Sunday, May 31, 2015

I learn how to anyam

Weaving thatched roofing
This was one of those things that just well, happened. The moment I stood on Malaysian soil again I had this overflowing restlessness within me to do something, anything. I guess that's just one of the many traits of an unschooler, being in a dormant state of not continuously learning makes me rather fidgety and it also makes me say yes to any activity that happens to stumble upon my path.

And one of them was following Fai, that's the 11 year old brother of mine, to his bushcraft classes conducted weekly in Gombak by the orang asli

The finished woven thatched roofing made out of bertam leaves

We did our fair share of starting fires with the bow drill technique, cooking hill rice wrapped in large leaves and stuffed into bamboo stalk filled with water over the fire we had just made, learning how to swing a machete or parang properly, identifying edible ferns and mushrooms or that specific leaf to wrap around a wound to stop it from bleeding excessively or the correct trees and listening (Or at least straining to do so with the embarrassingly minimal knowledge I have.) to the orang asli ramble on about the history this particular village had with the British that had brought tribes from all over Malaysia together or how much the rain forest means to them and how they want everyone to hopefully experience the beauty of it before it ebbs away.

  But I was absolutely hooked on weaving the thatched roofs out of bertam leaves, I guess I just have a tendency to be that little teeny bit more interested in anything that falls into the arts & craft category even if it's not very artistic at all since it's just remembering the steps to that same repetitive pattern over and over again.  

At the following bushcraft session I was passed a bertam leaf to weave as an evaluation test if I could proceed to learn slightly more advanced weaving techniques with the orangasli mothers and the week after I found myself sitting on the front porch of the weaver's house with a bundle of dried mengkuang leaves.

Overly excited Karen learning basic anyaman

And that's how weaving traditional Semai craft made it's way into my weekly routine. I'd leave home at nine in the morning to head to Gombak and have the best roti canai and limau ais ever for breakfast at the kedai next door then head down the steep mismatched steps to the weaver's house to immerse myself in a day of non-stop back breaking weaving. I really am amazed at how these women can spend hours bending over the mat they're weaving without any discomfort whatsoever, the wooden wall of her porch is undeniably my best friend after the first two hours. Now I'm just slightly concerned about the physical state I'll be in within the next twenty years or so.

The weaver's daughter in the background

Weaving would be such a dull activity (No, it wouldn't) if it weren't for the weaver's daughter who finds this Chinese Kakak who's learning how to weave with her Mom incredibly fascinating. During the first session she'd run her fingers through my hair and comment on how panjang it is and when I replied with a 'no, I'm not married'  to her 'Kakak sudah kahwin?' question she made the most hilarious game over sound after staring at me with huge confused 5 year old eyes. Then she mumbled something about how it might be a little too late for me to scout for a suami now and trailed off with a tsk tsk kesianye.

Tucking the ends in using a porcupine's quill

Starting off was definitely a challenge since it was a lot more complicated than weaving with large bertam leaves and it took a good few hours before I could see the pattern in anything, it looked like nothing more than a mess of intertwined mengkuang leaves and the mid section was all I could do during the first lesson since the starting, corners and ends formed a never ending stream of question marks in my head.

Luckily I had a wonderfully patient teacher that didn't mind demonstrating techniques multiple times and after another lesson or two I could make bookmarks, bracelets, mats and small bags! 

Cutting thorns off a fresh mengkuang leaf

Last week instead of a full day of weaving I had the opportunity to learn how to prepare the mengkuang leaves that were growing right behind the weaver's house for weaving and I had it in mind that it was a tedious process but as I went through it step by step it had made me realize that the bundle of mengkuang leaves that were already prepared for me at the start of every lesson probably took a day to make, and that's excluding soaking it over night or dyeing.

How to prepare mengkuang leaves for weaving:

                                      1. Harvest leaves from the shrubs and remove all 
                                      thorns from the sides and middle part of the leaf with 
                                      a sharp knife

                                      2. Remove moisture from the leaf by gently pulling it 
                                      through a small fire, you'll see the leaf turn into a darker
                                      green once the moisture is removed.  

                                       3. Soften the leaf the moment it's off the fire by running it 
                                       between your thumb and index finger, might result in
                                       slightly burnt fingers. 

                                       4. Remove the central vein of the leaf and cut into thinner 
                                       strips with a sharp knife.

                                       5. Bundle the leaves together and soak it overnight.

                                       6. Air dry leaves and soak it once again in batik dye 
                                       overnight. Unfortunately natural dyes aren't used.

