March 26, 2020

Flying out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In my infinite traveling wisdom, I thought it would be just fine to book an Airbnb right by the Petronas Towers, because in theory we could pop out for food and it would be super easy. But KL is not like the rest of Malaysia. Every building is either a shopping mall or a condominium. We went out for lunch a couple times, but otherwise we had groceries for breakfast and ordered Grab Eats for dinners because it's just so easy. Besides, Mr. Go was starting to feel under the weather and coronavirus had started blowing up in a big way, so we decided not to feel too guilty about staying in and watching movies.

We found surgical masks (after a thorough search because all the pharmacies were sold out) and sought out a child-sized cloth mask for Babs to wear in the airports.


With the last ounces of our adventurous spirits, we went for a walk around a nice lake (Taman Tasik Titiwangsa) and stumbled, wholly unprepared, onto a splash pad. Beyond caring, we stripped Babs down to her shorts and let her play. We wrung her out as best we could afterward and let the tropical sun dry her the rest of the way.


At a weird contemporary art museum we went to because it was free, Mr. Go tricked Babs into sounding out a swear word that was in one of the art installations. Truly the best things in life are free.

We were stretching for things to entertain Babs at this point, tired as we were. The KLCC park was close to our apartment, but it was just so hot in the afternoon, so we found an indoor playground in one of the shopping malls. We sat for an hour drinking Starbucks and let her run off some energy.


Grab drivers were becoming very concerned about coronavirus too. One even called us to check that we weren't Chinese before coming to pick us up, and said most drivers were refusing to pick up Chinese people.


Our evening flight was a welcome struggle. We got our last Boost smoothie and had a brief stopover in Singapore. I was sure I didn't sleep at all on the 15 hour leg, but Mr. Go assured me he caught me sleeping once or twice.

We arrived in Los Angeles and went through the same kind of culture shock we experienced coming home from Spain last year. There was toilet paper in all the bathrooms, and soap! We could read the signage and menus. Barely anyone in L.A. was wearing surgical masks yet.

We'd booked separate tickets to get us from L.A. to Chicago, then a rental car to get us to Green Bay, where we'd arranged to have Grandma pick us up.

Travel went very smoothly, until the flight to Chicago. About halfway through I felt a malaise overtake me.


I closed my eyes, thinking I was simply tired and gassy from the Wolfgang Puck Express hummus box in LAX. Would that was all. Just as I thought, boy, this might end in a vomit, and stood to stumble back to the lavatories, it overtook me all at once.

I flopped back in my seat and yanked the blessed vomit bag from the seatback pocket in front of me, then proceeded to fill it nearly to the brim. Babs slept like a rock the entire time, thank God for small favors. I could barely open my eyes, could barely speak. Between the utter exhaustion and whatever else was making my body NOPE out, I was a useless lump.

Mr. Go asked the stewardess (thank you again Alaska Airlines staff for your kindness) for a blanket and some crackers for me. He wrangled Babs and our luggage to the shuttle and through the rental car office. I stopped off for a quick vomit while Mr. Go secured us our wheels, and then did once again in a McDonald's parking lot somewhere in Southern Wisconsin.

At the Super 8 in Saukville, WI, I passed out before the pizza arrived and slept for the next 13 hours. When I woke at 4 a.m. the pizza had already been eaten for breakfast several hours earlier and I was semi-coherent again.

It was a strange sensation to feel the cold air. We had only our rain jackets and it was probably the illness making my body shiver so violently, but I felt wholly unprepared for the bitter cold, while at the same time being quite thankful for getting out of the equatorial heat.

Home was blissfully comfortable. There's something about travel, especially the bare bones way we travel, that makes us so grateful when we come home to all our familiar conveniences.

We've spent the next weeks processing all we saw and did and how it changed the shape of our perspectives. We kept Babs out of school for a week, limited our contact with people and checked our temperatures regularly. We were in the clear.

Asia was so wildly different from anything we'd experienced before. The unfettered friendliness and hospitality is something we may even brave the long flight for again in the future, which is really saying something. But for now, we're enjoying the perks of our home base and looking forward to all our home-state summer adventures, like gardening (and growing some Thai chiles, holy basil and lemongrass for my kitchen), canning, camping and living the good life.




