Sunday, 16 March 2014


March 17, 2014


 The Same Yet Totally Different   

(Warning: Due to increasing bouts of inertia, the following post was written (and only half-finished) quite some time ago; but for continuity and documentation purposes, I now post. Stay tuned for more recent news….)

We’ve now been here in Malaysia for more than seven months; it seems unfathomable that more than ½ of the total time we’ve planned to be here has already passed.  Before we left on our adventure, people cautioned that a year would go by quickly, and I instinctively knew they were likely right because the slowness of time that defines childhood has long been extinguished for me, and life in general seems to recklessly speed by.   So now, to no surprise, but of great consequence to me, much time has passed, so much has been experienced, and so many thoughts have been had, yet much to say has been left unrecorded because I’ve not written anything down in so long.  Crap.  Where to begin.

I guess I’ll start in the here and now.  Lately, I’ve been thinking (and worrying) a lot about why I’m not writing much about our experiences here.  I mean, holy shit, you’d think there’s something to say here, right?   How often does an east coast, suburban, Jewish family, with their feet firmly planted in a wonderful life, decide for no apparent reason, to uproot and fling themselves clear across to the other side of the world to a Muslim country that literally has not a single Jewish resident?  Don’t I owe it to my family – to my children and their children -- to record our journey, to track our growth, to affix the memories of our experiences to paper?  To write our story so the sights seen, the people met, the wonders marveled at, the aromas smelled, the lessons learned, and the epiphanies experienced are all permanently inscribed in our Family History? Fuck.  I wonder if Tolstoy set out to write the “Greatest Epic Story Ever Written”?*

THAT, and I’ve discovered that I’ve settled into and am experiencing a phenomenon often borne by expats here – mostly women – that, in a burst of rash hokey-ness I’ve just decided to call “Malaise -ia”.  Which is just another way of describing that point in time when the newness and excitement of living in a foreign country wears off; you now know your way around, know how to get places, where to shop, you’ve acclimated the kids, routinized your lives, etc.…  So basically, you wake up one day to shockingly realize that you’ve moved 9.5 thousand miles and across many time zones to live in an artificial expat bubble, where daily life really isn’t all that different from where you’ve moved from, except that your family, closest friends, and all your stuff isn’t here and you are not working and there’s just so much tennis and yoga and shopping in malls you can do, and coffee you can drink with friends.   So, that’s not so interesting to write about.

But, thankfully that’s really NOT the whole story.  Yes, day-to-day life here is weirdly similar to our daily lives in the U.S.  The kids go to school, do their homework, play with friends; Ethan puts on a tie and goes to work (me, not so much); we make sure the kids do homework and clean their rooms, mediate their arguments, run a household, socialize with friends – in other words, we live.  Kind of “normally” by our standards.   We did not sign on to the Peace Corps; we did not choose to live in a village in the jungle in a mud hut and home school our kids. But, we can go there if we want to, and although, truthfully, we’ve all gotten “used to” life here and the basic principles are the same – here in Malaysia, life does come wrapped in a whole different tortilla (or, actually, roti channai). 

That new “wrapping” is the point of our time here all; it is the gift we are giving to ourselves and our children. Changing the part that you see on the outside that holds all the stuff on the inside together can transform the flavor of the sandwich to allow you to enjoy and appreciate it in a whole different way.  So, we may go to a waterpark that looks like one you’d find in the U.S., but here, the majority of women are wearing “burkinis” (yes – what they are actually called) and you stand in line next to Iraqi diplomats and their kids.  We may go to Sunday brunch, but here, we eat curry laksa and mee goreng with chopsticks or spoons, while sitting at sticky plastic tables and using toilet paper for napkins.  We may socialize with friends and neighbors, but here, friends aren’t run-of-the-mill doctors, lawyers or bankers, they are disaster relief chiefs from the International Red Cross, oil company execs spending weeks at a time off-shore on drilling rigs, or arms and technology dealers for governments.  The kids may still plead to go out for dinner, but here, instead of walking on down to Arturo’s for the best pizza on the planet, we head off to Kanna Curry House to eat mutton curry (not I) and rice, plopped in heaps on a waxed paper banana leaf.  We may go away for a long weekend, but here, we take spur-of-the-moment trips to Melaka, the caves at Ipoh, or hike through the jungle to a waterfall.  This is the new normal.

But points are often sharp.  Close your eyes and imagine everything you do is the same, but completely different.  Not just the same things in a different place with different people like if you’d moved to Florida, but the same things in a whole, new way.  It is a strange feeling.   Imagine going food shopping and having absolutely no idea about the identity of half of the products or from what they are made.  Imagine having to choose between rubbing toxic chemicals on your children’s skin every day and not, but taking the very real risk that they’ll be bitten by a mosquito carrying dengue fever, or worse.  Imagine having anxiety about taking your pre-adolescent kids to one of the abundant, very beautiful, modern malls lined familiarly with The Gap, H&M, Forever 21, and Borders, and, doing so only after instructing them fervently and repeatedly to never walk behind you or wander out of eye-shot, and to hold onto you at all times in a crowd, because children are regularly kidnapped from under the noses of their parents.  Imagine having to explain this after a lifetime of teaching your children to inhale life, and to be kind, compassionate, adventurous, helpful, friendly and non-judgmental.  Imagine being a passionate environmentalist, yet choosing to purchase scores of 10 liter plastic jugs of water every month because you do not trust the government to have adequate water purification standards – even with a filter.  And then, imagine being sickened by the thought of throwing away the pounds of plastic containers even our earth-loving selves use, yet taking those water jugs and the rest of the plastic accumulated by our little family, to the only “recycling facility” within miles of where we live, only to find that it is overflowing with the same trash that was overflowing the week prior, and the one prior to that. 

And then for a moment (sometimes two or three) I wonder why we are here? What actually IS the point?  Why did we do this? And the answer is the very same as the complaint.  Because the experience is eye-opening.  Because life here is different.  And it is the same.  That juxtaposition of daily life is subtle and so difficult to understand – perhaps inconceivable-- unless you live it.  There is a broader world out there where people and circumstances are so rudimentarily different, and yet so much the same.  Yet we generally have no context within which to understand this.  Well, we are gaining context.  Our children are gaining context, so when we talk about how truly blessed they are to have the opportunities they do, and how they are beholden to a very precious responsibility to offer their contributions to the repairing the world -- they’ll get it.  Hopefully, they’ll live it throughout their lives because it is tangible now.  They’ve visited poor orphanages, they’ve had to wear masks so they don’t breathe in the air where we live, they’ve experienced water rationing, they’ve met children who must work to support their families, they’ve befriended the children of our “enemies”. 

And we’ve seen beauty, experienced friendships, found patience, learned resilience and gained insights in ways we never could have possibly done in our comfortable lives back home.  And THAT after all, is the very sharp and penetrating, point.

So, until next time (which very well may be after we arrive home) ….







*Note to self:  OMG! It’s just a friggin’ blog post – chill the F#*%K out!








Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Water Park, by Jem

I was in Ipo and my family went to the water park called the lost world of tam bun.  When you go in you get sprayed with water.  My favorite part is the water slides. number 1 is the best. it is completely dark you cannot see a thing.  then comes number 3,2,4. i also like the wave pool. its a pool that has lots of big waves. thares a slide that you go up and down. i like that one. there is a amusement park to!!! i like going on the viking ship. thare is also the swing ride its o.k..

The Caves, by Jem

My family was in Ipo and we went to the caves. In the caves we went for a hike then we slid down marble.  We went in a ditch ... and BAM! We were in the water.  I was splashing around then we had to duck under stalagtits.  And then we came to a part where we had to go on our bellys under the stalagtits and we cept on doing that over and over till we got to a part were we were jumping over stalagmites. then FINALLY we got to a calm part where we played around and got wet.  We were walking in a river back to our car.  But just before we got to the car someone named Nicole asked us to stand on a bridge so she could take a photo.  When we got back home I played on my I-touch.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Rumble in the Jungle



Taman Negara (simply, “National Forest” in Bahasa Malay), smack dab in the middle of the Malaysian peninsula and only about 3 super-highway hours from the smogfest that is Kuala Lumpur, is one of the oldest remaining rainforests in the world, estimated to be about 130 MILLION years old.  Dinosaurs roamed its floor and munched on leaves from its canopy.  It is incredibly beautiful, pure, alive, and if you ignore the raised wooden hiking trails (and at certain times of day, the throngs of tour groups) that wend their way through the most-populated portions of the park, you can feel what it was probably like to be alone with the ancient, natural earth and its original inhabitants.   It FEELS old.

