Nina and Collin Explore Malaysia: A Break from Solo Travel

One of the hardest things on the Watson has been balancing immersion in place with relationships from home.

The original Watson fellows, striking out fifty years ago, often travelled by ocean-going ships and sent news to family only through delayed letters. Communication today could not be more different: my messaging apps barely fit on one screen of my phone! I intentionally limit contact, because I've found that loneliness kicks me out of my comfort zone and inspires me to make friends with the people around me. Luckily, my friends and family back home forgive me for being out of touch.

But, as I said above, it's a balance. I don't want to cut off from the world entirely, because my relationships at home matter immensely. Those people are my past and my future. They've been there for me through difficult times, and I want to be there for them now -- even if we'll be talking over a crackly Facebook connection instead of sharing a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

While I've been travelling, my boyfriend Collin has been marketing for a public television station and surviving the incompatible-with-life-temperatures of a Minnesota winter. Over the past eight months,  we've learned how to not only maintain our relationship but allow it to grow and change over distance. For one, we figured out how to stop interrupting each other by accident, despite five-second delays in phone calls!

At the end of February, Collin and I converged in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (I was coming from Bali, and he from Subzero Hell... I mean, Minnesota.) Our main activity: eating. Here's a photo album of our adventures, featuring just a little wildlife disease and a whole lot of street food, plus some stories from my journal.

Our first stop was Perhentian Kecil, pronounced "per-hen-tee-AHN keh-CHEEL" and meaning "small stop." This island and its larger cousin, Perhentian Besar, were frequent stopping places for trading vessels off the northeast coast of Malaysia.

Collin models the hillside Alunan Resort, where I was delighted to get a half-price, early-bird rate. (We arrived at the tail end of the monsoon season, when the island is closed down for bad weather.) 

Mama Mia.

Today we trekked through the jungle to Coral Bay and Long Beach, tourist villages that are just starting to open up after monsoon season. We found an outdoor restaurant-theater showing Mama Mia at 7 pm. Not only did we sing along to "Money, money, money!" and "Dancing queen" with a crowd of (Dutch?) tourists who'd appeared out of the small island's woodwork, but it was also the first time I tried roti canai (pronounced ROH-tee cha-NAY). We didn't know what it was. "What's this? Is it good?" I asked our nervous waiter. He couldn't answer the first question, but to the second, he gave a vigorous affirmative. He was right! The hot, doughy, greasy, Indian bread with a small dish of orange curry became a staple of our diet.

A beachy Pandanus, the same genus of still-rooted "screw pines" I fell in love with in Madagascar.

Plantain squirrel, Callosciurus notatus. They're considered as boring here as a eastern gray squirrels in Seattle, but the I find them beautiful. Notice that white and black stripe over a rusty-red belly!

Look, a pretty beach.

We found a flip-flop on the beach, but instead of picking it up as litter, we threw it back in the ocean. Why?

It was home to a big ol' family of goose-necked barnacles!

A rock, an ocean, and a boy.

Big lizards.

Great, fat monitor lizards would startle from their sunning patches along the concrete jungle trails that led to the Fisherman's Village (to the left) or Coral Bay (to the right). Once active, they ignored us and rooted around in the leaf litter -- for eggs to eat?

Asian water monitor, Varanus salvator

Fishing birds.

When we first pulled up to Alunan Resort, I noticed one of these sooty-blue birds fishing intently from a buoy. I asked the captain what kind of bird it was, and he told us, "A Fishing Bird!" I loved that description because it meant more than simply knowing a name. The man had noticed the bird's patient work and respected it as a fellow fisher. Collin and I adopted the term Fishing Bird for all the heron we met from then on.

Fishing bird, or Pacific reef heron, Egretta sacra.

A jumping spider hopping around on the bed.

An acrobatic intruder.

On our second night, we heard a couple fighting at the next-door cabin. A man was locked out, banging on the door and yelling things like, "What are you thinking?" and "You're crazy!" A woman screamed back from inside. We tried to tune it out. Then! I heard a clanging on our wall. It was dark, but through the curtain, I saw the silhouette of a man creeping past our window -- ten feet above the ground! He was shimmying along an iron rail bolted to the outside wall. I called Collin over and told him what I'd seen. At this point, I was very glad not to be alone. Nothing makes you afraid of the dark like strange men climbing the walls. A few minutes later, the man crossed back. He must have been trying to break into out neighbor's cabin through the roof deck. Next time you think your vacation is going badly... just be glad you haven't hit the level of attempting an acrobatic break-in!

Walking up the mountainside staircase to our bungalow.

Our next stop was Penang, an island off the northwest coast known as the street-food capital of Southeast Asia.

Didn't get enough MSG in your soup? Not to worry. You can buy 300 grams of pure monosodium glutamate at the grocery store!