                                       7. Air dry leaves till fully dry. 

It's been immensely fascinating learning one of the dying traditional crafts of Malaysia and to be able to spend time with such humble yet generous people. Thank you for guiding me on this journey and opening my eyes to the unseen beauty of the lands, people and culture of Malaysia.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

6 Everyday Ecuadorian things through the eyes of a Malaysian

Photo credits:

One of the main reasons why I adore travelling is simply that particular moment when I step out of the airport knowing that there's going to be a whole new undiscovered chunk of land waiting for me to explore, to meet it's people, to listen to it's stories and to experience such an incredibly different way of life. 

As an exchange student living in Quito, Ecuador for eight months through a youth exchange program, I was given the opportunity to do just that. Now that I've experienced what it was like to immerse myself entirely in a foreign country (I lived with two Ecuadorian host families and attended a small local school.), travelling just isn't simply visiting the overly crowded tourist attractions anymore because sitting under an overly large rainbow coloured umbrella and chattering away with three elderly indigenous women that sell home-grown potatoes at morning market in a small town for a living is just that much more inspiring. What could possibly beat heading home later that day with heart warming stories of how satisfied they are with their simple yet meaningful lives, a few new Quechua words to add to the list and a bag of their best produced they insisted you take home without charge.

During the beginning of my exchange I kept an ever growing list of things that were a little different from what I was used to back home in Malaysia in a small flimsy notebook, and being in a completely new country almost everything that was around me seemed to have made it's way onto that list but over time they had gotten so normal that I rarely took note of it anymore. Just earlier this week I had to create a thirty minute long (It ended up lasting for a little over an hour.) presentation about my exchange experience in Ecuador which reminded me about that notebook I have buried between stacks of souvenirs that I still hadn't unpacked despite being home for a month.       

Leafing through that notebook left me in fits of laughter as I recalled how bewildered I was when I had first seen or experienced those things, so I thought it would be a fairly good idea to share these amongst fellow Malaysians that may or may not be thinking of visiting the small equatorial country, Ecuador.

1. Being Malaysian I absolutely love my food, I mean what's there not to like? We cook up the most mouthwatering dishes around which we devour around the clock, you know the usual thosai, maggi goreng and teh tarik for breakfast, kway teow th'ng for brunch, the storm mother goose cooked up for lunch, nasi goreng kampung for tea, another home cooked meal for dinner and roti canai for supper and the feeling of utter satisfaction afterwards is nothing less than perfection. Okay maybe not all Malaysians are greedy enough to consume six meals a day and that's just me, oh what a glutton I am. 

On the other hand you pretty much stick to the three main meals per day principal in Ecuador and it was pretty shocking observing how my host parents and siblings head out the door after a slice of toast with mozzarella cheese and a small cup of coffee or warm milk. The heaviest meal of the day is lunch and we usually start off with soup, then rice, stewed beans, steak and salad and followed by some sort of dessert. And dinner is almost always a bowl of soup that usually has diced cheese, stir fried corn kernels and popcorn added to it or sometimes nothing at all, it really felt as though they were on some meticulous diet.  

Unfortunately I never grew used to it and during most weekends when I didn't have to be up at 6 am for school I'd spend a few extra minutes in the kitchen making myself a hearty bowl of mun yee mee, fruits from the basket in the kitchen would vanish in no time since I was snacking constantly and I usually had to prepare something extra for dinner.

Cheese was so readily available in the kitchen, I spent the first two months binging on cheese like there was no tomorrow since cheese in Malaysia is worth it's weight in gold (No, not really but still.) and too much of a good thing obviously had a negative effect, on the third month I didn't even want to look at that pale yellow diary block and lots of odd stares were received when I requested to have my sandwich without cheese and definitely no chunks of melted cheese in my soup, please.

Also the salt shaker had a permanent spot on the dining table, the rule of thumb probably is "No matter how salty the dish is, it clearly needs more salt.". 

Overall, Ecuadorian food isn't as wacky as you'd envision it to be. I did try cuy (Roasted guinea pig) once though and it's delicious.

2. This is the view I had of the Tungurahua volcano when I was visiting the busy town of Ambato which is famous for it's delicious freshly baked bread, and the local produce of fruit and flowers. This is kind of your typical everyday landscape in the Ecuadorian highlands, at every direction you turn your head to there's just another mountain or volcano which I found fascinating when I drove back to my first host family's house for the first time from the airport. On most clear days I had the perfect view of the snow topped Cotopaxi volcano from my bedroom window.

