Thursday, September 28, 2006

How to be early

This morning I woke at 5.30am, before the alarm went off. I looked at the time and said to myself,

"Ooh, look! I still have another half hour!" Then I turned off the alarm and went back to sleep.

You read that right. I turned off the alarm. And went back to sleep.

How did I trick myself into doing that? I can't remember, now, although I do remember thinking it was logical. What kind of reasoning did I use on myself? Why did I think that was a good idea?

The Man, fortunately, noticed that I was still soundly sleeping ten minutes after I was supposed to be awake, and woke me up. I panicked so badly (or so well) I got to the station early again. This time I was early enough to get an earlier train, with better connections than my usual one, and got to the coffee shop near the university a more than an hour before first class. I had a very, VERY leisurely breakfast. Usually I have about 35 minutes.

When I got to work I discovered I had left my teaching notebook at home, and didn't have a clue what I'd done in class last week. It turned out all right, though. I have become a pretty good ad-libber.

I suppose you could say that this means my bad habits are GOOD for me. They force me to learn new things, like how to ad-lib in tricky situations.

I suspect they're bad for my hair, though. I only noticed on my way home how it looked at the front (a bit mad), and said to a colleague,

"Does it show that I did my hair in a hurry this morning? Can you check the back?"

She inspected the back of my head and started laughing so hard I couldn't understand what she said next.

Was that a yes or a no, do you think?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Why is it so much easier to develop bad habits than good ones?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Even sneakier

I took on the bureaucracy on Friday, and and now I'm feeling smug.

Remember in April I wrote about how I tricked two departments into changing the classrooms I'd been assigned? At that time it was a victory, but in the case of the arts department it was only a partial victory. They insisted that I could only change the room for the first semester, and then only because I had already checked that my students would not be inconvenienced. (The law department didn’t mention the second semester.) The arts department informed me sternly that I would have to use the original classroom for the second semester, or if I wanted to change I would have to again go through the process of finding out first whether or not it was convenient for the students, then booking the room, and then requesting official permission.

At the time I was feeling so pleased with myself for getting this 'impossible' concession out of them for the first semester that I didn't worry about the second semester. It seemed a long way off.

But on Friday, at lunchtime, I suddenly realized that I didn't know where my two afternoon classes were going to be. Would the students be waiting for me in the classrooms we used all first semester, or would they have changed back to the original rooms? I didn't know. Would I have to do the whole running all over two campuses thing again, to get it all sorted out? Would anybody remember that it was supposed to be for only one semester?

I talked about it with my boss, and he didn't know either. I was pretty sure the law class would be fine, but didn't even want to take that one for granted. How annoying would it be if I had to spend the afternoon running around the place looking for my students and trying to herd them into one place?

My boss suggested that I go to the little office beside the lifts in the building with the inconveniently placed 11th and 12th floor classrooms. They had all the classroom allocation information for the entire campus, he said, and they might know what the students had been told.

I tried to think which office he meant.

"Do you mean the office on the ground floor where they keep the keys for the classroom cabinets?" I said, and didn't add, The place where nobody ever, ever smiles?

"Yes. That one," said my boss.

I went.

In the office, one guy was sitting at his desk staring into space, another was inspecting the bottom of his coffee cup, one was reading a newspaper on his desk and digging out his ear with his little finger, and the only woman was talking on the phone. Nobody smiled back when I smiled and said, "Good afternoon." Nobody seemed inclined to find out what I wanted, either, so I looked at the nearest guy (staring into space, now staring blankly at me) and talked to him. I began by apologizing for disturbing them when they were so busy. (I was not in the least bit sarcastic. I am never sarcastic with office people. I said the words you are supposed to say, that’s all.) Then I explained that although the two classrooms I had been allocated for that afternoon had already been changed to the same one classroom at the beginning of the year, I was a little worried that in the second semester the students might have been told to go back to the original classrooms. Could he please tell me what the students had been informed? I did not want to cause trouble for the students, so wanted to make sure we all ended up in the same place.

I had uttered the magic words. Nobody wants to cause problems for students. Students are to be given as little trouble as possible. They are paying big money in order to have a good time in their four years of freedom, and everybody knows that it is very, very important not to cause them trouble. The guy I was speaking to interrupted the woman on the phone and told her to get onto it immediately. Then he sat down and stared at a bit of paper.

The woman checked her own records first, and said that both classes were in the same classroom they’d been in last semester. But, worried about whether the students had been informed by their own departments, she called the law department. They confirmed that the students had already been told that the classroom was the same as first semester.

