Perception

What is your perception of Saudi Arabia? (assuming you have never visited)

I’m sure there are certain images or preconceived notions which naturally bubble to the forefront of your mind. Where did your perception come from? Media? Friends?

Perception of a particular culture almost never turns out to true when one finally comes in contact with that culture. It’s been true in every country where I have spent a significant amount of time.

I remember when I first moved to Vietnam, I had all kinds of images in my head: Vietnam War, communism, oppressive heat and rain, etc… All of the stereotypes one by one came crashing to the ground once I arrived in the country, started talking to the people, and started learning for myself what the Vietnamese culture was all about. (I’m not going to go into the details of how my perceptions were wrong except to note that the coldest Christmas I have ever spent was in Vietnam, huddled under the thickest quilt I have ever seen in my life, shivering cold at a level I have never experienced again.)

It happened again (losing my perception, that is) when I moved to Malaysia.

Well, this week I moved to Saudi Arabia and guess what? Yes. The walls come crashing down.

I had a lot of strange and astonished looks when I told friends and family that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, which means to me that everyone had certain images of what to expect. Here a few items I’ve experienced this past week that just felt different from what I had anticipated:

Food. What terrific western food! Now, Malaysia is a food paradise for it’s blend of various cuisines, but, honestly, they’re western food was seriously lacking. Not here, I’ve been to incredible, immaculately decorated restaurants which serve terrific western dishes whether pasta, fish, burgers, mexican or whatever. I’m sitting in these places thinking “where am I?” The answer is Saudi Arabia.

Space. Jeddah is a sprawling metropolis which alternates between sandy open lots and immaculate malls and gigantic modern complexes. I was standing in a parking lot after dinner the other night and I commented to a friend that anyone standing here could have mistaken this place for any modern plaza in North America. I again was wondering where I was. The answer was the same.

Add in the spectacular views and promenades of the “Corniche” along the Red Sea with the terrific service everywhere and the wonderful friendly smiles of the Saudi people and I’m in the position to have a lot of my perceptions blown out of the water.

And that’s a good thing.

The next time you go some place, check your perceptions at the door and arrive with the attitude of a learner. You’ll be surprised. And while your at it, whatever you think of another’s culture right now, you very well may be dreadfully wrong. And that’s a great thing to discover.

 

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Visiting Arlington Makes One Remember

Arlington National Cemetery is a solemn and sobering place. There are many picturesque sites, and I spent the morning yesterday wandering around on a terrifically sunny and blue-sky-day to enjoy the scenery. Enjoy, perhaps, isn’t the correct word. One can enjoy a walk in the sun, but how does one enjoy a walk through a cemetery like Arlington. So many thoughts, both past and present. So much gravitas.

Think about the number of prayers represented by the thousands of graves neatly aligned throughout the rolling hillside. How many women stood with their aprons on, washing dishing, looking out their kitchen windows, trying to get a mental glimpse of husbands and sons, neighbors and cousins, who were fighting over there. How many sleepless nights, how many wiped tears, how many mental breakdowns are represented by each of those white stone markers? The fortitude needed to carry-on on the homefront is represented well here. The amount is tremendous.

Most of the gravesites in Arlington are the same. This is a terrible injustice, not the commemoration, though, that is done well. It’s only an injustice because there simply was no tangible way to make the young men and women who sacrificed their lives or gave their time a monument to show their differences. You cannot clad a personality on a gravestone. Not in Arlington. And so in death, they rest peacefully in uniformity, and that is perhaps how they would most like it, buried with their comrades, shoulder to shoulder, bound together with a common purpose, a mutual goal, an understanding of what must take place to preserve the country back home they hold so dear.

Your sacrifices are not forgotten. This cemetery stands as a national remembrance of what it is that we collectively stand for. Each white-washed stone adds to the chorus of the past which pleads with us today to not forget the battles fought, the lessons learned, the courage expended, the freedom preserved. Each one beseeches the powers that be and the people on main street to look past what divides us and remember the heart of Arlington which unites us all. The commonality must be stronger than the division or we as a nation will waft in whatever prevailing political wind happens to be in town across the Potomac. We’ll be left adrift without a moral compass to guide us and not a soul to pity us.

Goodbye, Malaysia. A Memoir in Food Photos

I’m leaving Malaysia for good after eleven wonderful years living in Penang. Though there are people and customs and culture and other things I’ll miss about Malaysia, I thought my Goodbye Post should highlight some of the food items I ate in my last week. I will miss all of this tremendously.

Imagine the fragrance and flavor as you look at these beauties:

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Beef Rendang – Indonesian, coconuty, Amazing!

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Nyonya – Roti Babi – fried pork sandwich. Yum. Oh, and some greens.

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Nyonya Pork Rendang. So different from the beef, but equally delicious.

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Sambal Goreng – so unique, prawn, coconut, eggplant, sambal

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Thai Long Bean & Pork – tremendous curry sauce on it

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Indian! The best butter chicken masala with garlic butter naan.

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Dry Curry Mee Noodles. Oh. My. Goodness.

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Manchurian Califlower – fried, spicy, crunchy

The terrible thing about these photos (besides I’m not going to be able to eat these foods daily) is that it truly only scratches the surface of Malaysian fare. It’s diverse, flavorful, and dare I some, some of the best food in the world.

Goodbye Penang. Goodbye Malaysia.