March 19, 2020

Getting the Perfect Dress at an Ultra Budget Price: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Traveling to Southeast Asia for the first time, I was floored by a dazzling array of colors, smells and sounds, the chaotic clamor of various languages and the slightly jarring realization that all the signage is in an unfamiliar alphabet. Mundane activities like walking around and grocery shopping becomes a challenge. I could spend an hour in the spice aisle and don't get me started on the selection of exotic-looking fruits.


But for as wildly different as everything seemed to be at first glance, there are activities that are universal. Familiar. In the open-air markets, my eye was drawn to the circular rolls of fabric (not rectangular bolts; some things may be familiar, but just different enough to be exciting) and the questionably-located seamstresses, with their sewing machines set up in a storage shed, or on a roadside card table with a pile of alterations work beside them.

These tucked-away seamstresses piqued my curiosity and so, while aware that the language barrier would probably prevent us from fully understanding each other, I asked one to make a dress for me.

LET ME GIVE YOU SOME CONTEXT

I was in Southeast Asia for seven weeks with my husband and 5-year-old daughter. Our trip saw us in Northern Thailand for four weeks and in Malaysia for three weeks, with not much more on our agenda than eating, sleeping and finding somewhere to wash our duffel bag of clothes. We got up close and personal with elephants, hiked to the most intricate and serene Buddhist temples and, naturally, ate a lot of incredible, flavorful, make-you-sweat noodle dishes.

With so much time on our hands for exploring, and the plethora of shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I convinced myself I needed a new dress more fitting for the climate and culture.

For some of us, getting a good dress isn't as easy as finding the right color or the right arrangement of elephants in the print. For those of us with broad shoulders, long torso and small chest, finding a dress that doesn't make you look like a child in adult's clothing can be a bit difficult.

In Chiang Mai, getting a suit tailored is a popular pursuit for business travelers. The fabric choices are stellar and the price is a bargain, especially compared to what it would cost to get a custom-tailored garment in the States. There is no shortage of brick-and-mortar shops along the mote that defines Chiang Mai city, with expertly crafted pieces in the window and signage in English clearly stating exactly what you'll be getting, but that was not enough of an adventure for this traveler.

MAKE A PLAN

Though some of those shops will only do suits, many showed dresses in their windows as well and would've been happy to help me. But I had seen the alleyway seamstresses tucked away further inside the city and wanted to investigate. Surely the prices would be more favorable.


While I was tempted to just go with the first seamstress I found, I wanted to be sure I was getting a reasonable price, so I shopped around a little. After the first conversation I muddled through, subsequent ones were easier.

I spoke with two seamstresses who gave me similar prices. I chose to go with Loi, who operated her sewing machine out of a storage-shed-type facility on a narrow, winding side street in the Northeast corner of Chiang Mai city. Not only did she quote me a lower price, but she was super friendly too. She also had a dress form in her shop wearing a dress in a similar style to the one I was dreaming of.

Though my husband and I were in good practice haggling with vendors selling their wares at hawker stalls, I felt I should leave that for the markets. You know just as I do that sewing well takes time and this is their livelihood. To be respectful of her time and talent, I accepted Loi's quote.

Part of my plan entailed being prepared with how much I was willing to spend. As far as I could tell, the price quoted to me depended on a few factors.

1. The style of the dress. It behooved me to know exactly what I wanted before going in, because this effects how much fabric is needed as well.

2. How much the seamstress likes you personally. It might not be fair, but that's just how things work. By the time I spoke with my seamstesses, we'd been entrenched in enough Thai culture to learn that being amenable and smiling a lot will go far in endearing us foreigners (farangs, as they call us) to the locals.

THE HARD PART: FABRIC SHOPPING

Knowing the general style of dress I wanted, Loi told me to bring her 3 meters of fabric.

1 meter = 1.09 yards

She pointed me in the direction of the Warorot market generally and Niran Fabric specifically. I had hoped for a knit fabric, but Loi told me upfront it might be difficult to find at the market, and she was right.

Here is another place I needed to be prepared. The stores are busy, there's not much room to move around between the upright rolls of fabric and even if the fabrics were labelled by hand-written signs, which most of them weren't, I wasn't able to read them anyway.