Next she called the arts department. This was the one I was worried about. After all, they had told me in the first semester that I had to go back to the original classroom in the second semester. If anybody over there was actually thinking, and remembered how the situation had been worked out the first time, they might not be very pleased with me for consulting somebody else.

My helper, however, phrased the question just right.

"Do the students know that they're to use the same classroom as the one they used last semester?" she asked.

There was a protracted pause while the woman at the other end of the line looked things up. Then she got back on the line and said that no, the students had not been informed. This caused a minor panic. Oh dear, how could this possibly have happened? There seemed to be some intricate but polite blame-allocation going on for the next five minutes or so, while the two of them tried to figure out where the information chain had broken down. I decided not to tell my helper that her office had made the mistake, and that permission for the change was supposed to be only for the first semester and her records were wrong. I didn’t think that it was information she would be happy to hear, and I am a considerate person. I don’t like to make people unhappy.

In the end, the woman in the arts department said she would put a notice up in the original classroom on their campus, directing students to the classroom on the main campus.

You see, somehow, and I can't IMAGINE how, the arts department managed to get the idea that they themselves had been the ones to change the classroom, to inform the office in charge of classroom allocations, and then forget to tell the students. Heavens, they forgot to tell themselves! How embarrassing.

The very best bit came at the end, when the person in the arts department passed on an apology to me for the inconvenience they’d caused me.

I forgave them, of course. “No problem at all,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

I wasn’t lying, either. I really don’t want them to worry about it. If they worry about it too much they might figure out what really happened.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A funny sort of day

"Something magical happened this morning," I told The Man tonight after he came home.

"What?" he asked.

"Well, I left the house at 6.18 am, but I got to the station at 6.10 am. I looked at the clock before I left."

"I don't think you left at 6.18," he said. "It was earlier than that. You left really suddenly."

"But I checked the clock!" I said. "I'm sure I did."

"You were a bit strange this morning, actually," said The Man. "You just disappeared. One minute you were there and the next you were gone."

"What do you mean, 'disappeared'?" I said. "I said goodbye!"

"Yes, you did," he said. "But then you went quiet. You left the room, but I didn't hear you in the genkan, and didn't hear you unlock or lock the front door, and didn't hear the gate. So I went down to see what had happened to you, and you had disappeared! So had your bicycle. I went out to check. But you made no sound at all after you left the room."

"I was just being considerate," I said defensively, and the little hairs stood up on the back of my neck. "I was quiet so I wouldn't disturb anybody."

I didn't want to worry him, but actually I have no memory of leaving the house. I don't remember going out the door, or locking it, or getting on my bicycle, although I do remember climbing the steps to the station. And my bicycle was parked in its usual place when I got back to the station tonight.

Something funny is going on. I think maybe I tripped over a tear in the space-time fabric on my way down the stairs, and got to the station before I left the house. I don't think I even used the door, or the bicycle. When the tear was repaired the bicycle had to be moved so nobody would know. It wouldn't do for people to know that weird stuff like this happens. It would be too upsetting. People like to think time is stable and consistent. It isn't. We just imagine it is.

But I hope it doesn't happen too often. I had to hang around for fifteen minutes on the station platform this morning, waiting for my train to arrive, and it wasn't very interesting.

What was interesting, however, was something that happened when I was coming home. I was at another station, walking along the platform to change trains, and a couple of people were walking in front of me. Suddenly one of them screamed and jumped sideways, collapsing on the platform. The reason she screamed was that a pigeon had fallen out of the rafters of the platform roof and landed on her head.

This was a very surprising thing to happen, for the woman and for the pigeon. It fluttered away and stood for a moment at the edge of the platform, looking dazed. Bird 'flu! I thought, but then it shook itself and flew back up into the rafters, apparently perfectly healthy. The woman and her friend started laughing, but I thought it was an odd sort of thing to happen. That was not normal pigeon behaviour. They're supposed to crap on your head, not land on it.

What with time going backwards and birds falling out of the rafters it was a funny sort of day altogether.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


(Continued from last entry...)

Our 'taxi driver' dropped us off at the beginning of the boardwalk into the mangrove forest. As I said, the rain was easing off a bit. However, pretty much as soon as he drove off, and around about the time when we realized that we were the only people there, the rain decided it hadn't quite finished after all.

Fortunately there was a shelter. We decided to wait in the shelter for the rain to stop, or at least to stop being the sort of rain that requires goggles and a snorkel.

From the shelter we could see the beginning of the boardwalk. I tried to take a picture of the boardwalk, and got some interesting effects.