According to the locals I've spoken to, hopefully they're of a reliable source, they claim constructing buildings over a certain height is prohibited by the government simply because it might interfere with the view both locals and tourists would have of the rolling mountains and numerous volcanoes. 

The view of the night lights of Quito and the sun setting over the mountains was and still is one of those things that has never failed to take my breath away. It's one of those moments where your mind is focused on nothing else but it's beauty and you just walk a little slower, feeling your hair dance to the rhythm of the gentle evening breeze and appreciating the fact that you're actually in Ecuador.

3. Yep, these are the 10-15 ft walls that surrounded the house I lived in for a couple of months with my wonderful second host family and yes, that's an electrical fence on top of those walls that has got a built in alarm system. There were also security cameras on every wall, recording every nook and cranny of the house. I had read about the high walls that surrounded a large majority of the houses in Ecuador but seeing them standing right before me was something else. 

During my exchange I took buses around town daily and walked alone countless times, and those walls were a constant reminder of just how the danger of living in a South American country is pretty darn real and that I should be downright thankful that all I had lost was my wallet (Containing my entire monthly allowance!) during a long jam packed bus ride to the north of Quito.

Photo credits:

4. Women's jeans in Ecuador have no back pockets! Unless of course you shop for a pair in a posh store at Quicentro. 

And most don't have front pockets as well now that I think of it, just fake front pockets if you're lucky. I did a good amount of my necessary clothes shopping on the bustling streets of Quito like any low to average income local since it was more affordable as they were probably manufactured locally (Or imported directly from a Chinese factory.) and when in Rome do as the Romans do, so before long I'd like to think I dressed similarly to your average Ecuadorian female. Think a decent amount of make up, sweater or a jacket over a dressy top, ahem pocketless jeans and leather boots. And maybe a scarf.

One of the little things that I've been missing about living Quito is it's perfect cool, dry weather as it entitles you with the freedom to dress up in layers (Something I have always longed to do because you'll end up with outfits that look more put together, in my opinion at least.) and brush a little more make up on your face since it doesn't slide off your face in 0.5 seconds like it does with the sticky, humid Malaysian climate.

If only I could adorn myself with my Ecuadorian leather jacket again but that's just not happening, like that phase I went through when I was fourteen and wanted to be a bohemian style fashion blogger and then snapping back to reality realizing I can't afford to buy all the pieces to create the outfits I had so perfectly envisioned. What an upsetting day that was.  

Photo credits:

5. I'll never forget how astonished I was when I was driving around the valley, I lived in Valle de Los Chillos, sometime during my first week of exchange with my host mom and we pulled over by the traffic lights and suddenly there was just a stampede of energetic backpackers juggling swords and twirling ribbons hoping to earn a little more to be able to continue their adventures, weary indigenous women with babies strapped to their backs selling everything from hammocks to newspapers to avocados and little kids equipped with a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee yelling at the top of their lungs if anyone would like their cleaned. I never would have thought stopping by traffic lights could be quite so entertaining, and this happens at almost all traffic lights, it's just not something that you'd be able to miss.

Bus rides are much more fun too with the occasional duo armed with their guitars and melodic voices or that old lady that carries a basket filled with individually packed chifles, chulpi, mani and other goodies but my favourite bus rides have to be those long distance ones where the bus passes through the tiniest villages and the busiest cities and at every stop vendors would board the bus with that specific food or snack that they're known for. It's like taking a foodie trip around the town without even having to leave your seat. 

And now I'm craving some creamy helados de salcedo. Mmm. Just a little note, Salcedo is quaint town located in the Cotopaxi province (They're called provinces instead of states in Ecuador.) that's famous for it's creamy, fruity handmade ice cream and whenever I travelled around the highlands I'd always look forward to that stop for obvious reasons.

 6. Milk and yoghurt are sold in plastic bags instead of cartons and bottles which was definitely something I had never seen before, the closest thing we have to those here in Malaysia are probably shampoo or soap refills and they even have these special jugs that contain these bags so all you've got to do is snip off a corner and voila! Pretty clever huh.

Oh Ecuador, it's been interesting getting to know you.

Un abrazo!

Friday, May 15, 2015

10 Things you'd experience as an exchange student in Ecuador

Here's to Momma goose who has been continuously not so subtly prodding me to start blogging again, I love you.