 

Visiting Malacca or Melaka

I recently took what might be my last trip to Malacca. I’ve visited there eight times (I think), and I’ve enjoyed it each time. It’s a great place to take in some history, learn about the Portuguese, Dutch, British and how they elbowed their way into the spice trade. They’ve done a fantastic job developing the river area in the old section, plus you get to visit the vibrant and fun Jonker Street. Here’s a few shots from my trip. Yes, I bought some gula Melaka.

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Malacca River. Great for night time walks or a river cruise.

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Dutch built church in Dutch square. You can attend a service on Sunday morning.

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Here’s my crazy students touring the replica Portuguese ship.

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Up close.

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The tomb of famous Malay folk legend Hang Jebat.

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A typical Malacca building.

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From the rooftop of Hangout Hotel. Jonker Street in full mode.

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St. Paul’s church, built by the Portuguese in 1511. This is a statue of St. Francis Xavier, who was interred her for a time.

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Inside St. Paul’s.

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Malacca city from St. Paul’s hill. The lone standing gate of the old fort, Afamosa, is in the foreground.

Beautiful Views from Back Home in Pennsylvania

I’ve shared many posts about the beautiful island of Penang where I currently live. And many have been announcing its accolades over the past few years because of its cultural heritage and terrific food.

Well, now I stumbled across a BBC article about an often overlooked million acres of outdoor ideal-ness called the Allegheny forest in north western Pennsylvania. I can attest to how special this area is. The article talks about route 62 from Warren to Franklin, PA, which I have driven dozens of times in my life, as being one of the most scenic routes in the eastern United States. I have to agree. The route hugs the Allegheny river most of the time and weaves through charming towns and beautiful country valleys.

About 15 years ago, I drove two of my Vietnamese friends through the forest, heading to Warren on a summer’s evening. We counted, if I recall correctly, 24 deer and numerous other small animal sightings during the one hour trip through the forest. They were amazed. I was amazed I didn’t have an accident.

I remember the family trips we took to Titusville to see Drake’s well, the first commercial oil well in the world. I remember walking the trails in Cook’s Forest, and standing on the dam at Kinzua.

If you like the outdoors, hiking, camping, exploring land which has changed little since the time of America’s founding, you should really spend some time in the Allegheny Forest.

Here’s the original article. Check out the beautiful BBC: The US One Million Acre Secret

 

Another Article Extolling Georgetown, Penang – My Home

Another article extolling something great about my home for the last 9 years – Penang, Malaysia. More specifically – Georgetown – the main city on the small island. This article now claims that Georgetown is the new hipster destination. Read the Wanderluxe article here.

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April 2015 – photo by sassevn

Penang is a special and unique spot. The culture – a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian – has created an amazing array of some of the best food on the planet and some of the more unique street scenes in Southeast Asia.

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Gurney Drive view of the port in Butterworth across the strait. photo sassevn

Penang heritage is second to none. Home to one of the two prominent Straits Settlements in the Strait of Malacca, Georgetown is full of unique and beautiful buildings, currently stocked with cozy cafes and delicious dives.

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A Colonial Era British Building – photo by sassevn

Over the last couple of years, Penang has been voted one of the top places to retire in the world. It has been granted the status of best Asian street food.

It’s a beautiful, inexpensive, tropical island with some of the world’s best food. What more do you want!

It’s my writer’s oasis.

Come give us a visit!

 

I want a restaurant which does what I can’t

I live in Asia. Penang, Malaysia to be precise. My tropical, island home is blessed with some of the best Asian food in the planet. The street food is cheap and plentiful and simply amazing. I’m learning to replicate some of the dishes at home, but still they real-deal is always better. No matter how many times I make the Thai padprik chicken in my own kitchen, it still isn’t as good as the one my Thai lady at the food stalls whips up in about a minute over a steaming hot wok.

Western food in Penang is another thing altogether. The best western food in Penang is at my house. If you want real pizza, come on over. Real American food, I’ll whip it up for you. Mexican – oh yes, I’ll have your taste-buds tantalizing. The western restaurants which try to replicate the western flavors fall severely short.

I had a friend who would never buy in a restaurant that which he could make better at home. That makes a lot of sense.

So that’s my new creed – I want a restaurant which does what I can’t.

I met one the other day called Kebaya of the Seven Terraces boutique hotel in Georgetown. I’ll have to do a proper review of the place sometime soon since I just went there for the first time. But I walked away not just impressed, floored really. The flavors, quality, presentation, and service were impeccable. Truly some of the best food I have ever eaten in my life.

But the one dish that got me thinking about this post was their special of the day: smoked beef in red curry. I know how to make beef. I know how to grill a good steak. But one bite of the beef and I knew that they had secrets which I didn’t know. The smoky charcoal flavor permeated every fiber of that beef, unlike any I have ever tasted. Coupled with the phenomenal red curry sauce, it was a dish that could have made me weep if I weren’t so happy.

Those geniuses in the kitchen know a bunch of royal secrets which made my experience truly something to be treasured.

And that’s why I like the local hawker Asian food as well. They have their know-how, methods, and ingredients which make their flavors and experience unique.

This is what a restaurant experience should be like. Hey cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs, make me something that I can’t make at home, and then you’ll surely have me as a longtime customer.

Kudos to Kebaya. The best restaurant in Penang.