I was told instantly by five fabric stores I stopped at that there was no knit fabric. I inquired after cotton fabric and was handed a card with swatches too small to get a feel for the hand. So I resorted to touching all the bolts. I was distracted by the rolls and rolls of brightly-colored silks, shantung and the embroidered, sequined Indian fabrics and thereby spent far too long perusing.

When I found a fabric I liked, I asked an employee, "What's the fiber content of this?" He told me rayon, which is great because I love rayon, but he knew I wanted cotton, so he followed it up with, "Rayon is cotton and polyester." Which it isn't. Rayon is rayon, a man-made fiber made of reconstituted plant cellulose. He just wanted me to stop loitering in his store touching everything. I didn't appreciate that, but luckily, I knew my fiber contents and wasn't fooled. None of that mattered in the end though, because I wanted that rayon anyway.


To make things more difficult for myself, I decided I wanted my dress in two tones, so I had to search out a fabric to match my chosen rayon print. The only fabrics with even a smidge of stretch to them were 100% polyester. Not a great choice for a tropical climate, but my husband had started looking at his wrist so I decided to roll with it.

After crossing the store an embarrassing number of times, I made my decision. There isn't room for a cutting table in these cramped stores, so the employee removed a meter-long stick from inside the roll of fabric and measured against that. He held his spot with his finger and cut all the way down and that was that. It was accurate-ish.

One yard of polyester and two yards of gorgeous rayon cost me 200 Thai baht, which amounted to six whole U.S. dollars.

BE SPECIFIC

Loi seemed surprised to see us show back up at her shop with the required fabric. I think she figured we'd get lost or discouraged by the madness of the market and give up.

With her notebook, she took my measurements. Not just bust, waist, hips and shoulder to knee. She measured sleeve length, bicep circumference, shoulder/neck to neckline vee and between bust points.


The most important point of getting a garment tailored is to not be shy about describing exactly what you want and repeat yourself in different ways with mimed gestures to be sure you're understood. She wanted me to be happy with the end product and the only way to get what I wanted was to tell her in no uncertain terms, especially considering the language barrier. Direct speech is not usually my way, but I mustered the courage.

"Close-fitted, no gathers at the waist, but full at the bottom," I said, with much gesticulating. It looked like she understood, but I drew a cut diagram of the skirt to be sure. It only served to confuse her.

Pointing at what I wrongly believed were universal cut-on-fold double arrows, she inquired, "You want pockets?" This brought up a good question I hadn't intended on pursuing. As a general rule, I want pockets in everything, but after waffling I decided against it this time, only because rayon is so lightweight my cell phone would have pulled the lines of the dress out of whack.

Loi drew a sketch of the dress to ensure we were on the same page. I made some adjustments and we both nodded and smiled.

We attempted to exchange numbers, but she didn't use the international texting app WhatsApp and she wasn't able to receive my regular SMS text messages. She seemed a little nervous about not being able to keep in touch, but at no point did she mention a down payment for her work.

We pointed at the calendar to determine a date for me to return for an initial fitting. She required only three days, but we were off on other adventures and would return in one week. She bid us goodbye by teaching us how to say "good luck" in Thai (chok dee na kah), which is essentially akin to telling someone to "Have a nice day."

THE FITTING

I was mentally preparing myself to return to Loi and be disappointed. It was likely that some of my requirements had slipped through the language barrier or the fit would be all wrong. But I recognized that even if I hated the end product, the process was fun, and for the equivalent of $33 USD, including fabric, it was totally worth it.

My dress was on Loi's dress-form when we returned, and it was gorgeous. Turned out, she understood exactly the design I wanted and cut the quarter circle skirt just so.


I expected the dress to be half-finished to allow for easy adjustments, but it was complete, seams finished and everything. Which mattered little, because the dress fit me perfectly. Loi made space for me in the storage area behind a curtain in her shop to try it on. The princess seams curved to my body, the shoulders sat smartly in line, perhaps a little stiffly for my usual taste, but in the conservative Thai culture, perfectly balanced and elegant. I felt like a million bucks, or, more accurately, 800 Baht.


We bowed to her in the Thai wai way. Loi took our baht and tapped her calendar with it, to ensure good fortune in the coming year.

