Monday, May 30, 2011

Unordered set

Herewith some more random notes and photos from the trip we’re still on. Maybe some day I’ll gather up these travel posts and sort the notes chronologically (not on a blog and not particularly for publication, as I don’t fancy myself a travel writer by any means), but for now I make no such promise. If you are a newcomer to this blog, you should know that it is usually devoted to topics of at least tangential professional interest, but for the duration of the round-the-world trip my wife and I are taking, I am using this space as a travel journal for my own benefit. Feel free to ignore this space until after June 10 or so.

Public art
Taking a shortcut across a park in Fremantle (near Perth) to get to a brewpub on the beach, we walked past the sort of statue of a local historical figure that you might see in any park in the world. But we noticed that it bore two bronze plaques, one above the other, and stopped long enough to snap these two photos.

The upper plaque reads in part as follows:
This monument was erected by C. J. Brockman as a fellow bush wanderer’s tribute to the memories of Panter, Harding and Goldwyer, earliest explorers after Grey and Gregory, of this terra incognita, attacked at night by treacherous natives, were murdered at Boola Boola near Le Grange Bay on the 13th November 1864, also as an appreciative token of remembrance of Maitland Brown, one of the pioneer pastoralists and premier politicians of this State, intrepid leader of the government search as punitive party.
The lower plaque, apparently added later, reads in part as follows:
This plaque was erected by people who found the monument before you offensive. The monument describes the events at La Grange from one perspective only: the viewpoint of the white ‘settlers.’ No mention is made of the right of aboriginal people to defend their land or of the history of provocation which led to the explorers’ deaths. The ‘punitive party’ mentioned here ended in the deaths of somewhere around twenty aboriginal people. The whites were well armed and equipped and none of their party was killed or wounded. This plaque is in memory of the aboriginal people killed at La Grange. It also commemorates all other aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country.
In googling for more information on the incident, I came across this recent essay by a local student.

When in Bangkok…
I have not ventured far into Thai cooking at home. We have so many Thai restaurants in New Haven, some of them quite good, that I’ve limited my home versions to the few things I can fake with help from Trader Joe’s. But Bangkok has a number of cooking schools for foreign tourists, and I had a morning to myself, so I took a class from the Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy. This being the off-season, I was the only student last Thursday. I met my instructor, as directed, at the…

…and we walked through the nearby wet market, where he told me what many of the unfamiliar ingredients were, so that I could recognize them in the Asian markets at home. A good start. (In the wet market, as in the one we visited in Beijing, meats were sold from unrefrigerated displays, although fish were at least on ice. The Thai health ministry doesn’t have a problem with this, so I don’t either.)

We walked from the market, where we bought the items on the day’s shopping list, some for my class, some for the afternoon class, to the home where the classes are held. The prep area was a mat on the living room floor. For the first hour I knelt (I’ve never been able to sit cross-legged, even when I was little). After that, I retired to a couch and a small prep table was provided so I could work sitting.

Closely following instructions, I made the dishes in the picture. Clockwise from the left: stir-fry of snow peas, straw mushrooms, and chicken (not a challenge, but I picked up some pointers); stir-fried water morning-glories (pad pak bung fai daeng); pumpkin custard (dessert); papaya salad (som tum); and (in the center) pork and tomato chili dip (nam prik ong).

Coffee in Thailand
Throughout this trip I have been whining about the difficulty of finding coffee I like. There has been plenty of expensive coffee that other people like, so I know I’m in a distinct minority. Nonetheless, I’ve resented spending more than I think it’s worth for coffee I don’t particularly enjoy. I had promised to drink green tea instead, but so far I’ve only done that occasionally. I did find that one great coffee place in Perth, as previously noted. Coffee in Singapore and Malaysia was uneven, but I found some that was drinkable.

