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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

The prospect of keeping the children entertained during their week-long fall break in Chiang Mai put fear into our hearts, and we thought we’d take them to two of the places we enjoyed most ten years ago: the tiny city of Melaka, also known as Malacca, in Malaysia, and Singapore.  Malaysia strikes us both as a dull nation mostly made up of palm-oil plantations, office parks, and legislated racism, but Melaka is a joy, more welcoming and cosmopolitan than any other place we’d been in that country.  Perhaps it feels so different because it is dominated by one of Malaysia’s oppressed minorities, the Straits-born Chinese, or perhaps because it is a port city and colonial outpost with an ancient history of ever-shifting administrators, traders, and pirates.  At one point, eighty-one languages were spoken in the city.  Melaka’s unique Peranakan culture is still very tangible: a hybrid of the Chinese traders that arrived in the 15th and 16th century who intermarried with the native Malays, and further enhanced by the Indian and Sri Lankan laborers imported by the British.   Their food–which was the real reason Ken and I returned–combines the best of all these flavorsome cuisines, sour with tamarind, sweet with shallots, rich in seafood and fruit, tangy with coconut, and balanced out by the simple flavors of classic southern Chinese home-cooking. Add to that heady cultural mix some serious colonial charm, brought to the city by European administrators, beginning in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese, who were chased off by the Dutch, and then finally by the British, who preferred to trade through Singapore, let Melaka’s port silt up, and allowed its buildings and streets to go untouched by modernity.

Of course, the next batch of foreigners to arrive were tourists, attracted by the fantastic architecture and astounding food.  It was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2008, and attracts floods of weekenders from Singapore as well as European tourists.  In the decade since we first visited, Melaka discovered some very lucrative “heritage,” such as the gaudily-decorated rickshaws that ply the tourist trade in front of the old Dutch Statehouse that had never been seen before there.  But somehow Melaka remains a working city, where funeral meats are roasted and loaded up in the trunks of cars in the middle of the historic quarters, and traditional medicine flourishes.  Melaka’s Little India is still bustling.  We gave the kids their first South Indian meal off of banana leaves, and they were thrilled to get to eat with their fingers.This picture, however, we know will be part of our revisionist history about how great this trip was: their smiles suggest they actually ate their lunches, of which they only ate a few bites of dal.  But we were charmed by Melaka’s unfussy Little India.  Our rickshaw rides took us to a Tamil neighborhood where we stopped at a Hindu temple preparing for a festival to honor the goddess of education and met a thirteenth-generation Straits-born Tamil man, who bemoaned his children’s inability to speak Tamil and invited us to return that evening to make pooja.

I am willing to bet, however, that his children squabbled less than our children did during our time in Melaka.  It was never-ending spats over who slept on which side of the four-poster bed in our guest-house (a renovated 17th century Dutch warehouse), who rode with whom in the rickshaws, and who got to hold Mama’s right hand, because neither of them wanted to hold the left.  They were able to fight over anything, and did.  The wonders of the food and the architecture and the miracle of Melaka’s remaining charms were completely lost on them.  In retrospect, we may have completely underestimated how exhausted they would be taking in the differences between Chiang Mai and Melaka and Singapore: while familiar enough to us, they were in fact quite a different landscape for the kids.  We thought, “Same same,” and they thought “different.”  They did enjoy a sixteenth-century Portuguese ship that has been restored and turned into a maritime museum, but even that lost its appeal soon enough.  Added to these melt-downs and squabbling was what we named “the Indonesian haze,” a huge cloud of smoke that was drifting over the Straits of Melaka to cover the city.  Following Malaysia’s economic success as an exporter of palm-oil, Indonesia was busily burning down swathes of land so that they, too, could turn themselves into a large palm-oil plantation cum office park, and we got to breathe the by-product.  It was worst in the morning–our eyes would sting and we all developed hacking little coughs–and then improved some in the afternoon when the breezes picked up over the water.  We retreated to the filtered air of a shopping mall one day and watched the Malaysian version of “Scream 2,” a horror-comedy about spirit possession, during which the children actually learned a huge amount about Malaysian culture.  Otherwise, we took our adventures outdoor during the late afternoon, when the government–uselessly shaking its fists at Indonesia–deemed it safe for children and the elderly.

And then we took a bus to Singapore.  Ah, Singapore, the fantasia of autocrats, the anxious, and the obsessively well-mannered.  Possessing more than one of these traits, I love Singapore.  Where else does the government successfully outlaw every possible social annoyance?  Yes, we all have heard about being caned for spitting chewing gum on the sidewalk, but when did spitting out your chewing gum–much less spitting publicly at all–become a human right?  And where else could you see signs like these?

Ascher’s idea of heaven is a hotel breakfast buffet, where he can eat pancakes, waffles, bacon, fruit, and sweet rolls to his heart’s content.  A buffet, of course, is a ripe opportunity for hygiene lapses, and sure enough, a teenage boy started coughing over the pile of clean plates.  Forgetting I was in a city-state where English is almost uniformly spoken, I said aloud to Ascher, “Now that’s a hygiene lapse.”  The boy looked abashed and went off to finish coughing and to blow his nose out in the hall, and a group of guests attending a Buddhist conference nodded approvingly.