Hola ol' blank blog composing page and to everyone who's reading this, I'M HOME! I'm just going to start off where I had abandoned the whole blogging scene almost a year ago when I wrote about my pre-exchange nerves, which all seem so foreign now since I've been back in Malaysia for a little over a month now and instead of dealing with pre-exchange nerves I'm now struck with post-exchange syndrome. That's definitely a proper medical term.

It's as though you're experiencing a second exchange, life with your real family (During my exchange it was near impossible to refer to my family as simply "my family" when you've got at least two host families. After time even your subconscious labels them "real family", "host family #1" and "host family #2". So yeah, that's stuck now) seems almost foreign and daily routines aren't normal anymore but slightly odd. 

And left your average white 15 ft high fortress picket fence family with three kids and a dog to return to my slightly unsettled (We now spend half our week residing in our apartment in the highlands and the other half at our beach house), weird and proud family who unschools their six kids. I can assure you that it was an extremely drastic change.

It's fascinating how living in a routine of complete normality, by normality I mean living with a normal family and actually sitting down in a classroom with teachers that drones on and on with a painfully monotonous voice (Okay, I'll have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed chemistry.) from 8 am - 2 pm from Monday to Friday with a class of eighteen Ecuadorian teens that blast reggaeton through portable speakers box during recess, just living the average Ecuadorian teenager's life. Okay, schooled in Ecuador vs being unschooled post needs to be written. As I was saying it does fascinate me how those meagre eight months away from home made me capable of viewing the life I have here from a more or less complete outsider's point of view. I left Malaysia last year as a sixteen year old unschooler who was driven by caking and art and came home as a seventeen year old Ecuadorian schoolgirl who wanted to book another plane ticket the moment she step foot in the Malaysian airport because there are just so many places see and new people to meet. 

Yes, it was a complete waste of luggage space to bring my caking toolbox and art supplies along since finding ingredients to make gum paste was impossible and art is a pretty solitary activity recreational activity which wasn't my highest priority since I was in a new country with a completely foreign language to hopefully become fluent in, locals to befriend, places to be astonished by and wacky cultures to absorb.     

The last month of mine was spent painstakingly trying to merge these two sides of the same person together, despite the Father's advice about leaving who I was back in Ecuador behind and being my somewhat pre-exchange self again. 

I'd like to think that I've gotten my old habits back and made room for a few new ones, I feel that my happy music would remain reggaeton for the foreseeable future, El perdon by Nicky Jam por siempre. It's been hilarious attempting to switch from Spanish back to Malay and Chinese, I have come to believe that the section of my brain that controls the second language I speak has become undeniably faulty. 

So here's a pretty list of incidences:

  1. I bumped into a middle aged Malay woman when I stepped into the lift of the KLIA airport and said "Perdon, estas bien?"
  2. My Dad dropped me off to buy a loaf of bread and after handing the cashier a RM5 bill he said "Adakah dua puluh lima sen?" (Do you have twenty five cents?) and I replied with "No, yo no tengo vienticinco centavos, solo tengo diez." (No, I don't have twenty five cents, I only have ten.). His face of utter confusion was hilarious.
  3. Those countless times when I had realized mid word that I'm using the wrong language "Hol- err hi!" or "Graci- no wait, terima kasih!".
  4. Since I've forgotten a large chunk of my Malay vocabulary, and it wasn't even that impressive before, I now insert Spanish words in place of the Malay words I had forgotten and speak extremely fast hoping no one would catch it. I might just have a foreign accent or something ya know. How did I ever think this was a good idea.
  5. Then there was the day right after I had gotten back home and went to the local mamak stall for breakfast and ordered "Una agua sejuk y maggi goreng".  

Anyway I'm a caking fanatic once again, my nights are spent leafing through my slightly dusty collection of baking and cake decorating books, during my exchange I had taken an immense liking towards tiramisu and cheesecakes (I used to dislike them with a passion.) and earlier this week I stumbled across a recipe for the perfectly delectable baked cheesecake. Score. 

Also Cake Challenge Malaysia 2015 is coming up, and the excitement is slowly rising because how could I possibly not be ecstatic about investing long hours cooped up in my cake room and creating the most extravagant wedding cake these hands are capable of? And I've finally gotten myself an account on pinterest, on the first night I was literally up till 4am scrolling through magnificently inspiring baroque art pieces that could be turned into sugar goodies. I'm feeling very much like middle aged woman who has just gotten introduced to the magical powers of the internet.

