Monday, June 28, 2010


I had a toothache on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, the capital of Malaysian Borneo, and by the time we landedI needed a dentist. We sped off in a cab to Dr. Roki’s clinic which was about to close for the weekend. Any thoughts of cannibals and wild jungle animals were quickly dispelled by the drab new strip malls and walled residential compounds that spread far out for miles from the old center of town. You can still find Indian spice traders and vendors of local handicrafts in the old part of town by the riverfront, but the new world has elbowed its way in, as KFC franchises and bulky new hotels along the riverside promenade attest.

The area around Carpenter Street is the most attractive part of the old town, best for exploring on foot. Old shop houses line the streets, providing shaded arcades for passing shoppers, who are buying everything from food and spices to dishes, gowns and tires. We snacked on dim sum, curried meat patties, and rich Sarawak coffee as we rambled through the neighborhood.

After exploring the downtown streets we crossed the river in a small wooden commuter boat, and found an old area of colorful wooden houses built on stilts, gardens lush with banana and palm trees, and surprised, but welcoming residents. It seems that few tourists cross to the far side of the river.

The city has enough sights to keep you busy for a few days (long enough to add a few extra meals).The Sarawak Museum has a small but excellent collection of tribal arts, featuring flamboyant carved doorways, finely woven baskets and mats and replicas of traditional houses. The Textile Museum has an collection of native textile arts, and also explains some of the culutral contexts (like weddings) for which these elaborate textiles were made. Air conditioning enhances the art in both places.

A row of colonial-era buildings facing the river is filled with shops selling local handicrafts and trinkets. Baskets, bronzes, bamboo furniture, t-shirts and key chains all glorify the indigenous tribes of Borneo. But the most beautiful handmade item I saw was the sarawak cake, a colorful, mosaic-like loaf, whose densely layered designs suggest embroidery or inlaid wood. A free sample test of the dense, sugary cake was enough for me—I just wanted to buy one and wear it.

Kuching is noted for its food, and it lived up to its reputation. Spices are everywhere: cinnamon, coriander,cardamom, anise, saffron, turmeric, ginger, cumin, nutmeg, poppyseeds and peppercorns are easily found among the myriad other exoticofferings. There isn’t a lot of street food here (ice cream served in a hamburger bun was the most unusual). Instead vendors have been gathered into hawker stalls, where we ate great local cuisine at reasonable prices. This is where you’ll find a traditional bowl of laksa, a coconut-rich noodle soup with tamarind, shrimp paste and fresh herbs, that is one of the local specialties.

While doing research for this trip, we met Annie and Nate through their great food blog. They’d just moved to Kuching a few weeks before our arrival. Annie was born in Malaysia, but for the past 15 years has lived in California, where she married Nate and had two beautiful children. They took us on a jaunt to the weekend market, a street sprawling with vendors of vegetables, meat, candies, sneakers, plants, and of course, the exotic fruits common to Borneo.

Annie knew her stuff, pointing out local produce, and haggling with the merchants in Malay (one of 5 languages she speaks). With her guidance, I had my first real taste of fresh durian, that spiky orb of forbidden fruit (it is not allowed on airplanes and some hotels and public buildings) whose pulpy pellets emit a creamy, flowery, cheesey taste unlike anything I’d eaten before. It has a short season and is highly prized by locals. When she saw them, Annie’s eyes grew wide with a delight that could only have been learned in childhood.

I had experienced the flavor of durian in ice cream and cakes in Thailand, but the real fruit is another thing altogether. I didn’t notice the strong, repellent odor I’d heard so much about, but the sensation in my mouth--taste, texture, delayed overtones of flavor—was one of the strangest culinary experiences I’ve had. I popped a thumb-sized node of durian into my mouth and felt a brief electric jolt go through my body. It was at once intoxicatingly aromatic and shockingly repugnant. The texture was a big surprise, at once familiar and completely new, very creamy, like warm fois gras, melted marshmallows, a sticky, fruity pudding quivering between pleasure and regret. I can’t wait to try it again.



Air Asia has flights all over the region. has flights between points in Malaysia.
for economic information about Malaysia

‘House of Annie’ food blog:

Malaysia travel guide


The Riverfront Hotel is in an old converted house—simple and inexpensive, good location. Look on google for information (no website at time of writing).

The Top Spot Food Court is a casual open-air place offering a vast array of fresh seafood, cooked to order.

Monday, June 14, 2010


We’d been out in the glaring sun for hours, exploring the back streets of Cairo, when we reached the remnants of the old city walls. In the shadow of the massive mud-brick fortifications an animal market was winding down. Men in desert-colored robes tended a few tired looking donkeys and horses. Cabbage leaves and bruised tomatoes lay on the ground nearby, the last traces of a morning vegetable market. Passing through a wide gap where the old gates once stood, we found ourselves in the abattoir, Cairo’s meat slaughtering district.

Dark skinned workers with blood stained aprons lifted entire cows from open trucks. Row of sheeps' heads, impaled on sharp metal spikes, decorated wooden tables laden with lamb shanks, recently shorn. Glistening strands of something white—like skeins of wool dipped in rubber--hung in clumps everywhere. Tendons? Cartilege? Intestines? I was never quite sure, but it was nothing I'd seen at the markets back home. A donkey cart passed, piled high with a cargo of fresh viscera. The sharp mid-day sun glinted off the shiny surface of the mound of organs, creating an impression they were still pulsing. Chopping blocks made from huge tree trunks, along with hundreds of knives, cleavers, scrapers and saws were on sale nearby. The sound of metal whacking against wood provided a background rhythm, its beat irregular.