We decided to check it out during the four-day Hari Raya break, with the Pohl-Garibaldi’s and Gramma Louise, who is our first visitor in Malaysia.  We didn’t stay in the actual park because there is only one place to do so (which, of course is by FAR, the cleanest, nicest digs around), and it was fully booked when we planned our trip.  But, the tiny launch-of-a-town called Kuala Tahan, which lies on the banks of the other side of the muddy Tembeling River, faces the entrance to the park and is made for backpackers and other adventurers who are either closed out of, or can’t spring for, the “fancy shmancy” Mutiara Taman Resort inside the park.  Just a one-minute, one ringgit, motorized, wooden longboat ride away, the jungle awaits.  Perfect.  

Along with the Pohl-Garibaldi’s and the inimitable, “undauntable”, cool-as-all-get-out, Gramma Louise, we were 9 people, and finding a place to accommodate all of us was a bit tricky.  We were *lucky* to find the, um …. lovely? (nope), comfortable? (nope), clean? (nope, nope, nope), at least it keeps you dry in monsoon season? (yup, that’s it), Holiday View Inn.  Addie said it is “good enough”. 

Ahhhh, the smell of latrine in the morning.  Reminiscent of the travels of my youth, except with a husband, children, a mother-in-law, leech socks and quick-dry, insect-repellant, UPF sun-protected, light-weight, convertible pants in tow -- Welcome to the NEW free-spirit! 

We adventured by day, and returned to the “inn” to enjoy on the porch, our self-made Holiday rum/Kickapoo Joy Juice cocktails by night. We swatted mosquitos, marveled at the grown-man-hand sized moths flitting about, and with one or two careless strides too close to the “protective” barrier, accidentally knocked potted plants off the steep cliff abutting the porch, and into the jungle.  All the while, the kids rehearsed in the rooms, and then performed with theatrical acumen, acrobatic feats – or whined with exhaustion and then passed out, snug in their “clean–enough” beds.  Heaven-on-earth.

We arrived on Thursday afternoon, and after very quickly dumping our bags at the Holiday View, walked to the heart of Kuala Tahan to see what was what.  The “town” is a very small collection of ramshackle buildings with shops to book tours, eat, and to buy supplies and t-shirts, with the nicest building being, oddly and thankfully, the public restroom, which sits aside a small, colored concrete and tile rotunda, for shade.  This area is built atop a stepped embankment that protects the town when the river rises during monsoon season.  If you walk a few feet beyond the rotunda you look upon a view that, for the kids, was a sight straight out of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom. 

In the foreground, the “famous” floating restaurants -- tin-roofed, large, wooden, rectangular rafts moored in all four corners to the rocky river bed by thick rope, on which sits lines of wooden tables and plastic chairs -- bob in the currents of the muddy, flowing, Tembeling River.  Covered (or not) wooden longboats with outboard motors are docked on the shore or, with a helmsman and rudder-man each, ferrying backpackers across or up the river.  Cats with bobbed tails are everywhere.  Our side of the river was brown.  Brown river, brown rocks, brown dirt road.  The far horizon of the river divided brown from green. Rich, lush, verdant, variegated green.  Taman Negara.

Living in Malaysia, I’d gotten used to being in a constant state of slime, but being here was something special.  It was HOT.  So, that first afternoon we hopped on a boat, went across the river, and took a short hike on raised wooden walkways to a swimming hole.  We peeled out of our long pants and long sleeves, and melted right into the water.  I didn’t even care that the water was a thick, chocolately brown ‘cause it was cooooooool.  There were about 20 or so other tourists of varying nationalities when we arrived, but we stayed until everyone left and had the river to ourselves.  Letting the coolness of the water seep into our bones for what seemed like hours, we skipped rocks, painted our faces orange and grey, and floated on our backs letting the current carry us downstream so we could run back up to do it all over again, until the mosquitos and other small, weird insects got the better of us.