Eventually the rain eased off enough for us to venture into the forest. It was very damp in there, and quiet, and sort of spooky.

As the rain lessened and stopped, we started hearing beautiful birdsong. I tried and tried to see the bird, and after a lot of staggering around with my head tilted back, managed to see one, washing itself. Or perhaps drying itself. The pictures aren't very good, but perhaps someone can identify it and tell me what it is and whether it was the bird responsible for that wonderful sound. I'm afraid it looks rather like a small pigeon, but you never know. Maybe it's a clever disguise.

In any case, I am fairly sure that this hairy bloke was not the one we heard singing.

The mangrove forest was weird and interesting and beautiful, and I would definitely visit there again. The only drawback was that it was almost the only place we visited in Malaysia where there were no food stalls and no transportation. We ended up using what had become the day's routine form of transport; we walked to the main road and found another impromptu taxi driver.

Convenient, isn't it? Malaysia has people who become taxi drivers when they see you coming. And they don't even overcharge very much.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Out at Port Weld, we walked along a street and The Man told us the waterfront was right behind the warehouses (or whatever they were). We couldn't find a way through, though. There seemed to be no road, or even path. After a while The Man indicated one of the warehouses (or whatever they were), and said,

"Let's go through here."

So we did, secure in the knowledge that if anything bad happened it would his fault.

It was not the kind of thing I would have done on my own. I would have decided that I couldn't just wander through someone's shed without permission. You don't need any NO TRESPASSING signs when I'm around. I just assume I'm not allowed to do things, and don't. Pathetic, isn't it? I think I got traumatized as a child when I saw a TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED sign and looked it up when I got home. The trauma came from remembering the words wrongly, and looking up PERSECUTED.

When we walked through, nobody tried to stop us. Some guys looked at us curiously, but in a friendly kind of way, and didn't seem to mind at all that we had just walked into their shed. Nobody subjected us to prolonged hostility and ill-treatment, or even to brief hostility and ill-treatment.

We went through to the waterfront, and looked at the boats.

Take note of the clouds in this next picture. Those clouds became relevant not very long after these pictures were taken.

We walked out on the little pier, and could see the mangroves over the other side. And more boats. It is a busy little port, but at the same time sort of peaceful. A large bird circled overhead, and I took several very blurry photographs of it. I took better ones of boats.

After we'd watched the boats for a while, we went back through the shed and followed the road a little further. We found something very orange.

Have you ever wondered how dried shrimps got to be dried? Now you know. Or at least you know how these particular shrimps got to be dried.

After this we walked a bit further, and then stopped for a tea. It was about now that the clouds became suddenly very, very relevant.

In the vicinity of Taiping, our experience was that you don't get drizzle, or even showers. You get thundering downpours. Taiping has a reputation of being the Rain Town of peninsula Malaysia, and apparently takes its reputation very, very seriously.

Eventually it eased off a bit, and someone in the cafe (the owner?), who had a car suddenly became a taxi driver and offered to take us to the mangrove forest, which was where we were planning to go next.

(To be continued)

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Also in the Lake Gardens in Taiping, there was a playground, with a slide. The slide was very wide and not very long.

In fact...

... the slide was just about the right size ...

... for a family ...

... of ten.

Underwear art

When we visited Port Weld (near Taiping) we were walking along a road when we passed an abandoned house with no windows or doors. Through one of the windows I glimpsed some washing hanging on the line outside the house behind it.

"Wait!" I said. "I have to take a picture!"

The Man and my friend pretended to be disgusted.

"You're taking a picture of underwear?" said The Man. "Yarashii!"

"Typical!" said my friend, and they both laughed.

What kind of person do they think I am? Maybe they were looking at underwear, but I was looking at an unintentional work of art.

(That's my excuse anyway, and I'm sticking to it.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Taiping Lake Gardens

The Lake Gardens at Taiping are beautiful, and I highly recommend that you visit if you are ever in Malaysia. In Taiping it rains a lot (i.e. every afternoon) and is very humid, which I imagine could be a little tiring if you're not used to humidity. Coming from Japan in the summer, however, it felt pretty comfortable. At least it was cooler than it was here.

In any case, it is because of the rain and humidity that the gardens are so lush and beautiful, and that makes it worth it.

Does anybody know what these flowers are?

And is this a palm nut?

And what are these, with the gloriously red stems?

With the probability of rain at any given time being so ridiculously high, the garden planners have sensibly provided shelters at conveniently spaced intervals.

The gardens are a lovely place to wander around, or to paddle in the lake...

... or to sit quietly, thinking about life.

