Friday, July 31, 2009

Dumbo up the Hills - #1: The Good Old Ayer Itam Dam

Some time in January (or was it early February?), a friend from Parit Buntar sent me an SMS asking me: "Want to climb Mt. Kinabalu with us?"

It's a crazy thing to do for a guy who is at least 30kg overweight, but I said, "Yes, why not?"


The climb was scheduled for early May, so that left me with about three month to train up this bloated tent I call my body, and the first thing to do was to look for a pair of decent shoes for hiking.

I went around looking for high-ankled hiking shoes, but those that I have found are either too expensive (way off my league, for example, from Timberland), or unknown to me (I saw this pair of Hi-Tec hiking shoes that sort of fit my bill, but I wasn't sure it was reliable; the last thing I want is for the sole to come off half way through the climb - as it turned out, we did meet a girl whose very nice pair of new Nike "opened" up during the pre-dawn climb; but more about that later), or seemed downright dubious (there was this pair of hiking shoes selling for a mere RM70+, and I was totally not convinced).

In the end, I bought a pair of Camel Active outdoor walking shoes (I think it's outdoor walking shoes):

And the second thing I needed was a coach. And a guide to the local hills. And the perfect person for the job was of course my second uncle on my mother's side (二舅). He used to be rather overweight when he was younger, and now that he has retired, and with a diabetic condition to contend with, he exercises regularly, particularly by hiking up the numerous hill paths found around the Ayer Itam area (a valley at roughly the center of the Penang Island) where he lives, with his wife and my grandma and two of my aunts who are still single. Before I started kindergarten back at my hometown in Ayer Tawar, Perak, I lived with my grandma (because my mum already had too much on her hands taking care of one of my elder sisters who was very ill), and it was this uncle and his wife (along with my grandma and the two single aunts) who took care of me, so I called them "Daddy" and "Mommy", which I still do till this day (they have three children who are one, three and six years my junior).

To start me off, he decided to take me on an "easy" hike: up the Ayer Itam Dam.

The road up Ayer Itam Dam is a local favorite for casual hikers (not those serious off-road hikers), young and old alike. The dam is not very high up, and most people can complete the hike in around 30 minutes. Less if you are fit. The road is tarred, wide enough for two-way traffic (yes, you could also drive up to the dam, and walk around its circumference for a dose of exercise, if ascending slopes is too much for you), and most parts of the road has a gradient of 10%.

Sounds easy.

But what was not easy was that it was not this "official" tar road that my uncle had in mind. It was what the locals call "the hill road". It is a narrow cemented path that people who live on the hill slopes use as access road, and at some point off this cement path is a small mud path that leads to the "back gate" of the Ayer Itam Dam. It is what the more-serious-than-casual hikers prefer over the tar road, because it is steeper (much steeper), and it is shorter. Sort of like double the work rate, which gives you a better workout.

Precisely what I needed on the first hike. =.=

After the first stretch of the many very steep stretches, my lung was practically bursting. As for my uncle, who is 61, he just "sailed" up that slope with an even pace that seemed effortless. He was not even panting. I felt very ashamed. :-p

I made it up to the dam in (I think) about 50 minutes. That just shows how "fit" I was. :-D


On that hike, I left my camera phone behind, thinking I would have no need of it. Big mistake. That's why I have no picture to share here for that "climb" (yes, "climb"; I was almost on all four at certain points). That's why on subsequent hikes, I made it a point to bring the phone along (I don't have a camera, so the phone is all the picture-snapping tool I have) and take lots of photos.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dumbo the Occasional Poet - #1: "Passage of Poetry"

My first post in this blog was about a poem I wrote a long time ago, "Then and Now". Somehow, after that, I had stopped sharing my poems in this blog. In fact, I had stopped writing poems for quite a while. The last time I wrote something that I was bold enough to call a poem was when I was inspired by a couple of photos taken by a friend at his hometown. Perhaps I had forgotten the joy of stringing words together to make a poem, but I suddenly have this desire, now, to start doing that again...

Well, before I find the inspiration to write something new, let me first share with you another poem I had written, also from quite a while ago. It is called "Passage of Poetry".


"Passage of Poetry"

When I was a child,
Poetry was a dash of color, gone wild;
some painted it bold, some painted it mild;
altogether, they were puzzling to a child.

When I was a teen,
Poetry was a love song, eager and keen;
some sang in passion, some sang in esteem;
altogether, they were dazzling to a teen.