We made our way back across the river to Kuala Tahan looking for some eats.  Unfortunately, in what became the sub-theme of each day of our vacation, food was scarce.  We didn’t realize that because it was Hari Raya (i.e., the 3-day celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and the most important, most-observed holiday in this officially Muslim country) everything was CLOSED; it’s like Christmas or New Years day -- but for three days-- when people are off work and at home with their families; food is plentiful, except if you want to buy it. 

We managed to scrounge some food at the outermost floating restaurant. The only available food was a vat of unidentifiable mix (gratefully, vegetarian) and rice, set out for the clueless, hapless backpackers like us, who’d eat anything and pay almost anything for it.  Price gauging in the middle of the jungle – who’da thought.  Thankfully, over the next couple of days additional restaurants started to open and we had some delicious meals of Kuey Teow and other noodle and curry dishes.  Nonetheless, during our stay in Kuala Tahan, my kids ate way too many packaged “food” items with ingredients like “maximum permitted amount of artificial fat substance”.

Despite the lack of proper nourishment, the oppressive heat and the dizzying, putrid smell of our accommodations, we had a glorious next few days.  We hiked, climbed, floated, jumped, dove, balanced, squatted, looked, watched, touched, ate, drove, swam, relaxed, swung, basked, sweat, marveled, learned, drank, listened, played, felt, and explored.  Each day started with a languorous boat ride up or down the winding Temebeling, which bushwacked its way through the wild millions of years ago.  Moving slowly up the river, getting to wherever we were headed for the day was, for me, the best part of being here.  I liked to lie back, look up and watch the canopy float by overhead and sometimes feel the long, wispy, spider-legged vines brush across my arms as I dragged my fingers through the cool water.  I loved watching my children watch the jungle.  What were they seeing when they looked through the forest?  How did the awesomeness of what they saw leave its imprint onto their still-malleable minds?  What impressions would be permanent and how would it all factor into who they will someday become? 

And then, “Mom, can I download ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ when we get back?”, yanked me right back to reality.

Anyhoo, we hiked to the famed Lata Berkoh falls, an area with several adjacent swimming holes with rushing rapids and whirlpools, where we cannon-balled off the cliffs and let the falls pound our heads and shoulders until we couldn’t see straight (heh heh, LOVED that).  We walked across a multi-part canopy rope bridge (yup, just like in Raiders), which was certainly not for the faint-hearted.  At the top of the canopy, a narrow plank of wood suspends from “walls” of rope that swing back and forth with every step.  We went on a night safari in a 4X4 and saw several wild leopard cats, a colorful kingfisher, and some kind of Malaysian fox that looked an awful lot like an even bigger “cat” to me.  Just the bumpy ride sitting on the back of a pick-up, roaming though the palm-oil plantations in the pitch black of night, with billions of stars in the sky was enough of a thrill for me.  Which is a good thing, because most of the time we bumped and rolled in the back of the truck while the guide ceaselessly flitted his tiny, but powerful high-beam through the dark wood with nothing but the moon and stars to see.  And then, just when we were lulled into thinking that our hopes of catching a glimpse of a “wild” animal was nothing but a tease, and the kids all fell asleep – so, just as we were finally quiet -- two tiny, bright reflective, yellow points of light blinked in the near distance.  And then once again, and again, and again.  That, was exciting!

We also “visited” an Orang Asli (the indigenous people in the area) village, which was really quite sad.  The government, thankfully, allows them to live in the park and keep their chosen way of life, but most tribes can’t make it without supplemental income because their resources are dying out.  So, in order to survive, they showcase themselves like circus sideshow performers, to hoardes of annoying tourists, who snap photos of mothers nursing babies, and give candy to children who have no dentist to treat their cavities.  Enough said about what I think about that.

All in all, it was a pretty spectacular trip.  We were filthy and smelly and tired and hot.  Our clothes probably could’ve walked home on their own.  But, when we took a vote as to what was the highlight of the trip, we couldn’t all agree.  Gramma said it was the night safari; Jem said it was riding down the rapids on the river and getting soaking wet; Addie said it was swimming in the river in the pouring rain in the middle of the jungle; Ethan really didn’t give an answer (not a surprise) but I think he loved diving off the cliff most of all; and I loved the daily, peaceful rides on the river. 