As evening falls, however, things can get a little spooky...

Monday, September 11, 2006


One of the hardest things about returning to Japan is the food. I have been eating extremely well for three weeks, with lots of variety and styles of cooking (Chinese, Indian, Malay), and suddenly I'm back here where the food is bland and expensive. Why is it that Chinese food in Malaysia can be ten times more tasty for a tenth of the price of 'good' Chinese food in Japan? And where is my Nasi Kandar?

Looking at this picture is making me hungry.


I have discovered that I blog less when I am travelling with others than when I am traveling alone. I want to make up for it, but I am too tired to write just now. It was a long trip back, via Beijing. (Actually I suspect any trip using Air China would feel like a long one.)

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from the beginning of our three weeks away.

These are some rather odd mannequins we saw in Central Market in Kuala Lumpur. The second and fourth ones are all right, but one, three and five can give you a bit of a fright if you come across them unawares.

The same evening (was it our first day?) The Man took us for a walk to see the way the streets around Merdeka Square are lit up at night. It was beautiful.

More tomorrow, probably. I have a lot of catching up to do and a lot of photos to sort out.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Last day...

Today was my last full day here. Tomorrow night (actually just after midnight) I'm heading back to Osaka, the long way, with my friend. We are not looking forward to Beijing.

The Man has five more days.

I don't want to leave. I'll have to, though, because in anticipation of leaving I have not done any laundry (or had it done) for the last three days. I have nothing clean left to wear.

My friend has caught a cold, poor thing, and is feeling miserable. Flying will not be fun for her.

Tonight as we were eating (at the same place as last night - there were some things on the menu we wanted to try but didn't have space for last night) a family of four came in and ordered their meal. Then they separated a newspaper into four parts, and each member of the family spread out their bit of newspaper and started to read. It looked like a well-practiced ritual, and all was calm and content from that corner of the restaurant. The Man and I couldn't stop grinning. They looked SO comfortable and happy.

Did you know that if you point your finger at a rainbow, your finger will drop off? I read that today, in a book about Malaysia, in the bit about local superstitions.


Being back in K.L. is fun, although somewhat tiring. It is such a BUSY city. And huge. Also, it is not exactly a pedestrian-friendly city. Malaysians seem to be very devoted to their cars and never leave them at home, so you have to be alert all the time so you don't get run over crossing the road.

I have not been run over yet. Don't worry. I am being very careful.


The Man and I visited Midvalley Complex (or Mall, or something) today looking for a carry-on bag for me when I fly out, to carry all the extra stuff, and discovered that the HUUUGE mall had only a couple of shops selling bags, and they were expensive. We had fun anyway, though, and it was a successful shopping trip even though we didn't get what we thought we were after.

What we got instead was a new adaptor for my Palm. I discovered, the first time I tried to charge it, on this, its first trip, that apparently when you get mobile devices from the U.S. their adaptors get fried when you try to recharge them in any other country. Japan and the U.S. are pretty much the same, so I'd had no problem using it in Japan, but the first thing I did when I got it here was to plug it in and render the adaptor instantly unusable. It hadn't even occurred to me to check whether I needed a converter because I've had no problem with devices bought in Japan (camera battery charger, iPod). I toasted the adaptor and not the Palm itself, fortunately, but still, it has taken until today to find another one. The new adaptor is supposed to work with anything from 110v to 220v, but still, I'm not risking it. I'm using it with a converter as long as I'm here.

How can they call it a 'mobile' device when it requires you to carry around a bulky, heavy converter just so you can recharge it? Does 'mobile' in the U.S. actually mean 'mobile only if you don't actually take it anywhere'?


On our way back from our shopping trip, a little kitten had found its way onto the train platform and was wandering around trying to make friends. Some guy was sitting on the steps down to the platform, looking cool, and soon discovered that it was impossible to remain looking cool with a kitten on his lap. He brushed it off and stood up, trying to regain his cool, but it wasn't any easier standing up because the kitten started chasing its tail right in front of him. Can anybody look cool while they're watching a kitten go bananas? I know I can't. He couldn't, either.


My friend bumped into two of her students today. Oh, the horror! Who wants to be reminded of work when they're on holiday?


While we were having dinner, The Man and I were watching some other foreigners eating Chinese food. They hadn't watched how the locals eat, apparently, because they were having terrible trouble picking up slippery bits of chicken with slippery plastic chopsticks. But everybody around them was eating using chopsticks AND a spoon. You use the chopsticks like a shovel, pushing the bits onto the spoon. Easy! They ended up tearing at the bits of chicken with their fingers, and it was all very messy.

