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.

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