At the risk of a weak, sappy conclusion to this post, I must say that there was a consensus amongst the Wiener's and the Pohl-Garibaldi's about one thing --- that Taman Negara is a very special place, and that we are all very, very lucky!











Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Well, here we are ......


It's hard to know where to begin. I have so much to say about what I think about this place, but it's not what I thought I'd want to say about living halfway around the world, in an "exotic"  southeast asian country.  Let me set the stage:  When I imagined sweeping our family off to a totally different life, I'd prepared for culture shock. The thrill and the discomfort of being someplace so totally different and foreign, a place where only with great interest and effort we'd get the rhythm of the life and finally become a part of it.  I'd anticipated needing to guide my family so that we would integrate with the Malaysian people -- do what they do, shop where they shop, participate in their activities, learn their language, eat their food -- so that eventually, "theirs" would become "ours".  I pictured my children barefoot and dirty, chasing a "football" around a colonial town square -- their tawny, happy faces pin-balling around the green with twenty other dirty-footed, happy, brown-skinned children.  And mostly, regardless of whether my fantasy was accurate or not, I'd anticipated that I'd WANT us to become a part of Malaysian life.  Whatever it turned out to be.  Because what Ethan and I wanted most, what we talked about in those "are we really going to do this?", "is this totally crazy?" moments, was filling our children with wonder.  I wanted to be filled with wonder -- that elusive, intoxicating, magnificent, most euphoric of feelings, that occurs far too infrequently in most of our lives.  That's the gift that Ethan and I wanted to give to Addie and Jem.  The wonder of the beautiful people who were as curious about us as we of them. The wonder of a different kind of a life, a life to which we'd have to adapt.  I'd prepared for getting my kids comfortable with being the oddity in a curious place.

Oh, the romantic notions of the mis-informed (or the hallucinatory).  Did I think I was living in the 19th century? Or even the 20th for that matter.  Yes. Of course my fantasies were based on my 20th century memories of a twenty-five year old adventurous, lusty, wonderfully irresponsible, escapist.

The reality:  Malls.  Traffic.  Too much air conditioning.  Adapting to living in a townhouse in a gated, guarded, well-kept, manicured, sanitized, sterile, xenophobic, BORING, community.   Where EVERYBODY stays indoors all day, every day.  KL is the "Land of the Shopping Mall".  Malls here, malls there, miles and miles of malls everywhere.  I read a "put your ad here" sign in a mall the other other day that said, "Studies prove that when asked what you did over the weekend, 71% of Malaysians say they went to the mall".  What?!

For the first week or so, I'd secretly hyperventilate thinking we'd made a huge mistake, and actually made a long, circuitous flight to end up in some planned, over-65 community in central N.J. -- kind of like an awake version of one of those panic dreams where, at the end of the semester you realize you had signed up for the 18th century literature class but never attended, and the paper is due in 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, our new home, both in terms of our actual living quarters as well as location, falls a bit short.  But we are making do.  It's modern and extremely spacious (we've got TONS of space, so please visit!!) -- but cavernous would be a more apt description, not due to the size, but the light level.  There's a dark coating on all of the windows, I presume to keep it cool, but it fails at that and only keeps out all sunlight.  I've tied back the heavy draperies, raised all of the window coverings, but we still need every light on midday.  We can't open the windows because there are no screens, and trust me -- you do not want to let the bugs in! So, we've adapted as I'd fantasized, and when indoors we too, have too much air-conditioning.  There's a pool a few steps from our door, with nary a soul in't.  There's the "Waterfront" shopping plaza, a quick "Clinton Avenue to Maplewood Avenue" walk away, empty during the day but nightly filled nobody who will even look our way.  As if this is an adequate explanation, most expats in our community are Chinese, who seem to want absolutely nothing to do with Americans -- or anyone non-chinese.  Quite a shock for one with an "asian fetish" (the term coined for me by my dear, dear, dear Taiwanese friend, Janice since I'm very frequently the only white girl in the room, surrounded by my family or my Maplewood "besties", who are Japanese, Indian, Filipino, Afghani, and of course, Taiwanese).  What's the deal?