Part of my affection for Singapore is the thoroughness with which the Singaporeans defeated the jungle swamp on which the city is built.  Nature has been conquered there, or allowed to show itself only in the perfectly groomed gardens and parks.  It is South-East Asia nearly devoid of mosquitoes, free from the inevitable rot and decay of tropical cities, and air-conditioned within an inch of its life.

I don’t particularly care for dogs, primarily because most owners are so infatuated with their animals that they neither leash or train them sufficiently, not imagining that you’d rather their dog not jump up and put its muddy paws all over you, or that your children might be scared by the large dog running and barking loudly at them.  Singapore has also taken care of this problem for me, as seen in this particular sign from the Botanical Gardens.

It’s the specificity of the phrase “and related crosses” that I love so much.  And of course it goes without saying that you would scoop your dog’s poop.  That law is clearly already deeply impressed upon this populace, and it’s a better city for it.

Singapore, a “family-friendly destination,” was much more to Ascher’s and Camilla’s taste than Melaka.  They rejoiced in clean, open sidewalks they could run down as fast as they liked, lush green parks to frolic through, the swift, silent subway, the futuristic malls of Orchard Road, and the plethora of spotless, Western style public toilets.  We stayed at the YMCA (which is really a nice non-profit hotel), and Camilla displayed to our fellow patrons at a food court the extent of her pleasure in staying there: We spent a full day at the Singapore Zoo, and the kids were obviously happy to get back into a setting they understood.  Here, too, I appreciated Singapore’s nearly complete domestication of its natural setting. Ken was chosen to throw the frisbee for a sea-lion at their show, and the kids were fit to burst with pride:

In addition to all this family-friendliness, of course, we ate splendidly.  Before we left Chiang Mai, we resolved to feed the kids whatever they wanted, french fries, pizza, whatever, as long as they tried a bit of what we ate and left us to enjoy our meals in gluttonous peace.  We slurped chewy noodles that had been kneaded and pulled on order for us, fabulous vegetarian mock meat, Hainanese chicken, steamed and deep-fried dumplings, laksa soup, sweet Chinese sesame and bean pancakes, chicken biryani, and murtabak.  We learned to drink iced Milo and hot pink rose-petal syrup, beaten with sweetened condensed milk and crushed ice.  Ascher ate a lot of fried rice, and Camilla seemed to subsist mostly on air, but we were past caring whether our children starved or not.  We dragged them to every hawker center, or food court, we could find.  My favorite way to eat in Singapore, hawker centers let you choose from such an enormous range of food, and see for which stalls the locals are queuing up.  Additionally, you get to meet all kinds of people, like this lovely man, drunk on mugs of beer with cinnamon sticks in them, who showed the kids the grotesque wonders of his double-jointed thumb.

For Ken and me, and certainly for Camilla, the highlight of Singapore was Little India, which was celebrating Deepavali, its festival of lights, while we were there.  The neighborhood was strung up with fairy-lights, shops open and pouring forth light and music and displays of seasonal decorations and presents onto the sidewalks, and temporary arcades for holiday clothes and household goods open and sparkling between the buildings.  Both children were hypnotized by the blocks of gold shops, with the chains and rings and bracelets of deep yellow 22-karat gold displayed on endless expanses of red velvet.  But it was Camilla who most fully absorbed the aesthetics of Little India, yearning after the sparkling saris, the flowers, the piles of syrupy sweets and crunchy snacks, and the jewels.

She and I were both delighted to find floral-offering stands, something like salad bars of flowers at which you indicate your choices for the offering garlands you wanted made.

I opted for orchids in amongst my jasmine, and she wanted red roses.  Ascher professed boredom with Little India–“is there anything besides gold and candy and lights?  It’s all girl stuff”–but that was before we took him to a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, the goddess of destruction.  The priests, clad only in short white dhotis and smeared with white pastes, walked around the temple’s chambers, lit by flickering candles, making mysterious offerings off of brass plates, all under terrifying bas-reliefs of death, murder, destruction, and mayhem.  I thought it beautiful and fantastic, and then I feel something gripping my arm hard.  I look down to see Ascher, scared and shaking, as if he’s in the midst of a terrible nightmare, begging, “Mama, please take me home, please.”  Given that his grasp of the difference between reality and imagination has always been somewhat fuzzy, we did.

The miracle of this vacation was that Ken and I managed to snatch quite a bit of pleasure despite the children squabbling and the Indonesian haze which eventually followed us to Singapore.  We were able on several occasions to completely ignore them, as we ate what we wanted to eat and saw what we wanted to see.  On occasion, we could even outsmart them into having a good time, as we did in Singapore’s Orchid Garden, where we invented a contest to pick the family’s favorite orchid (the winner was a bizarre, spiky, dark bronze space-age-looking one).

Perhaps one day, they’ll write their own revisionist history of this vacation. Or maybe they will appreciate these places and their pleasures more in their next lifetime.

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