And then we got to Bangkok. The first opportunity to drink coffee as we were whisked around on our VIP tour was in a gift shop that sells only goods made or grown in Thailand. That included the coffee, and the coffee was delicious. It had a rich, deep, strong, chocolaty flavor, without a hint of bitterness. It went down smoothly, with no acid reflux. For the rest of the week, I had coffee that was perhaps not made so skillfully but that was nonetheless immediately recognizable by its flavor as being from the same region. Thai coffee is worth looking for, although I don’t know how much of it is exported.

In both Singapore and Thailand, I encountered “3-in-1” when trying to get myself a glass of iced coffee. This vile substance is a premix of coffee, sugar, and some sort of milk product (probably condensed milk) sold from a dispenser. It is to iced coffee what a McDonald’s hamburger is to Chateaubriand, although perhaps that’s unfair to McDonald’s. And “iced coffee” in this part of the world (including Israel, where I am as I write this) is a rich, ice-cream-based dessert drink.

(So far, “coffee” in Israel appears to be Turkish coffee, made by boiling ground coffee in water briefly and pouring the slurry into a cup. If you want an espresso drink, you have to ask for it explicitly. This is an improvement.)

An addendum on Thai technology
I snapped this telephone lineman from a pedestrian overpass. Click for the larger image.

Room with a view
The view from our hotel room in Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Somewhere in southern Thailand to visit the princess.

Tuesday morning—yesterday, although it seems much longer ago—we left the hotel in Bangkok at 4:30 to catch a 6:00 flight. From a military base, not from an airport. We jumped a ride on a C-300 (cargo plane with a big rear door, not much in the way of passenger comfort, earplugs required) with a bunch of armed military police, to Nakhon Si Thammarat (spelling varies), in southern Thailand. Then we trailed around the territory in a military-escorted motorcade to meet HRH Princess Srirasmi, the Princess Consort to the Crown Prince of Siam.

With the birth of her child six years ago, she was recruited to lend her name and sponsorship to a program to increase breastfeeding among the Thai population. She was reviewing the troops, as it were, in one of the program’s demonstration areas.

The princess is cool. Forty, looks twenty-five, dressed in slacks and a nice top, sneakers, and a tasteful amount of jewelry; and she carried her own large purse. If it weren’t for the guy carrying the huge parasol to cover her every time she stepped out of the van, you wouldn’t have been able to pick her out as royalty. She warmly greeted her fellow graduate students (she’s working on a PhD) and engaged with many individual villagers and families. She was led down the VIP line, and my handshake was just a minor courtesy on introduction as Tina’s husband.

Most of yesterday consisted of variations on a theme as the princess first sat politely for a welcoming ceremony and a presentation about the program, then visited a family enrolled in the program, then visited a community health center. At that point our contingent peeled off, and our local hosts took us to see the sights. We visited a Buddhist temple (not our first, not necessarily the most impressive, but the biggest the local area had to offer). Then we did a drive-by of a palace built by the local province to entice the king to visit (well, that didn’t work), next to a decade-old tidal gate that does work to keep the sea from making the river too brackish, thus enabling the surrounding land to be farmed again.

From there we went off to a small town in which all the largest buildings are for the birds. The town, on the coast, is a mecca for swiftlets, which build their nests of saliva. These are the nests of Chinese bird nest soup. Swiftlets naturally congregate and nest in caves, but in this town, the caves all look like modern apartment buildings. We ate overlooking the water, watching the swiftlets returning at dusk.

The province we were touring in produces, aside from a lot of bird nests for export to China (at about $5,000 a pound), a great deal of rubber, the price of which has risen fivefold in the last few years, and palm oil, the price of which has risen because it is used for biodiesel. As a result, the province is doing pretty well financially.

Today, we toured the main hospital in Nakhon Si Thammarat and a number of related facilities before catching a commercial 737 back to Bangkok.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Elephant jokes

What’s yellow and hangs from the ceiling?
If you remember elephant jokes you probably also know that what’s yellow and hangs from the ceiling is a yellow ceiling-hanger.

What’s red and hangs from the ceiling?

That’s right. It’s a red ceiling-hanger?