Anyway, there's luckily a bright side to all of this.  Ethan's work colleagues are a fantastic group!  Warm, smart, funny, intelligent.  Whew!  We all went to Redang last week, a beautiful, peaceful, lazy, white-sand beach, calm, turquoise-watered isle in the South China Sea, for a "work" retreat.  Man, was that great! We walked around barefoot, read, lazed in hammocks, spent entire days in the water, snorkeling or just playing.  We ate well, bonded with some great people.  Wonderful.

Back here in KL, though, my personal saviour is Mary Pohl, the other nut who lustily agreed to shlep her family to the other side of the globe for a taste of adventure.  We've spent our days together, discovering the "real" KL with our children (her's are Violet, 7 1/2 and Tyler 5 1/2), while our husbands toil.  We are figuring out this insane system of roads together, where danger lurks around every one of the absurd numbers of curves and offshoots, and merging lanes.  She navigates and I drive (on the "wrong side of the road), with motorbikes perilously weaving in and out of the lines of cars.  It's truly frightening -- but driving is an entire blog entry unto itself.  I'll save it for another time.  Mary and I have taken the kids to the asian markets, where we all try all sorts of new, strange culinary delights of every different color and consistency you can imagine, visit parks and aviaries, and the original, colonial parts of KL to learn of its history.  And swim.  And go to malls.  The kids all get along great.  Mary and I get along great.  We call it Camp "WienerPohl" and we keep busy.

E and I also took the kids to the Batu Caves, which are fascinating in their natural state, but even more so because they were made into Hindu temples.  We took a great tour into the "Dark Cave"'s recesses and gingerly avoided all the guano, and experienced "absolute" darkness.  It was beautiful.  The monkey's were the hit of the day, though.  Especially after I noticed a sign that said "Monkey Food" at the entrance to the cave grounds, and figured it'd be fun for the kids to feed the monkeys, if there actually turned out to be any around that day.  Turns out, Monkey Food is a bunch of bananas.  Made sense to me.  Although, (perhaps it was my imagination, I thought) the woman from whom I purchased the "Monkey Food" (who also happened to be selling sweet pakoras, which happen to made with bananas), seemed to be holding back a devilish, little grin as I paid her.  Anyway, she plopped a bunch in a plastic bag, handed it over, and we proceeded through the gate to the entrance to the cave.  Before I even got my back leg over the boundary to the cave grounds, or finished exclaiming "Holy Buddah!" as I gazed up at the 10 story golden statue in front of me, I was assaulted by a big, hairy monster that collided with my chest, grabbed my shoulders and thighs, screeched in my face, and grabbed my bag of Monkey Food.  As I recovered and regained my faculties, I look up to see my kids and husband rolling on the ground, unable to catch their respective, giggling breath, and the King Monkey sitting two feet away from me, daring me or any other monkey to mess with his catch-of-the-day.

I think that's enough for now.  I've had a lot to say since I've neglected to really write before now.  I'll try to be better about keeping y' all up-to-date.   Also -- for those insomniacs, or just all of you who miss us, we have Vonage, so if you call our regular, Maplewood phone number it will reach us here in KL, no cost to either party.  Just like a local call!!  So be mindful of the 12-hour time difference, and be in touch!!  And comment on here, which is another way to be in touch.  For the kids too.  We miss you all!

Pictures soon ---- just gotta go now ......

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Istanbul hello, and goodbye.


Istanbul was a whirlwind.  After the never-ending plane ride, we slept.  Afterwards, we saw the Blue Mosque, and then slept, went to the Grand Bazaar, and then slept some more, went to the Aya Sofia, and slept once again, went for a ride up the Bosphorous, disembarked in a cute little town with a lot of cats and birds, and then slept even more.  We also ate the delicious turkish cuisine, bought a few trinkets, ate some turkish delight, and learned a turkish word or two.  It was a great introduction to the East for the kids, and the city is beautiful and the people so friendly. Of course, we had our moments in the throes of ridiculous jet-lag (despite all the sleeping and major doses of melatonin), but, all in all, they were troopers, if not also a bit "non-enthralled".  Here we are in this foreign place, with different smells, sounds, architecture, people, food.  A whole different kind of hustle and bustle than anything they've ever seen, and the times either one of them was most engaged in what was happening around them,   was any moment they spotted one of the MILLIONS of stray cats slinking around the city.  At least there were millions ......  Next stop KL, Malaysia.