Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve and it is feels like Fourth of July outside, with temperatures around 85 degrees and 85% humidity, but it is better than the 30 degrees in Budapest. We went to Italy for breakfast or at least the bakery called Italy. We cannot get enough of the Portuguese custard pies. When they will appear again on our radar is anyone’s guess; best to fill up on them now.

Walking to the historic city center, we stopped at the Dutch Harbor Café to check their hours. This is the one place we have seen that offers WiFi. We shall return, but onward to the tourism office. I am surprised Ron waited this long before sniffing it out; it is usually the first thing on his agenda. His motto is “Leave no tourism office undiscovered and then rape and pillage their knowledge”. When the tour office is especially convenient, he has been know to make frequent trips in to the office during a stay in one city. Workers have learned that if they are not on Ativan before he arrives, they will be by the time he leaves. He prepares his list of questions, before entering, but this list never seems to diminish as they are answered, but rather grow exponentially. I witnessed one young worker who actually was able to able for retirement by the time we left the chairs facing him. Sad really to see someone so young, age so quickly.

Armed with all of the information he thought we would need for our two days stay, we left. Directly across the street is the Museum of History, next to where the Christ Church is located, not a gathering ground for tourist schlock and bicycle taxis. They are not so efficient, but they are memorable for those who have not seen them before. Each competes with the others in a gaudiest bike from Mr. Black’s worst decorated bike list. As if the lime, hot pink and canary yellow flowers are not enough, some have attached generators to their tri-wheeled taxi in order to have miniature Christmas lights blink on and off while you are serenaded by East Indian love songs in that high pitched shrill nails of the chalkboard sort of undulating vocal noise. Needless to say, we passed up this cultural opportunity.

The entrance fee for the Museum on History was five Ringgits, but also included the Museum of Ethnography, Museum of Education, Museum of Literature, St. Paul’s Church, the Governor’s Museum, and still another governmental museum. With the exception of the last two, we did them all. It was an engaging hour. Well, I exaggerate, but it was not too much longer than this. The Museum of Literature was especially disappointing. The first room was a diorama of Folktales, which I had high hopes, but then after that was just a propagation of Islam and Arabic with famous letters written by one of the Sultans to the King of England. It was not until the last room, that Malay cultural literature was continued, but none of the descriptions were in English.

For an educational museum, there was not much to see, but a diorama with a teacher holding a stick over a child’s head while they copied from the board onto their individual slates. Other exhibits were old report cards and school memorabilia. One of the other guests was a man who had gone to school here and recounting his memories for his son. Listening to this was worth the price of admission to the whole complex. From the son’s accent, they have been living in North America.

Based on Ron’s investigations, we knew there where two hop-on hop-off buses that stopped on this circle. He had wanted to see the Portuguese section of the city and this was the best way to get there. One bus is a double-decker while the other is single and they have different routes. According to the ‘tour’ bus map, the red double-decker should have taken us to this Eurasian part of the city, so we hopped on and paid our five Ringgits for a full days travel. Unlike in most cities, where a hop-on and off bus offers a commentary about what you are seeing, this one was silent with the exception of the jabbering of the locals who use this as local transport. After two blocks, we made a stop, and then we went for over thirty minutes before the next stop. Just like a local bus, you have to tell the driver when you want to get off, but this was not clear to us. We rode the whole circuit. With the hypermarket Tesco and a mall being the highlights of the ride, we realized we were not getting any closer to anything Portuguese then when we left Budapest.

Actually, the real highlight was waiting for the bus. By the bus stop is a gentleman with three snakes of varying size and variety along with a huge iguana. The iguana, a café latte brown with some black stripes on his tail, was quite dashing and with his three inch nails, making it certain he could cut a rug both figuratively and literally. His head had a mass of horns coming out of it like a deformed unicorn, but such a pleasant docile personality to spend hours being on display. We never actually saw him move, I hope he was not stuffed. Unquestionably, the snakes were real. For ten Ringgits, the man would drape his 15 foot yellow snake around your neck, take your picture and then use his portable photo printer to print it. If yellow was not your color, he had other choices in patterns of browns and blacks. Quite clever, but since I have posed with snakes before, both the reptile and mammal versions, I declined the offer to model for him. It occurred to me that he must have to give the snakes a rest once a week or so for feeding. Who would want a snake wrapped around their neck with a big bulge half the way down its body?

Being Christmas Eve, Ron had to do the Catholic thing. We stopped at St. Francis Xavier’s Church to find out masses were at 7:30 pm in Tamil and10:30 pm in English. Back to the hotel to read and rest, we left again at 6:30 to ensconce me at the Dutch Harbor Café across the street from the church, where I would check e-mail and hope my battery did not run out before Ron reappeared. The owner is American, born in England and lived most of his life in Minnesota. He was a commercial pilot and after retiring was offered a teaching position by Air Asia. He opened this restaurant because his friends told him if he was going to whine about not finding a good pizza or other Euro or American food menus, he should open his own restaurant. It sits on the Dutch Harbor, hence the name.

When Ron returned, he stated that being a Tamil language mass, he was the only lily white person there. The church was overflowing into the courtyard and beyond to the edge of the street. He was not in awe of the music, partially due to the language, but also the instruments were too different for his ears.

We went looking for a recommended restaurant that serves a particular version of Indian food indigenous to Malaysia, but when we found it, it was closed. I did not bring my wallet thinking that carrying the backpack with the computer was enough; we were relegated to finding a restaurant that accepted cards. By chance we found one and it must be the gayest restaurant in Malaysia. The ‘hostess’ was so butch she makes my father look like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Each of the waiters was more flaming than the next and we half expected a pyrotechnic display before we left. We verified they took credit cards and agreed that MasterCard was acceptable.

Being a balmy evening, we sat outside with diners at five other tables. We ordered a full meal, being Christmas Eve and all. As the evening progressed, additional tables and chairs were set out on the street to fulfill the growing demand for food and drinks. When we were ready to go, the count was up to twelve tables all filled with customers waiting. Asking for the bill, Ron handed over his charge card. It seemed like an impossibly long time before the waiter retuned and said “I am sorry sir, there is a problem with your card. We have a chip card reader and your credit card does not have the chip.” I had read about this issue in Europe, but would not have imagined it would have appeared here already. Apparently, all of the credit card issuers in Europe are changing their cards to have a computer chip in them. The retailer inserts the card into a reader, negating the need for swiping it; supposedly this is to reduce fraud and problems with the magnetic strips. However, since North American cards do not have this chip, travelers have encountered this problem when traveling. The solution is to tell the retailer to swipe the card the ‘old fashioned’ way as their chip readers are dually capable. They supposedly tried this, but it did not work. I told them to punch in the numbers manually, but they said that did not work either. Between us, we only had 50 Ringgits and the bill was 69. After discussing the matter with the waiter, then the hostess, we finally worked our way to the manager. I kept insisting that if they did it right, it would work fine. Proof was that it worked in KL just days ago. They insisted they were not trying again. We gave them our 50 Ringgits and signed an IOU for 19 more. How humiliating is that? Merry Christmas! Where is Santa Claus when you need him?

When we returned to the hotel at 11:30, the lobby was black and the front door was barred shut. The way things were going it would not have surprised me if we found the only hotel with a curfew and we were locked out of it. As we peered into the window, we saw a security guard who opened the side door for us and had our key ready. Not quite Santa Claus, but he did do in a pinch.

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