And what’s blue and hangs from the ceiling?

No. Ceiling-hangers only come in red and yellow.

And taxicabs only come in yellow in most cities.

But not in Bangkok. I was glancing out the hotel room window and saw this line of taxis waiting for a light to change. This is not the full range of taxi colors here. There are others, including chartreuse.

And in other news on the street,
I stepped out of the hotel’s front door and looked up. I assume these are telephone wires, but I am at a loss to explain why they are managed, if that’s the right word, in this fashion.

Friday, May 20, 2011

One degree north

In Perth it is autumn, and there is what passes for a chill in the air in Australia. Singapore is in the same time zone but a different climate zone. Singapore is one degree north of the Equator.

Singapore is all business all the time, though, and men are required to wear suits to the office (cf. Collapse, by Jared Diamond). So indoor spaces are cooled more than we anticipated. Outdoors, the heat is tolerable, as there is lush tropical greenery everywhere, providing natural cooling to what would otherwise be a concrete oven. Apparently energy costs are relatively low, as Singapore is a major oil-refining center. Nonetheless, there is a move afoot to think green.

Friends took us to a rotating top-floor restaurant (physically similar to other such restaurants in big cities worldwide) for a view of the city, particularly of the port, which was adjacent. The meal was a spectacular Chinese banquet of too many courses to count.

From there they took us to the Singapore Flyer, a Ferris wheel similar to the London Eye, but larger, for a broader view of the city. We then went for a drive to explore more of the city. Our host likes to show off his town.

In the morning we flew to Bangkok, where we will spend the next several days. After clearing Customs, we were greeted by one of Tina’s colleagues and an assistant from the hospital motor pool, who then hailed the driver from the cell phone lot (I assume). Eventually we all piled into a comfortable passenger van and, still in our tropical travel clothes, were whisked to an embarrassingly formal, rock-star-worthy reception at a model child- and elder-care health center on a military base. We were led from room to room and department to department by two senior military officers in full uniform, with chests full of medals, accompanied by other senior staff and two photographers. The photographers initially focused on me, as I was the larger target, but I think we eventually conveyed to them that Tina was the rock star in question. The military officers, as well as other senior staff, sported pins on their shirts bearing the photos of babies. The program that was the main focus of the tour was the initiative, now about five years old, of one of the royal princesses in support of increasing breastfeeding in Thailand.

The base where the demonstration project is taking place houses a thousand-and-some military families, over five thousand people. The center provides child care for infants through preschoolers, health care for the community, and a rich elder-care program, all in one center, so that there are many opportunities for intergenerational interaction. It is also the coordination center for the propagation of these programs across Thailand. What was most impressive was that the entire complex represented a quite modest capital investment. What is mainly required is cooperation and intent.

I admit to being somewhat uncomfortable with all of the bowing and scraping we have encountered so far (on the plane, at the center, at the hotel, in the hotel restaurant, but not at the airport). I don’t know what goes through the mind of someone who is executing exaggeratedly obsequious gestures in a country that has an active, occasionally violent, political opposition. I know what would be going through my mind if I were behaving that way. Yet this is apparently a standard feature of Thai culture, and I’m being a boorish and ugly American if I try to carry my own bag. I will try to behave better henceforth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

And in no particular order

So how did we end up in Johor Bahru?

Singapore Air from Perth to Singapore. While we had never flown Singapore Air before, both of us had often commented on the gorgeous, floor-length dresses worn their female flight attendants. Perhaps they would not be so striking if they were not also all size 2 and if they did not spend so much time on hair and makeup. In any case, this is an airline that does economy class right. Plenty of knee room. Excellent curried chicken for dinner. Free drinks (as on virtually all non-U.S. carriers). The drink menu promoted the Singapore Sling, so we tried one. Took a sip each and handed it back. Ewww. Too sweet. Never mind.

Got to the hotel quite late. Worked a bit after breakfast. Then we were picked up at noon by a driver from the Malaysian university where Tina is speaking as I type this. UTM has about 25,000 students on a huge, modern campus in Johor Bahru, which is why we are here. The conference organizer had a schedule conflict and was not able to be our tour guide for the afternoon, so she sent in her stead the head nurse from her department, to accompany the driver.

Our first stop after the very efficient border control operation (the U.S. border control folks could learn a thing or two about how to design a border crossing for efficient processing) was a handicraft center. It turned out that the center only bakes a cake if they know you’re a-comin’; so we caught them off guard. But a gentleman who spoke excellent English graciously showed us around and introduced us to the craftspeople who were working that day. We saw an artist producing batik and got a full explanation and demonstration of technique. Then we moved on to a musical instrument maker who was making drums called kompang of goatskin stretched over lauan heads. He started with hides and logs and turned out highly finished goods that included several types of drums as well as bamboo flutes. The next stop was a knife-making operation. These were various styles of hunting knives and reproduction historic weaponry, all in intricate, highly finished wooden scabbards that matched the handles. They began with a block of wood and a block of steel (mostly 440C stainless) and turned out gorgeous work. The head of the operation is a customs agent in his day job. He acknowledged that it would not be possible to take a knife back to the U.S. on a plane.

After the craft center, we stopped for a latish lunch at a neighborhood eatery. It was an open air place under an insubstantial shelter that nonetheless kept the sudden, drenching rain off us as we ate. This was street food. Much of it was deep-fried and banana-based. Yummy, filling, cheap. What else can you ask for from street food. The locals keep asking us if the food is too spicy for us, but we really haven’t encountered anything that sets off fire alarms yet.

And it was nice to be someplace where bananas are a staple. In Australia, where imported bananas are forbidden and the main growing area was wiped out by floods, organic bananas (grown in a different region and therefore the only kind available in the market) were selling for AUD 12.98 (about USD 13.25) per kilogram. That’s around six bucks a pound, up from the three bucks a pound they cost before the floods. Needless to say, we had no bananas in Australia.

Dinner in Johor Bahru

We were taken out for Thai food in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. But this was definitely a Malaysian take on Thai.
  • We began with satay (both beef and chicken). Not the flat slices we’re accustomed to. Wasn’t sure if it was just tender chunks of meat or meat that had been ground and formed into tiny meatballs. The sauce was a sweet chili sauce (not much bite) with some peanut nibs, rather than a smooth peanut sauce as you’d get in the U.S. Other dishes:
  • Steamed whole fish (white-fleshed, mild, can’t say much more about it) with a thick garlic sauce
  • Same fish, fried whole, with a sweet chili sauce
  • Greens (maybe bok choy leaves or something on that order) in a nice sauce
  • Mussels in a different sweet chili sauce, this one with a bit of a bite to it (really, no two sauces were the same)
  • Tom yum, with prawns (whole, head on, peel your own), mussels, baby octopus, etc.)—highlight of an excellent meal
  • Rice
  • Fresh squeezed orange juice by the pitcherful
  • And the pièce de résistance: on the drive into Malaysia from Singapore in the afternoon, our hostess on the ride initiated a conversation about durian, which I knew from seeing it in NYC Chinatown fruit stands but had never tasted. Tina had not heard of it. I knew it only as something with such a powerful stench that it is not permitted on NYC subways. We passed a roadside stall piled high with the stuff. Well, she brought one to dinner and had the kitchen split it open for us. The inside consists of chambers (six?) running the length of the fruit, filled with large seeds (an inch in diameter, roughly spherical), each of which is coated in a thick layer of sweet yellow paste. Grab a seed, suck off the paste, savor, swallow. Rinse and repeat. There’s really not a lot of food in that huge fruit, when all is said and done. But it’s tasty.
The venue was a very casual, family-friendly café with an open kitchen, no tablecloths, a box of Kleenex for napkins, plastic plates, tacky flatware. We didn’t see the bill, but after I sprang for lunch for four at a neighborhood eatery for three bucks, my guess is that dinner for eight adults and three kids, with leftovers to take home, probably came to less than forty dollars American.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Best coffee in Australia

I like my caffeine. What I do not like is bitter, reflux-inducing coffee. I like a medium roast coffee made in a drip coffeemaker. Under duress, in need of a fix, I’ll drink espresso if I can dilute it sufficiently with water or ice. But even that is unsatisfying.