Oops! It took us a while to remember to take a photo of our food before we ate it.

Ais kacang (pronounced ICE kah-CHANG), a mysteriously popular dessert of shaved ice with a rainbow of syrups and toppings.

Cendol (pronounced CHEN-dole), an even more popular mixture of shaved ice, coconut milk, green jelly worms, canned corn, and red beans.

By pure luck we arrived in Penang, the heart of Chinese-Malaysia, for the final days of Chinese New Year. Red lanterns decorated the streets.

A very Georgetown scene: new construction behind a preserved historic facade, dotted with red lanterns and sprouting an unlikely tree.

Stoked on samosas! These delicious Indian snacks are triangles of crispy dough stuffed with spicy potatoes. And the best part: each one costs 60 Ringgit cents, or 15 cents in American money!

The heat and humidity were too much for Collin's floppy hair, so a new haircut was one of his first souvenirs.

If you buy dried fruit, expect sour and salty, not sweet. It's pickled!

Penang is famous for its official street art, but my favorite was this grafiti bunny hopping into its hole. Where'd he go?
We celebrated the final day of Chinese New Year at a massive music festival on the Georgetown Esplanade.

Forty thousand people showed up for the lanterns, dances, and fireworks.

And don't forget the food! This tent specialized in deep-fried oddities. Collin and I purchased the last squid-on-a-stick (pictured in the foreground). The server quickly removed the stick, chopped the squid into chunks using hefty shears, and dumped it into a greasy paper bag along with shakes of red and white spices. It was a challenge to finish the whole mollusc, but we did it!

A breakfast favorite: Chinese wanton soup with squiggly yellow noodles, boiled bok choy, flavorful broth, and bit of barbeque pork if you're lucky.

Penang Hill.

One of the best things about travelling with someone else is that I don't have to do all the planning. Collin decided we should walk up Penang Hill, a forested high-point on the island where British colonists built their mansions to escape the tropical heat. SO STEEP. My calves were sore for days. The road was five kilometers of switchbacks. We saw the 0.1 kilometer-marker in disbelief, already sweaty and exhausted. After two hours of dragging ourselves up the hill, we reached a kind of Disneyland. Tourists swarmed with selfie sticks among balloon shops and silly photo booths. How did they all get here?! Apparently, there is a slow and expensive (yet popular) tram that takes tourists up the other side of the hill. We were baffled, but glad we'd made the trek on foot.

We stopped to catch our breath every 0.1 kilometers up the infernal hill. Here, Collin investigates the geology of the retaining wall. The switch-backs were so tight, and the grade so steep, that landslides were almost as abundant as the walls meants to hold the land back.

My, what big eyes you have! (I wonder who took a bite of the lower right wing?)

An intact but eye-spot-less butterfly.

Green snake.

We found a thin, green, road-killed snake on Penang Hill. I asked a passing construction worker if he knew the name of the snake. "Speak Bangla, sapa! Speak English?" he asked. I told him the word in English was "snake." We each practiced the sound of the new words: sapa, snake. I'd been expecting a specific name in Malay, and instead I learned the word for snake in Bangla! You never know what will happen when you ask a simple question. Sapa written in the Bangla alphabet looks like this: সাপ. Wow.

Green vine snake, Ahaetulla nasuta.

Beware of snapping trees?

But really, beware of thieving monkeys! This is a long-tailed macaque, Macaca fasicularis, a species that adapts smashingly to cities, temples, and garbage dumps.

A panoramic view of Georgetown from Penang Hill, the goal of our climb. Tall white skyscrapers dot the city, giving the impression of density, but we suspected that many condominiums were vacation homes owned by foreigners. The Malaysian government encourages expats to settle through its "Malaysia My Second Home" program.

Can you believe it: these sundaes are made of plastic! Giant shaved-ice and ice-cream bowls are a speacilty at the top of Penang Hill.

We ordered a real one, and it looked just like the plastic version. Shaved ice, chocolate syrup, chocolate ice cream, sliced mango, and boba on top for good measure.

At the bottom of Penang Hill was the botanical garden. These giant, rim-edged pads looked strangely similar to the Victorian water lilies that I'd swum with in Brazil's Pantanal. Indeed, the sign confirmed my suspicion. They are introduced here as a pond ornamental. How globalized is the world!

The next day, our calves were tight and aching, but we ended up on another hill climb. This time, we crossed the virgin rainforest of Taman Negara Pulau Pinang, or Penang Island National Park.

Collin was excited to reach Tasik Meromiktik, or Meromictic Lake, a strange hydrologic phenomenon where a lake retains stable layers of freshwater (above) and saltwater (below). Apparently there are only 19 meromictic lakes in the world.