 My wanderlust prayers were answered too, I was accepted into this ahem, "exclusive" (They probably just wanted to make us all feel special and loved. Hoorah.) sustainability camp in Langkawi I'll be flying off sometime next week and since it was more affordable to fly a day before and a few days after, I'm readying myself for more solo adventures. 

Okay, I'll save the current adventures for another time and it's truly amazing to be back home but without further adieu, here's my response to the ten things I had envisioned to experience during my exchange.   

1. Sometimes your host family's house doesn't have an address and getting yourself home can be tricky.

Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to visit a nameless street, both my host families had a nice green signboard nailed on the wall of the first house on the street though I did happen to be in numerous cabs who's drivers had no idea whatsoever where the house was so I definitely learnt how to direct them to my host family's place quick.

2. You wouldn't understand a single word uttered in class no matter how many years you've              been studying the Spanish language. 

When I arrived in Ecuador I had only been familiar with the language for about two months and I was confident that I'd be able to converse with the people around me, I mean I did pass every level in the DuoLingo app, I didn't go through all that memorizing for nothing right? 
The moment I landed in Ecuador that confidence I had prior to my exchange vanished completely, I could understand every other word and being able to tell my host sister's boyfriend "yo tengo tres hermanos menores, yo soy la mayor." was such a massive accomplishment that I went to bed that night with a grin plastered on my face. And it was pretty much the same situation once school started a week after, needless to say there was a lot of dozing off and writing endless diary entries during the first two months.

3. There's going to be a language camp in a 5 star resort in Mompiche, where you're apparently going to speak more English than Spanish. Also Germans make up half the exchange students and the Taiwanese are the only Asian exchange students, not that it matters.

There were a total of exactly five asians, including myself in Ecuador (The other Taiwanese exchange student lived by the coast and the language camp was separated into two groups, those that live in the highlands and those by the coast.) and there were around maybe.. Fifty Germans, at every meet up there was a definite 100% chance that you'll be hearing the German language. 

Language camp was an incredible experience in a stunning resort with a free flow of food, it was the first time that I had ever met such a huge bunch of exchange students and I don't believe much Spanish was learnt at all despite the three Spanish classes we had scheduled daily. 

4. Concerts are realllly affordable. 

Well, we had James Blunt in Quito in March and KISS shortly afterwards but I'm not fans of either of them in any way and $50 is just way too much for an exchange student with a monthly allowance of $80 so concerts are definitely out of the question.

5. Ecuadoreans throw parties every weekend.

Oh this one is as true as it gets, if you like partying South America is the place for you. A house isn't a house unless it's equip with 4 ft tall floorstanding speakers that blast reggaeton so loud even your heart dances perreo and lots and lots of zhumir. And that photo above was taken in an open air party bus during Halloween where I cross dressed, what a beautiful first Halloween experience. 

6. You're probably going to be a Latino dance expert by the end of your exchange. 

No, not really. I'm still as awkward of a dancer as I always was, I enjoy dancing, always have but the sight of me dancing probably looks like a disorientated giraffe flailing it's limbs all over the place. 

I did however attend zumba classes twice a week and it was the absolute best.

7. Football is a thing. Duh.


8. Anything that isn't manufactured or grown locally is priced sky high. (Side note: I may return  draped in llama wool, topped a woven straw hat and requesting for cuy.)

Clothes in general was unreasonably expensive due to the taxes the government places on imported apparel, alpaca wool sweaters and straw hats weren't any cheaper since they are kept at tourist price. But who needs new tshirts anyway when you can wear the same six tshirts under that new Ecuadorian leather jacket you had bought for only $25? 
Oh and fret not if you want to shop on a budget, there are some pretty chevere thrift stores in Quito.

9. Don't expect high speed wifi and the connection has got some major mood swings.

I guess this is one of the perks of living in the capital where it's slightly more developed, so the connection you've got to the internet is great, just as long as you're at the specific spot right above the stairs, sitting on the chequered couch.

10. Sometimes there's no hot water to shower with.

See that tank of gas right there? That's what's supplying you with hot water and somehow electrical heaters aren't all that popular in Ecuador so every time you step into the shower knowing that it's been some time since the tank has last been refilled there's always that feeling of dread that you'd be in the midst of getting the suds out and poof, you're left with freezing cold water while showering on a chilly night. Again.