Unfortunately, the Italians seem to have brought their form of coffee to Australia before we Americans did. Or perhaps they just overtook us. But having now spent three weeks in Australia’s largest cities, I can report with confidence that drip coffee is hard to find. Hotels serve some sort of percolated or drip coffee at conference breaks, but as the chefs don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like, they make it badly. Otherwise, everything comes out of an espresso machine. I’ve learned to order a long black, which has some water added, and then to add icewater to that to make it drinkable.

In Perth, though, walking through an arcade, I discovered the real thing. The place is Low Down Espresso, and they don’t even advertise their drip coffee. But there’s the machine, big as life, on the back counter; and these guys know how to use it. They even make proper iced coffee. Best I’ve had in a long time. If any coffee in Australia deserves a plug from an American traveler, this is the place.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Let's see, where was I?

After Brisbane, we headed to Sydney for a few days (itinerary determined by speaking schedule, not by geographic logic).

In Sydney we stayed in the World Square area of the CBD. Our block, including the large indoor mall adjacent to the hotel, seemed to be the center of Japanese and Korean cuisine. Chinatown was a block up from us. The block to the left was mostly Spanish restaurants. So much good food, so little time. Sushi was everywhere, it seemed. Several restaurants offered freshly made plates of sushi on a conveyor belt that surrounded the chefs. Plates were priced according to what color the china was, totted up when it was time to leave. We had dinner one night, though, in a restaurant called Tokyo Ria. The menu was closer to the wide variety of food we had in Japan two years ago than any of the sushi lunch places had or than we typically see in the U.S. Their ordering system consisted of a jukebox-like touch screen display in each booth. The photo menu went on for many pages of thumbnails. Touch to open a full-screen photo and description. Order immediately or cancel. Click another button to call a server to the table for help. Each dish was prepared immediately upon ordering and delivered when it was ready. So there’s a bit of an art to ordering things in the order you want to eat them. The food was excellent.

The next day we took a bus down to Circular Quay and walked to the Sydney Opera House. We took the one-hour tour (not the two-hour backstage tour) and enjoyed that very much. We had lunch at one of the Opera House cafés. Then we walked along the water, under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, over to Darlington Harbor (a bit of a hike). We both watched the people traversing the top of the bridge while we were eating lunch and decided that was a little too high and too scary for us. (It was odd to see, a couple of days later, that a fellow had caused a stir by climbing the bridge and hanging a protest banner, considering that hundreds of people a day climb almost to where he stood.) We had a light dinner at Darlington Harbor (shared some appetizers and some grilled kangaroo loin), then walked the last few blocks back to the hotel.

Early the next morning we flew to Perth. There’s a bit of the Wild West about Western Australia that expresses itself in terms of the jocular disdain the residents have for what they lump together as the “Eastern States,” to the dismay of the residents of those states. Perth’s CBD is a lot less glitzy and glossy than those in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. There are plenty of unpretentious small shops of all sorts that are not chain stores catering to the rich and famous.

After a day in Perth capped by dinner at a home in the hills on the north side of the city, we drove south yesterday in a rented car, to a rented house in Prevelly, a surfers’ beach community near Margaret River. This is a major wine region, and the main tourist activity is winery tours. But that doesn’t interest us particularly. For one thing, we’re getting on a plane to Singapore Monday and can’t exactly take a case of wine with us. So we skipped the tours in favor of hanging out at the beach. It’s fall here, cool and overcast, but I couldn’t be this close to the Indian Ocean and not take at least a brief swim.