We had a delicious meal. We had claypot mushroom noodles, sweet and sour pork, fried rice, and some green vegetable stirfried in oyster sauce. It was all washed down with Chinese tea, and I am now feeling very, very sleepy.


Only two days left. I do not want to go home. When I go home, I will have to start preparing for work to start. It is very difficult to think about work.


OK, lah!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Penang-Kota Baru-Kapas-Kuantan-KL

We seem to be here in the wet season. At least, it rains in the afternoons, after wonderful, sunny days. This means that it is cooler in the evenings, which is perfect.

From the bus from Penang to Kota Baru we saw a lot of tired clouds. They were tired of holding themselves up in the sky, and were resting in the hills. They draped themselves into valleys amongst the trees and looked exhausted and beautiful.

I also saw a sign with the silhouette of an elephant on it. I looked and looked for elephants, but apparently the sign was lying. I am glad it was, because the bus was going so fast it was overtaking fast cars, and even though it was a big bus I don't think it would have done very well in an encounter with an elephant at high speed. (Not that the elephant would have done much better.) Fortunately The Man was asleep. He hadn't wanted to take the night bus because, he said, it was like racing in the F1 Grand Prix in the dark on a mountainous road. He was sure the wheels left the road at times on the trip he took a few years back.

We had seen a lot of monkeys at the zoo in Taiping, and heard them in the jungle, and they must have made a big impression on me, because in Kota Baru when The Man went to the bathroom in the night and flushed the toilet, making it gurgle (it was a noisy toilet) I had a very vivid dream that a monkey was outside the window, vomiting loudly. This woke me up (it would have woken you up, too) and when I realized it was just a dream I told The Man about it. He told me I wasn't making any sense and went back to sleep. But it did make sense, and it was a very LARGE monkey, vomiting a LOT. So what if it was just a dream?

In Kota Baru we didn't have time to get to an Internet cafe, or at least we did, but it was closed. We left after that for Pulau Kapas, a little island on the east coast that we visited three years ago. We wanted to stay in the same chalets as we did last time, but they were full the first night with a noisy gathering of teachers from KL, so we stayed next door. We didn't like it there, so moved after the teachers had gone. Then we had two full days, getting all sandy, snorkelling and swimming and generally being very relaxed because there was nothing else to do.

The fish were biting very well. One bit me, even. It was a traumatic experience and potentially dangerous, because I discovered it is impossible to laugh hysterically while wearing goggles and a snorkel without getting water up your nose. I had never seen such an annoyed wee fish and it was pretty funny. If I'd laughed any harder I might have drowned.

You can see the mainland from the island, and the lights are pretty at night. My friend told me one evening, as we were sipping drinks and gazing over that way, that she had seen lightning to the right of that right white light, and I was impressed and asked her to say it again, faster.

After the island we went to Kuantan, but only for one day. We wanted to pay a visit to a cafe we discovered last time we were there, and to drink watermelon juice on the riverfront. These may seem like trivial reasons to visit a place, but it was worth it. I was slightly dismayed to discover that the cafe has since become famous enough to make it into the Lonely Planet (hey! That was MY cafe! I discovered it!) but happy to find that it hadn't changed much. We spent a little time in there chatting with the owners.

But the best thing in Kuantan this time was our taxi driver, whose picture and name and number I will post here when I get back to Japan and can upload my pictures. If you are ever in Kuantan and need a taxi, PHONE HER. I promise you will not be disappointed (or cheated), but you will be entertained, will laugh more than you ever expected to in a taxi, and if you are brave you will want to adopt her and take her home.

We have decided that our taxi driver should be Queen of the World. We will send her to the world's trouble spots and she will sort everybody out in no time at all. At the same time she will make them laugh so hard they will not even notice that they are being sorted out. She would be a FABULOUS Queen and make everybody happy.

Also in Kuantan, some very small boys decided it would be funny to poke my friend and I in the bottom, and terrorized us until we got the bright idea of tickling them into submission. After that they gave up and wandered off, arms around each other. They were cute, but rather frightening. You know how you clench your bottom when someone pokes you there? I was worried I would be coming home with a Malaysian child's finger in my bottom. That would have been an interesting souvenir.

We arrived back in KL tonight, and have four more days before returning to Japan. Our first job when we got here was an emergency laundry visit. Then Chinese food. (The east coast doesn't have much Chinese food.) And now we're here, finally getting to check my email and update this. More will follow soon, I hope, but catching up on my usual reading will have to wait until I get back to Japan. I hope you are all having as good a summer as I am.

OK, lah!