Then as I came of age,
Poetry sang, in ethereal message:
Of love, of life, of days gone in passage;
Of faith, of hope, of sagacious adage;
A cosmic scene in word-bound package,
a soaring bird not of earthly cage---

And now that I'm old,
Poetry is a winter fire, crackling coal;
Partly companion, partly to ward off cold;
above it all, it keeps sizzling in my soul.


Again, as I mentioned before in that first post, do not believe everything I wrote in my poems. First of all, I'm not old! I'm in my mid-thirties right now. Unless you consider that old.

Then, there's that part about poems being dazzling to a teen... well, I can't honestly say I was - when I was a teen - dazzled by anything other than whatever my hormones were steering me toward. :-D... I think I speak for most teens in that matter. ;-)

But I do hope that when I am old, I would still have passion for words and other mediums of art, as depicted in the last stanza. I have seen too many old people live without passion, without colors in their lives, their sole purpose in life having expired after their children had grown up and established their own families, and I do not want to walk down that same path myself.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Birthday Present and My Wife's Anniversary Present

My wife gave me an easel for my birthday. It was something that I had been wanting for years, but could not convince myself to buy, because, after all, one could easily do watercolor on any flat surface. An easel is not a must.

But, I so wanted it...

And now I have it. :-)


I decided that the first picture I paint should be an anniversary present to my wife (our wedding anniversary is 8 days after my birthday).

It wasn't hard to decide what I wanted to paint. It was a picture that I had been having in my mind for a while before that. I wanted the picture to be a promise to my wife, that "this is us; this is how we will still love each other, 50 years from now".


I started with some bamboos on the upper right corner. I decided that this painting would follow the Chinese painting philosophy of leaving blanks for imagination, so the background would be sparse.

And then I painted a patch of cobbled (tiled?) floor on the lower part, slightly off to the left (to strike a balance against that heavy patch of green on the upper right), again, with the idea of being sparse with the background.

And, as long as I was working with earth colors, might as well work in the skin, too. Skin colors are always a challenge to an artist, and I was told that every artist has his/her own secret formulas. I can't say that I have my own secret formula, but I figured the mixture was close enough to my own skin color, so, up it went onto the paper.

The bamboo chairs. I've always wanted bamboo furniture (hint to my friends out there; if I ever move to a new house again in the future, you know what to do).

I wasn't very happy with how that cat turned out, but, I wasn't really good at painting furry animals, so, it would have to do. And it was gray because I needed gray for the hair on that old couple there anyway. You see, I am quite lazy - and stingy - when it comes to squeezing out more watercolor from those precious tubes (a 15ml tube can cost up to RM50 for the higher grades).

And, talking about color, the picture below shows the palette of colors I used for the painting. The six colors used were (from top): Chinese White, Lamp Black, Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Yellow Ochre, and Vermilion (Hue).

And since I wanted the painting kind of Chinese-styled, I added some sort of a poem to it, at the bottom. The title says, "Laughing while Watching the Ocean turn into Mulberry Field".

"Ocean turning into mulberry field" (沧海桑田) is a Chinese idiom meaning great changes that are brought about by the passing of time.

The poem roughly says:

Growing old with you
though there be wind and rain along the way
we shall weather them all with a laugh

Walking with the Lord
though there be changes in life great and many
we shall find peace in God's wondrous grace

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I noticed to my horror that a recent construction of low-cost apartments somewhere in BJ was achieved by "sticking together" pre-fabricated concrete slabs that look very thin and flimsy. And the overall structure reminded me of pigeonholes. Or worse, a "house of cards".

If I believe in evolution (which I don't), I would think that the next step in the evolution of human being would be pigeons. Look at where men are made to live in these days. I surely don't see much difference between men and pigeons. Flocks of them fly out in the morning, seek food all day long, and return to the pigeonholes (again, in flocks) in the evening, and get cooped up in front of the TV.

Welcome to modern living. =.=

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #12: "OR" Chicken Revisited

I have a bad habit in the kitchen of going with the feelings: I simply put in whatever ingredients I felt like putting in at the moment. So, I totally forgot the exact recipe of my first attempt at "OR" (oat-roasted) chicken.

A few days later, I went at it again. This time, I took more pictures to help me remember the recipe and process. :-)


Step 1:
Steam the chicken with the "secret herbs and spices". Well, not very "secret" actually. Just some garlic, chilies, celery, soy sauce, rice wine, black pepper, etc. ("Etc" as in, again, I don't remember exactly.)