Driving in Australia is always a challenge, as it’s on the wrong side of the road (well, it’s the right side of the road here, but it’s the wrong side for an American driver). Our solution to the safe driving problem is that I drive, and Tina sits in the passenger seat constantly reminding me what lane I’m supposed to be in. It works out better than it sounds. We also try to avoid driving at night if we can.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Barristers to the left of me, barristers to the right of me

Just travel notes, mostly for my own benefit…

We’re in a hotel on the edge of the central business district (written and pronounced CBD in Australian English, never spelled out, even on first use) in Brisbane. The CBD borders the Brisbane River and it includes various state buildings as well as commercial offices, stores, and hotels. Some years ago, the downtown waterfront, as in many cities, was entirely industrial and inaccessible to pedestrians.

I haven’t researched the political process that led to the current situation. I imagine there was conflict in Brisbane as there is conflict everywhere when planners and developers want to displace businesses in favor of tourism. However, as a tourist, I can say that the effort paid off in spectacular results.

The CBD is chock full of the sorts of building architects mostly dream up for competitions in the U.S., with no thought of ever being allowed to actually build them. Public spaces, including those in front of commercial buildings, are showcases for large, modern public sculptures, the result of a requirement that 0.25% of construction budgets be spent on public art. In the U.S., the one percent for art movement has not done nearly so much.

Pedestrian bridges seem to be a special art form in Australia. Here’s one that connects South Wharf and North Wharf in Melbourne (an area that includes a discount mall, a convention center, some casinos, and some pleasant walking paths along the shores but not much else to hold one’s interest).

Here’s one of a much larger pedestrian bridge across the Brisbane River, a block from the hotel, although the photo does not really convey the dramatic design, I’m unhappy to report.

Because the museums here are state-owned, admission is free. The one I spent the most time in, the Gallery of Modern Art, mounts a heck of a show. It is what the other end of the bridge connects to.

Walking around the Brisbane CBD, I came across a large weekly farmers’ market and spent a pleasant hour or so talking with growers. This is fall, so the stalls were full, mostly with familiar produce at unfamiliarly high prices, typically double what I’d pay at a farmers’ market in the States and three or four times what I’d pay at a supermarket. However, there was a grower of mushrooms, with spectacular-looking goods, whose prices were less than half of U.S. supermarket mushroom prices. I asked the woman whose company runs the market why she thought that might be the case. She answered, “because he doesn’t know how to price his goods.” (I immediately thought of a number of conversations on editing lists about pricing services.)

Prices in general, at least in the CBD, are higher than I’m used to. Espresso shops are everywhere, and they are everywhere more expensive that Starbucks at home, by quite a bit. Coffee of the non-espresso type is virtually unobtainable. I’ve learned to order “black iced coffee,” which consists of a great deal of espresso, ice, and additional water to make the stuff drinkable. “Iced coffee,” in Australia, is a dessert drink consisting of two scoops of vanilla ice cream, milk or cream, and a little coffee. Not the same thing at all.

Yesterday I toured the botanic gardens (42 acres, ten full-time gardening staff). The point of botanic gardens, as opposed to other sorts of gardens, was historically to have a place to test the suitability and economic viability of various plant species, both native, such as the still extant tree that produced the world’s first commercial crop of macadamia nuts, and alien, such as date palm and tamarind tree. The botanic gardens here date to the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the native plants on exhibit have common names similar to Northern Hemisphere plants but they are botanically unrelated or only distantly related. It is always interesting to see how biological niches get filled, though, one way or the other.

On the way back from the garden to the hotel, I passed three or four barristers at the end of their day in court. They had on the starched white collar-type thingies that cross on the chest, the white dress shirt, and the lightweight black robes; they were dragging their large, wheeled briefcases behind them. They were a rumpled, bedraggled lot. Hard day in court, I guess. This morning, I chanced upon a couple of barristers on their way to court. They were freshly pressed and starched, their hair was kempt, there was a spring in their step, and they were carrying their wigs in hand. I got the impression they have several changes of their court attire and afford the nearby dry cleaners a nice livelihood.