Once we saw the lake, we were dubious. A wide, open channel connects the lake to the ocean, and saltwater rushes in with every wave. Looked more like a tidal lagoon to us!

Mango lassi.

Teh C Peng Special, or Three-Layer Tea: palm sugar, condensed milk, a red tea. Stir til its sweet!


First morning in Penang, we walked toward the Indian cart for roti canai and Milo, a ubiquitous hot-chocolate marketed by Nestle as health food. From there we just followed our stomachs for the rest of the week. Char kway teow -- flat, squishy noodles. Cendol and ais kacang, also known as ABC. Teh O -- black tea with no gula (sugar) or susu (milk). Mango lassi in a plastic bag with a straw. Mie (noodles) and nasi (rice). Fried oyster omelet. And our winner-winner-chicken-dinner, nasi kandarWe got to try twice as many foods by splitting everything. I am a huge fan of eating-with, as compared to eating alone!

On our last day in Penang, we tried the much-acclaimed local dish, nasi kandar. It's a fusion of Indian and Malaysian curry, where every sauce is spooned over a pile of white rice with whatever meat you choose. We agreed that this was our favorite food of the trip.

Our third stop was Melaka, a city with Portuguese colonial roots, to visit our friend Marra Clay. Check out her super blog, Vagabond Viewfinder, where she writes about her year as an English-teaching Fulbright.

We continued our trend of eating with a three-hour, all-you-can-eat, Korean hot-pot lunch. 

Succulents for sale on the streets of Melaka.

Collin explores the ruins of a colonial church.

Marra demonstrates how this tiny gecko could easily fit in her mouth.

I love finding my old obsessions in new places. Did you know I committed years of my childhood to a passion for Volkswagen beetles?

Green beetle-butt street art = perfection.

I kept my eye out for arthropod-vectored disease, and I noticed this public service announcement about avoiding mosquito bites to prevent zika. This sign made sense, but the next one...

Along the river, I encountered another sign about mosquito-borne disease... but this sign was explaining that "HIV tidak berjangkit melalut gigitan nyamuk," meaning, "HIV is not contagious by mosquito bites." I wonder why that is such an important announcement? Maybe it's an indirect way to allude to the fact that HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, in an Islamic country with strict standards of public decency? Or a campaign to reduce the stigma and fear of HIV-positive individuals?

A semi-abandoned community perched among the mangroves of Melaka River.

I wish I could be a fern like you!

Kuala Lumpur and, to a lesser extent, Melaka are cities swallowed by malls. Sooner or later, you end up lost in the escalator mazes and air-conditioned halls of a mega-mall. I found this furniture store selling green velvet armchairs and fake plastic succulents, and I wanted to move in!

The Strait of Malacca, a narrow passage between peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been one of the world's most important shipping lanes throughout history. 

Two confusing bus-rides later, Collin and I found ourselves back in the tropical metropolis of Kuala Lumpur, home to seven million humans.

The flashing billboards and zooming trains made us feel like we were in Times Square... not that either of us has been to New York City...

Among the shopping jungles, I stumbled across a store for Watsons!

Pavilion Mall's basement food court was legendary, for a mall, but it couldn't compare to the streets of Penang. Collin tried to make a duck face with the roasted ducks.

A green tea cream puff, anyone?

How about molten chocolate cake?

We finished our trip with a walk through Perdana Botanical Gardens in KL. The deer park was eerily empty, and the sign alluded to trouble with wildlife disease.

Soon we were overwhelmed by the smell of rabbit urine, and we discovered 15 rabbits on the verge of death. Their ears were crusted with fungus, their noses raw, their eyes swollen shut, and their fur matted with ungroomed moisture. In all my years of rabbit 4-H, I've never encountered disease like this. A couple days later, I reported the rabbits to my friend EeLynn Wong, who volunteers with the Malaysian SPCA. A government veterinarian immediately removed the rabbits for treatment or, if needed, euthanasia. Turns out, botanical gardens are best for keeping plants, not rabbits!

It's not hard to keep plants healthy here! A great old street-tree harbors its own jungle of epiphytes in the city.

Mosques and skyscrapers, a KL view.

Finally, proof that we were in the same place at the same time! Here we are on the rooftop of Aloft, a tower near the transit hub, KL Sentral Stesen.

Looking out over KL.

The Watson is a year for immersion and independence. Transitioning away from that, and back into it, made me anxious, but the chance to travel-with (as opposed to travelling solo) was worth it all. Once Collin returned home, it took me a few days to feel comfortable with solo travel again. The city felt strangely alive, a bit scary, and full of ghosts.

Whenever I pass a restaurant where Collin and I ate or a train we rode, memories jump out to make me feel lonely, but for the most part, the ghosts are friendly.