Step 2:
Drain the gravy. Season some Quaker instant oat with salt and pepper and whatever other secret herbs and spices you fancy.

Step 3:
Place steamed chicken on roasting plate. Cover with honey.

Step 4:
Cover with instant oat from Step 2. Roast in oven to a golden crisp.

Step 5:
Serve. (What else?) Dig in.

Remember the gravy drain from Step 2? Don't discard it! It's the perfect salad dip. Yep, you heard me right: salad "dip". The trick is to use chopstick to eat salad. Pick up some lettuce and carrot and celery and what-not with your chopstick, dip them in the gravy, and dump them in your mouth.



The oat layer was not as crispy as the first time, but it was still delicious. The trick to a crispier oat layer is in a more generous amount of honey and a thinner layer of oat, I think.

My "OR" Chicken

Do you think it looks delicious? Well, I remember it to be quite delicious. It was my "OR" chicken. "OR" as in "oat-roasted", not KFC's "original recipe".

It was crunchy on the outside (well, maybe not as crunchy as fried chicken, but it did have a yummy crunch), and soft and succulent on the inside.

But I don't remember the exact recipe now. :-p

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #11: the Improvisatorial Spaghetti

I thought I couldn't possible go lower than "minimalist spaghetti", but I proved myself wrong there with this "improvisatorial spaghetti"...


It was 8pm, the "Wonder Auntie" had closed shop, we were too lazy to go to town (a 20-minute drive away) for dinner, and there was no fresh ingredient at all (not even a single stalk of bok choy) in the house. But nothing is a problem for a good improvisator.

From the "rainy-day rations" box, I fished out a can of sardine in tomato sauce, some spaghetti, and a pack of Campbell's mushroom soup powder, then I grabbed my two bottles of trusty McCormick's (one was the "Italian Herbs", the other "Basil"), and I was all set for making my "improvisatorial spaghetti".

Well, actually, it is so "improvisatorial", there is really nothing much to write about it. All you have to do is open the can of sardine, pour it into the pan, add half a can of water, add some herbs, then finally, pour in the mushroom soup powder to thicken the gravy. Oh, of course, you have to cook the spaghetti first. Then just pour the sardine thingy onto the cooked spaghetti, and it's chow down time. :-)

It tasted a bit "fishy". After all, it was canned sardine... but, it was not too bad for two lazy people who wouldn't take a 20-minute drive to the nearest restaurant. :-D

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #10: Evil Cup Noodle Made Evil-er

A question to the "Cup Noodle Tribe" (杯面族): What do you do when you are so hungry that one cup of noodle is not enough to satisfy you? Reach for another cup?

Well, you don't have to.

Whenever you feel that you are going to need more than the usual portion to satisfy, just grab a pack of Mamee Monster Ready-to-Eat Noodle Snack (which costs only thirty-something cents, if you buy the bulk-pack), and add it to that evil little cup.

The result: double the portion, without doubling the cost.

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #9: the Minimalist Spaghetti

Preparing spaghetti can be really simple, if you are not the picky type.

The picture below shows what I call a "minimalist spaghetti".

Some black pepper, olive oil, McCormick's Italian Herbs, McCormick's Basil (dried flakes), garlic, and whatever type of meat you prefer are all that you need for this dish. Oh, of course, don't forget to add salt to taste.

Now, all you have to do is to marinate some meat chunks with the above ingredients, then boil the spaghetti until half-cooked, then stir-fry those marinated meat chunks (use some cooking wine or just plain water to give it a suitable amount of gravy), and then stir in those half-cooked spaghetti and continue cooking until the spaghetti soaks up the gravy. When the spaghetti has been cooked to your preferred consistency, stir in some olive oil to emulsify (sort of "thicken") the gravy, and serve hot.

It tasted great (either I was very hungry then, or it was really good).

(It will be a HUGE plus if you know how to choose a tender cut of meat.)

Dumbo: Gourmet Extraordinaire - #13: Sweet Potato Fries with Sour Plum Flavor

This would be the second time this blog is featuring a Mommy Wang dish. The first time was when I wrote about their "Tiger Biting Pig" (虎咬猪) last year.

If you go eat at Mommy Wang's, there is one thing that you must try: Sweet Potato Fries with Sour Plum Flavor (香梅薯条).

Juicy sweet potato wedges are fried to a delicious crisp, then sprinkled with their secret concoction of sour plum powder. The yummy deliciousness scores a perfect 10 on my palate.