Revolted but fascinated, I felt far away from the plastic wrapped beefsteaks of an American supermarket. We’d seen lots of animals in Cairo—a flock of sheep around the corner from the Nile Hilton, a few scraggly goats passing by the mosque of Ibn Tulun, a lone camel tethered near the busy Nasser metro stop. The bloody, raw images of slaughtered meat seemed a natural part of this teeming metropolis, where the line between rural village and cosmopolitan city is blurred.

Far from our hotel--totally lost in fact--we finally waved down a cab. Exhausted by our long walk and the confrontation with so many carcasses, we exchanged salaams with our driver and settled into the back seat of the taxi to relax. Suddenly a familiar voice rang out from the radio. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” It was Aretha, the Queen of Soul, in Cairo! As surprising as it was welcome, it made the ache in my legs disappear. “Whip it to me!” The voice soared higher, but reached deeper, down into the gut, the viscera, where the true meaning of the song exists. As we sped by the last of the slaughtered animals, Aretha's raw gospel sound wafted out the window, like a farewell paean. “Sock it to me, sock it to me!”
--Jim Johnston, May 2010

Aretha Franklin at Obama's inauguration
Click HERE for more Aretha

Thursday, June 3, 2010


We landed in Athens just as Greece was making international headlines for its financial debacle.
The Plaka area was filled with young, sun-glass clad Athenians sipping five-euro iced coffees--What, me worry? was all I could feel there.  A group of placard-toting protesters in Omonia square seemed tired and ready to go home.  I kept trying to find the Greek-ness in Greece. Athens sports a euro-genic facade, a blurring around the edges, a striving eastward that feels like the country's on the edge of its seat.

But the Greek salads, and the ceramics at the Archeology Museum were knockouts!  Take a look:


     We ended up in Malaysia by chance. The offer from to fly their new route from London to Kuala Lumpur for under $400 round-trip was too good to pass up.  We bought the tickets and organized our trip backwards.  The little I’d heard about Malaysia had not engaged my enthusiam, but once arrived in KL we decided to stay and check out Kuching, Penang and Melacca as well as KL.

     The population is a mix of native Malay, Chinese, Indian, and various other immigrants. In a store in Malacca owned by Pakistanis, I met the Japanese saleswoman, Mitsuko. “I live with my American husband in a neighborhood with a Muslim mosque, a Chinese temple, and an Anglican church. Everyone gets along well here.” Malaysia has an inspiring ‘we-are-the-world’ feel, a rainbow coalition, although the darkest skinned people still work most menial jobs, and gays are left in the cold due to conservative religious views and prohibitive colonial era laws.

     The country was unified in 1963, having been a checkerboard of English colonial governments for two hundred years. It’s rich in natural resources (palm oil and rubber are the main exports), and is listed as one of seventeen megadiverse countries by the UN. An economic boom in the late 20th century sent Malaysia rocketing into modernity, and now a hefty portion of it’s income is from manufacturing of domestic electronics and cars. I saw a thriving middle class in Malaysia--the shopping mania that fuels much of Southeast Asia is in full force here. There’s a spic-and-span, new-money feel to some of Malaysia, although poverty and decay are never far out of sight. There’s little in the way of ancestral ruins like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but enough new construction to suggest a boom. The shiny new buildings of Malaysia cast their shadows on bamboo huts; it feels like a culture seeking to define itself, continually working out its recipe for coexistence.


     Kuala Lumpur (or simply ‘KL’), Malaysia’s largest city (1.7 million), is a decidedly unromantic place, a hodge-podge of a town, with a handful of English colonial buildings, a moderate sized Chinatown, and a gleaming new, hi-rise business zone, to provide sufficient brochure photos to attract the tourists.

     In our hotel room, we watched soap operas in Hindi, and snacked on green pandan cakes.  Our 8th floor view encompassed schoolkids in neat blue and white uniforms, a sober Methodist church, and the Petronas Towers, KL’s signature structure, a genuine architectural marvel. It’s image put KL on the map the way the opera house did for Sidney, and the Guggenheim for Bilbao—it’s trophy architecture, today’s boar’s tooth necklace. Although in this case, the building is not raised to the arts, but to commerce. These glitzy, stainless steel phalli evoke gothic cathedrals, Hindu temples, science fiction space stations, the Chrysler Building, and a pair of corn cobs. It’s architecture that is funny, elegant, and a bit trashy—and it looks like it cost a fortune. There’s a busy food court on the 4th floor of the stunning shopping mall in Petronas Towers, which works well as a visual dictionary of local cuisine.  (Click here for a slide show of Malaysian food.)

     Public transportation is limited, and taxis are expensive in KL. I recommend taking the tourist bus, which loops around the city. You can hop on and off all day for $10.

     We took the efficient monorail to the Chow Kit market, a rare remnant of Malay village life in the heart of the city. At night, Bintang Walk is the liveliest part of town, but it has a dreary sleeze factor. On the nearby street Jalan Alor, however, the night food market was in full swing--the food we had here was the best in KL. 


     If you’re traveling with AirAsia, you may end up in KL, their hub city. Malacca makes a more pleasant stop than KL if you’re traveling through, but bus service from the airport is erratic—check at the information desk. You can take a taxi (about $60 each way) or go to KL central station and change to Malacca bus (cheaper but longer) if the direct bus to Malacca is not running.


We stayed at the Ancasa Hotel which was comfortable and near to Chinatown.

I kept looking for a more desirable neighborhood, but didn’t really find one. 

Two more that I saw that looked like possibilities for the next time are:

The best food was on Jalan Alor, mentioned above. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


An article in The New York Times reports new efforts on the part of the tourism industry to court gay travelers.

The website IndjaPink has more information: