food swimming in your belly, there's nothing like some good sight-seeing on foot to finish it off. Pouring sweat in the humid heat, we took in the sights and sounds - the red and gold Chinese temples, quiet Burmese ones with giant reclining Buddhas and majestic Thai spaces.

Penang Hill gives you the best view ever of Georgetown, and when the sun goes down, you find the lights twinkling across the port city and find yourself in a wonderland. It's worth braving the skewed electric train up the steepest hill you've seen. On the way back, don't forget to hope for a Chinese New Year celebration at the Kek Lok Si temple.

Lady Luck was with us that day as we joined in the celebrations with a thousand lights turned on simultaenously, the sky lighting up with fireworks at dusk with the giant Buddha looking on from a distance.

The Temple of Supreme Bliss truly puts a visitor in thrall as the Buddhas peek out from every corner of the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas - the main pagoda of the site.

They seem to follow you as you make your way across the state of Penang to Balik Pulau, guiding you to find the beauty of Malaysia. Batik cloths and open fields mark this little town as does its very own kind of laksa and the carts selling the creamy, but odd-smelling durian.

Staring out over GeorgeTown from the balcony of our cozy hotel, we sipped our last Tiger beer in Penang, watching the stars tease us into considering another night's stay.

But our time was up and we had places to go and things to do, more importantly catching the ferry to Langkawi at the crack of dawn.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 1 in KL

It was a blast of hot air and the most massive airport I've seen. Kuala Lumpur's Low Cost Carrier Terminal was expansive, steamy and clinically organised.

We took the free ride to the railway station. When you're travelling on a tight budget, you'll take anything that's free. You could tell they were palms as we landed, but up close you realise just how different they are from coconut trees. They cover the wide stretches between the airport and the city centre, filling up every space with large pokey green leaves.

My first taste of Malaysia had to be the national dish - nasi lemak. Of course we were conned into taking the 'set meal' which also included a drink that promised an immediate brain-freeze (all drinks in the country are like so). The creamy coconut rice softened the sharp spice of the tender beef rendang, while the peanuts and dried anchovies were - to me - an unexpected, but nice combination with the whole meal. I finished it off with two slices of cucumber. Can't forget the veggies!

Jonathan decided to have mee udang, and it was one of the best choices he's ever made. Prawns hiding among the noodles in a tangy hot sauce... yum. Unfortunately, Vikas kick-started his vacation with a soupy mixture that set his ass on fire, while his brain whirled trying to find out what he was eating. I could have sworn one of the bits in there was a windpipe!