Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gong Xi Fa Cai with my Foo Chow family

Note: Part of this was written on Feb. 16th, and the rest was finished in April.

It's here, the holiday I may have looked forward to most this year- Chinese New Year, and Gilbert's family has invited me to join them for the first few days of a 15 day long bonanza. To begin my 2 week long Pan-Sarawak adventure, I took a bus to Gilbert's hometown of Sibu, eastward more toward central Sarawak. My antsiness about not having traveled much out of Kuching since coming there was about to be assuaged.

As soon as I arrived in Sibu, Gilbert met me at the bus station (his car was full of relatives he had driven from Kuching), and I could sense the presence of durian in the car from the potent odor seeping out of the car. My excitement could not be contained, as Gilbert told me that these were yellow flesh durian, as opposed to the white flesh variety I had sampled in Kuching. Since we share similar taste preferences and he noted these were his favorite, I kept bugging him to open it as soon as he thinks it is perfectly ripe. We arrived at his house, and were greeted by the family- mom, brother, nieces and nephews, sister. Gilbert's youngest (5 yr old) nephew, Moo Moo, whom they consider to be the 'naughtiest' of the bunch, is hilarious. He doesn't have a filter and just says/does funny things. Via translation by Gilbert, he expressed his concern and fear of the sweater that is my hair stitched into my torso and back. Very quickly we bonded because I showed him some new visual effects one can achieve in iPhoto (he loved having a photo of himself looking at a cyclops).

Well, dinner was DELICIOUS to start with. Some wonderful homecooked dishes, including this classic foo chow dish using a rice wine-fermented [date] sauce. Then we topped this off with pineapple tarts made fresh by Gilbert's sister. Simply delectable, fantastic, and irresistible. Then we went out with Gilbert's old schoolfriend, Louis, who now lives in Singapore. We visited the 7-storey pagoda right near Tua Pek Kong Temple, but before that I encountered this man sleeping in a strange position, but so typically Malaysian. He was sitting in a chair, leaning forward and resting his head on his hands on the motorbike seat. Seemed so innocent to me and figured it could make a wonderful shot if I whipped out my tripod (it was already evening). I set up my tripod very quietly in front of him, and then snapped my camera in place. I was literally about the click my shutter button when his eyes open and immediately I can tell he is not happy.
I quickly move to the pagoda right around the corner, and take some tripod shots of that. Seeing the temple and people going through their very long held traditions left me with a particularly spiritual feel.

Sleepy Nights in Sibu

Pagoda in Sibu

Walking back to the car, the sleeping man was still there, snoozing happily. I even had my tripod all ready this time. Again prepared it and shot one, not very clear good photo, before he woke up and immediately became furious. without actually getting up, he yelled some angry words in Mandarin and banged some long wooden stick against a pole in an especially threatening manner. We were in the car and out of there within a minute. Gilbert told me that he seemed to be a security guard, and felt his job might be threatened by those photos of him sleeping. Well the guard made his point crystal clear. I guess these kinds of encounters are as much part of street photography as the enthusiasm some (case in point, Becky) have conveyed toward getting their photo taken.

Lastly for our first night, we went to a pub to celebrate the coming of the new year at midnight. We spent some time imbibing, unabashedly entertained by the old stocky Indian men trying to "get it on" with the Philippine call girls singing and dancing on stage. At midnight, I thought Sibu was being bombed from every-which direction, since the firework onslaught occurring all around town was mind-blowingly intense and continued for about 30 minutes at least. This display was paired with the sad and disturbing scene of birds (some black bird with a yellow beak, will confirm the name)in a totally chaotic panic. I have never seen so many of any mammal in one place; one might have thought the apocalypse were dawning on Sibu. Poor birds.

Next day was a food frenzy. We visited like 7 homes, all Gilbert's relatives. Aunties, uncles, cousins, great uncles and aunties, grannies, etc. I will not go through all the food I had, but I'll say that the Lau's are cooks extraordinaire- delicious stews, Chinese herbal soups, fried rice, fried fish, Taiwanese beef (my absolute favorite food from the day), curry, rendang, salads with fresh and/or pickled vegetables. And then there were desserts, the likes of which I had not encountered in my life before. Also there was a huge amount and variety of these treats. Almond biscuits, pineapple tarts, peppermint chocolate cheesecake, custards, powdery sugar butter balls (not the official name, but imagine a spherical pastry, with a buttery powdery consistency inside and confectionary sugar inside), and many many many many more.

Everyone in Gilbert's family is so sweet. Aunties presented me with Ang Pao, small monetary gifts presented in red envelopes from married adults to the unmarried, especially children. They are supposed to confer good luck and prosperity for the new year. I was so honored and surprised to receive these gifts from every household I visited. Malaysian Hospitality is as pervasive as the heat.
The conversations were not all too new to me, as we would touch upon popular topics like the governmental quota system, my unusual penchant for durian and spicy food ("You know how to take the spicy, lah? WOW, not like the other American I Sarawakian inside eh?"), and accomplishments of children studying/working abroad. Everyone went to great lengths to ensure a continuous transit of food into my mouth.

By the end of the day I was totally sold on this food and could not be more exhausted from the workout completed by my palette, jaw muscles, and muscles controlling the swallow reflex.

Next day, we visited this famous park in Sibu, in search of some photogenic scenes and people. Then we met the beautiful sunrise at the main pier area, each of us experimenting with long exposure shots to get that 'perfect' Sibu sunset. I know I didn't accomplish what I set out to do, but learned a hell of a lot about how to do it better next time. And that's the point, keep pushing, keep observing, keep learning, adjust, and repeat.

We spent the rest of our time in Sibu trying local specialties like Kompia (kind of a local version of a mini pita filled with various yummies like curry chicken or potato), boozing and shmoozing with Gilbert's old schoolmates, and experimenting with combinations of fireworks, tripods, cameras, flashes, me, and children. Some worked well and others not so much. So much fun though. I've realized creative endeavors like photography can sometimes be drastically more fun and effective (in terms of learning) when there's a partner in crime. Duly noted for my future photography efforts in SE Asia and then the U.S.

Gong Xi Fa Cai, Sibu!!! Thanks for a great time.

On an unrelated note, I finally paid Chencho for my trip to Bhutan. He has volunteered to organize my entire stay, including the trek and other trips we will be taking. He already got me the visa for my visit, saving me as much as $3000 in visa fees alone. Not only will I be getting a much cheaper trip to this culturally, naturally, and spiritually rich land, I'm getting the local treatment. Chencho says the experience he'll organize will be many times more authentic and meaningful than anything arranged by outside agencies, even Nat. Geo. And so my lessons in traveling continue to fall into my lap. Cool, Ey?
There is not a place I could be more excited to visit in my lifetime.

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