I wore my dress home, discreetly checking myself out in the reflections of shop windows.

THE EXPERIENCE

Not only did I go home with a dress that fits me like I was born for it, in the fabrics of my choosing, but I came home with a great story and a better understanding of Thai culture. Not just people, but people who sew, just like me. From sharing tips and knowledge, or just pictures of the projects we create, this skill we share is a common thread that unites us all over the world.

BONUS

Since mine was such a smashing success and since Loi had enough extra material, for another 600 baht, she made a matching dress for her favorite member of our trio. My mini was delighted to go through the same process as her mother and felt very important getting her measurements taken for a custom mother-daughter matching dress.



March 5, 2020

Taiping, Malaysia

With reviews like "dark, creepy hotel" my expectations for The Potato Hotel were low to say the least. Perhaps that's why I was so delighted to find not a dank, dirty Piyaporn-esque place, but friendly staff, spacious room and mostly clean sheets.

"They probably wash these," Mr. Go said of the afghans we were given for blankets. At least there were mattress pads under the sheets and we didn't feel the need to sleep on towels.

We strolled along the highway, expecting to have a hard time finding dinner due to CNY, but we found a place packed with locals and ordered food just before they closed down for the evening. Char koay teow (sometimes called Koay teow goreng), nasi goreng and Mr. Go's favorite, laksa. Then an ais kacang (shaved ice with condensed milk, tapioca jelly, beans and corn).




Mr. Go mused on the importance of bad experiences. His first ais kacang (sometimes called ABC for reasons I don't understand. Ais (ice), beans corn perhaps?) in Penang was not good, which made him appreciate a delicious one all the more. Just like our bad durian experience in Thailand made for such a contrast and such a delightful surprise with good durian in Malaysia.

Babs made friends with some nearby girls, then we watched a movie at the Potato and turned in early.

I made a plan for Taiping the next day, so we took a Grab to the Larut Makang Hawker center for some breakfast, then walked to the Taiping Lake Gardens. There was a playground for Babs and a nice breeze as we strolled along the lake and the pathways to the many islands. The 100+-year-old trees curved sideways onto the roads and cast enormous canopies. We saw a couple monitor lizards, turtles and monkeys in the trees.





It was midday and brain-meltingly hot, so we got some snacks at the shopping mall and went to see Dolittle in the air conditioning. Afterward we took a grab to Simpang to find Mr. Go a barber.

While a taciturn young Indian gentleman sliced Mr. Go's face, Babs and I strolled to scope out dinner options. We waved at the girls whom Babs had befriended the day before when they called out to her from across the street.


Then two young Malay girls stopped on their motorbike to strike up a conversation. Izzati and Afiqah shyly asked to take pictures with us, then recorded the remainder of our conversation. They scored my WhatsApp number and we have been chatting ever since.



We got a couple bags of food from roadside stands, the ubiquitous nasi lemak in cone-shaped banana leaves, some fried sweet potato slices, the nice lady threw in some potato-coconut balls for free (and it cost a total of 4 ringgit). We snagged some finger bananas along the way and called it dinner.


The next morning, we checked out of the Potato. The nice girl at the front desk confessed that she had to check the name on our reservation to be sure Mr. Go was not soccer player Harry Cane (not the first time he has gotten this comment) and asked to get pictures with us all.

Our Grab driver was convinced we would not be able to find decent breakfast around the bus station and also sagely told us we should have got on the bus at the bus stop just up the road from the Potato rather than taking a taxi all the way to the bus station. Yes, he was right on the latter, but how was I to know?

It turned out alright, because there was a street market going on right beside the bus station. We nabbed some char koay teow, potato wedges, chicken balls and kuih and it was delightful.

The bus did indeed stop to pick up passengers at the StarMart office just by the Potato. C'est la vie. There's only so much information available online to a confused traveler.

Hot Tip: When booking bus tickets, try searching for your bus company's ticketing offices rather than just the central bus station.

This bus was just as spacious and comfortable as the last StarMart Express, except better because we were 3 of the 5 people on board. It took 3.5 hours to KL and we stopped twice for the driver to have a smoke break, which suited us fine. We pottied and got meat on a stick snacks.

Once in KL we Grabbed to our Airbnb for our last 4 days of our trip in Malaysia.