The orangish wedges in the middle are the subject of discussion here. The yellowish wedges on the left are Potato Fries with Seaweed Flavor (海苔薯条) (fried potato wedges sprinkled with seaweed and "secret flavorings"), which is also very nice (another must-try), especially if you are one of those people who prefer milder tastes in life. Its flavor is not as strong as the former dish, but it has this very nice seaweed aftertaste that will make you reach out for more.

That fried chicken thingy on the right is forgettable, to be honest, but that bowl of noodle was quite OK. However, if you want something filling, it is not their noodle dishes that you should order; instead, I would recommend that you go there on weekdays during lunch hours, when they serve (as their lunch sets) rice with not two, and not three, but FOUR side dishes (on top of a main dish of chicken or fish), plus a free drink.

Dumbo in the Kitchen - #8: As-Instant-As-Can-Be Pseudo-Pasta

If you are a bachelor - or a married man temporarily rendered a bachelor because the wife is away or refuses to cook for you - and you have no cooking skill whatsoever, and you loathe to have another meal consisting of instant noodles with the invariable flavors like "chicken soup", "curry", "laksa", "vegetarian shitake mushroom", etc. etc., what can you do?

Well, the answer is still instant noodle, but with a slight twist: make it a pseudo pasta.

The only ingredients you need are:
1) One or two packs of those evil instant noodle
2) A pack of Campbell's mushroom soup powder (I like the one with cheese flavor and croutons)
3) Water (ha-ha-ha...)

First, cook the instant noodle to the consistency you like (I used to like it mushy; now I like it el dente).

Then boil some water and prepare that mushroom soup. Make it thick (which means less water than it says in the instruction).

Stir the mushroom soup into the cooked noodle (or vice versa), and voilà, instant noodle that tastes somewhat like a good dish of spaghetti with thick mushroom gravy.

But if you find yourself doing this dish very often, then I feel sorry for you. =.= Go get a wife, or, fetch your wife back from her mother's (say sorry, say whatever sweet lover's lies, just bring her back). Or learn real cooking.

Dumbo: Gourmet Extraordinaire - #12: The Master Chef of Kampung Pantai Acheh

Our village is so small, it doesn't have a restaurant you can go eat out at when you don't feel like cooking at home. There are two coffee shops, no doubt, but you can't rely on them for your daily victuals; the one nearer our house (well, the house we are renting) caters to a special horde of people: mahjong players; the other one which is a bit further off on the other direction (not visible from the main road) sells grilled fish and "ais kacang" (shaved ice with sweet stewed red beans and other confections) at night, starting at around 8:30pm (too late for proper dinner, IMHO).

But we, the village folks, are not completely "disenfranchised" in our rights to eating out, as we still have one person - the only person around here (OK, she has a "sidekick", sort of, in the form of her Indonesian maid) - to turn to: a middle-aged auntie who wields her magic at a small roadside stall from 1pm to 6pm everyday.

I describe her as "magical", because she can do so many different dishes so well! In Penang, if a hawker sells curry mee, he or she will specialize in curry me, and no other; if koay-teow-th'ng (粿条汤; rice fettuccine in clear broth), then just koay-teow-th'ng. But what does this auntie offer? Fried rice, fried noodle, char-hor-fun (沙河粉; fried rice-fettuccelle in starchy gravy), hokkien-char (福建炒; noodle in starchy gravy), ee-fu-mee (伊府面; pre-fried noodle in starchy gravy) koay-teow-th'ng, laksa, curry mee, and several other dishes I'm sure I haven't even thought of trying. You could even bring along the ingredients of whatever dish you want to eat, and ask her to cook it for you (rather than soiling your own hands and kitchen).

Of course she is not the only person in this world to know how to prepare so many different dishes; but what amazes me is that most of the dishes she prepares are as good as - if not better than - those prepared by hawkers specializing in only one dish. I particularly like her fried rice, curry mee (shown in the picture below), ee-fu-mee, hokkien-char, and char-hor-fun.

And she prepares them in HUGE portions, which is so totally agreeable to my biggish tummy. :-p

Squirrel, squirrel hunter, and shotgun

Today is 2nd July. My last post wast dated 3rd May. It's been practically two months since I last posted in this blog. In retrospect, I would blame it on my ISP (no specific name here; but if I tell you that I'm a Malaysian living in a very remote area where all the other newer internet service providers have not managed to extend their services to yet, you know which company I'm talking about).


Of course, there was also the factor that I had been quite busy with my translation works in the past two months, on top of having started teaching again (once or twice a week) at a college where I used to work full-time for five years and a half. But it was because of the frequent internet service interruptions in May that made me drop my blogging habit.

It happened some time in the first week of May, if I'm not mistaken. My internet connection started having very frequent hiccups: I would get disconnected and reconnected again as frequent as every 5 minutes. It was annoying, to say the least, but we were not overly concerned about the problem, because our ISP is notorious for inefficiency and below-par services, and we thought it was some of their people tinkering with the lines somewhere, again.

But after a couple of days of "hiccups", my internet connection just "stopped breathing", and died. No amount of retries would get us connected, so we finally realized it was a major problem, and we called their service hotline.

Now, don't get me started on their service hotline. Sometimes it would take umpteen attempts before someone would answer your call, and even that would not have been possible without spending about 15 minutes on the line listening to a recorded trying-to-sound-sweet-but-not-succeeding voice telling me over and over again that "your call is important to us; all our service personnel are currently unavailable; you will be attended to shortly".

Right. I'm some pesky problems to be "attended to".

The guy who finally answered noted my problem, gave me a report number, and said that their local service team will look into my problem in a couple of days.

And then a couple of days went by with no sign of the local service team having any intention of gracing our small little remote fishing village with their revered presence.

So I called the service hotline again. "Your call is important to us..." I don't usually cuss, but I recall that I cussed a lot that day.

What transpired was another report, another report number, and another two days going by without a hint of the local service team being something real rather than imagined.

The third time I called the service hotline, I managed to get a hold of someone from the technical service team rather than the usual clueless operators. That fellow, who was quite nice, polite and patient - finally, a little credit to the ISP - gave me instructions on how to test whether there was something wrong with my modem (because, to be honest, my modem's age was pushing two years, and I was not totally sure it was not the modem giving me problem; but I needed to be sure, as it would be ridiculous to go buy a new modem every time you have a connection problem). After testing the modem according to his instructions, I found nothing amiss with the modem, so the fellow made another report (again!) and gave me the report number.

This time around, somebody finally showed up at my door step. And I was glad it was the actual service team from the company itself, and not the sub-contractors they engaged for cable installation. The lone technician who came to answer the distress call of this, uh, extremely frustrated guy (not a damsel) was also very polite - another credit to the ISP; at least most of their technical folks are nice and polite, as far as I know, unlike those folks manning the counters of their local service centre) - and he tested my phone line with a handheld tester he brought along (the precise reason I was glad it was the REAL service people from the company, because I'm sure their subcon people do not have such a handy tool).

After less than a minute of assessing the evidence and engaging in deliberation, the judge (the technician) and his jury (the handheld tester) came up with a verdict: the phone line was faulty. And the good technician told me he had a pretty good idea where that fault may be.

He told me that they had been aware for quite some time (close to a year, actually) that a certain section of the phone cable had been partially damaged, and they had been requesting (what? for close to a year?) that the state headquarters send a team to reinstall the cable (the huge ones, not the small ones handled by the subcon people), but so far no action had been taken (I almost fainted when I heard this).

And how exactly had the phone cable been damaged? According to the good technician (and I hope he was not messing with me with his quirky sense of humor), some local squirrel hunter had accidentally shot the phone cable with his shotgut (shotgun!!!) while hunting the pesky little rodents.

And that, my friend, was why my internet service was interrupted for nearly two weeks. (To the credit of the ISP, they fixed the phone cable within two days - not another year, thank God - of the good technician's visit.)


A week after the above incident, our internet service was down again. Another major one. This time, we called the abovementioned good technician directly (he was gracious enough to leave his number the last time), and he came around to find - again! - the integrity of the phone line being compromised. "Don't tell me it's another squirrel hunter taking another round of potshots at the phone cable," I said weakly. But he told me the problem was different this time. Apparently, he had spent half an hour surfing the internet by tapping directly into the local switchboard or something two or three kilometers from my house, to make sure their newly-installed main cable was working fine; so the fault must be at a certain point along this two or three kilometer stretch of cable. Despite his assuring me that this incident was different from the first, I could not help but recalled having seen the local squirrel community gleefully playing on the poles and cables along the road leading into our small little village, and I tried to recall if I have ever seen anyone in our village carrying a shotgun or hunting rifle.

The problem was fixed a few days later, after the subcon people came by to replace the phone cable leading into our house. It could have been fixed a little earlier, but that was not their fault, because we were not in the first time they came a calling.