Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hitchhiking from the UK to Morocco (Throwback)

Flashback to nearly 6 years ago, I had one of the most epic and amazing adventures of my life when I signed up for a hitchhiking trip from the UK to Morocco (Charity Hitch by Link Community Development UK), which takes place at most of the major universities all over the UK, and among the pre-requisites of participating in this charity hitchhike is that you need to raise over £350 on own initiative (otherwise you need to pay out of the pocket), and you need to have at least a male partner in the team. We would be tracked by the organising committee via us sending them SMS everyday to report our location etc. To make it more challenging, we only had 7 days to reach Morocco from the UK via hitchhiking, which at first seemed to us an impossible and daunting feat.

It wasn't all smooth-sailing for me and my hitchhiking partner. On our first day, we took a train from Edinburgh to London, which we would then proceed to Portsmouth to catch the ferry to Caen Port, France (if memory served me right haha). Due to some technical error with the trains (what shit timing right), we had to stay put in Newcastle for one night and that means we had less time to complete the feat. Nevertheless, we pulled ourselves together and continued on to catching the ferry from Portsmouth. On the ferry, we were proactively (in other words, desperately, lol) asking around the passengers and scouting for potential drivers who would be willing to give us a ride. I seemed to have much better luck than my partner, managed to find an old couple who agreed to take us in. Anyway, once the ferry docked at Caen Port, we followed the couple to their car and off we went to the French countryside. 

To be honest, throughout the hitchhiking trip, I didn't get to see much of the touristy spots nor the big cities of the countries that we've been to except for the countryside and highway roads. We spent most of the time standing and waiting by the road side in blistering cold weather or under the hot blazing sun. In fact, when we were somewhere in France, it had been raining for few days, the weather was really cold, and my clothes and shoes were soaked through and I was shivering pretty bad :( 

Language barrier was another hindering factor for us to get rides from strangers. But that didn't stop me from trying, I jotted down a list of useful Spanish and French expressions in a notebook, and I tried relentlessly to get their attention, and patiently asking everyone at a gas station or parking lot. Most people just shook their heads and drove away, some didn't even bother to stop for us; and surprisingly, all truck drivers that I had asked refused to offer us rides outright noting that it's now illegal or against their company policies to pick up hitchhikers (what a bummer). 

The language barrier also got us into some trouble on one occasion. It was a Sunday, and we were in the middle of nowhere in Spain, if I remember correctly, we were somewhere south of Tarragona, near to Amposta. Cars were few and far between and I suspect it was due to it being a Sunday or public holiday. At that time, we were really anxious that we would have to spend the night at a deserted-looking gas station. After loitering around the gas station for what seemed like an eternity, a car pulled over. A man (wearing make up and wig) rolled down the window and took a glance at me. Loud Spanish disco music blasting in the background, I politely asked for a ride to anywhere as long as they are headed south. To avoid any confusion, I showed him the map as well. He seemed to understand what I was trying to say and hesitated for a few seconds, and finally he said to hop on. It was quite a bizarre experience sharing a car with a few cross-dressing guys with full-on mascara and fake eyelashes, and the Spanish version of Jennifer Lopez's "On the Floor" was playing on the car stereo in the background. And then suddenly the car came to a stop after what seemed like a 15-minute drive, and he just kicked us out of his car in the middle of nowhere. We were utterly flabbergasted that the driver actually dropped us in a small town called "Peniscola"after about a 10-km ride. We then desperately tried to look for any kind souls who would give us a ride, but it was such a small town, it was damn difficult to even spot a car passing us by. As the night approached, we felt like giving up and were thinking to look for a place to stay put for the night. Then, something miraculous happened. Out of the blue, a car pulled over and it turned out that two English-speaking tour guides were in it! What are the odds of finding someone who's willing to give you a free ride at 8pm, and what more English-speaking guides who are headed to Valencia! We couldn't have asked for more. That came timely because we were running out of time as we had already booked the ferry ride to Morocco, and we only had 1 day to make it to Algeciras.

Long story cut short, in the end, we did cheat a little bit (OK, we cheated big time), we ended up taking a 12-hour bus ride from Valencia to Algeciras, simply because we were tight on time, and on the other hand, we were simply tired and exhausted from all the hitchhiking. Boy, we were so relieved when we were able to catch our pre-booked ferry to Tangier; that marked the end of our hitchhiking trip and the beginning of yet another epic adventure in Morocco for the following 8 days.

If you were to ask me "would I do it again?", the short answer is "No". 

But you were to ask me "Did I regret hitchhiking?"

No, I never regretted a single bit. In fact, it was one of the craziest and most adventurous things I had ever done in my life, I really learnt and grew a lot throughout the whole journey. I learnt that there are many kind people out there who are willing to help without asking or expecting anything in return even when there is a huge communication barrier between us. Body language, hand gestures and smile go a long way breaking those barriers down. This whole experience also taught me to persevere and not give up easily even when things do not go the way you wanted it to be. 

I'm actually surprised that I could vividly remember the whole trip in such details even after 6 years had passed since the trip. I guess I really treasured every second and moment of this hitchhiking trip: from raising money by selling cakes in front of the library all by myself to waiting in the blistering cold for hours. When I looked back, I could proudly regale people with interesting account of my experiences and stories from this hitchhiking trip. 

If any one of you are thinking about doing something bold and adventurous like hiking Mt. Everest or even something as simple as backpacking solo in Thailand, if your heart tells you to do so, don't second guess yourself and just do it because YOLO (you only live once)!  

Photo credits to Yee Siang Lim

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Homemade Malaysian Pan Mee (Flat Noodles) Receipe

This dish needs no introduction to most Malaysians, especially the Chinese Malaysians. It's sold in almost all, if not, most hawker centres or food courts across Malaysia; I'm also sure there is a halal version of Pan Mee sold somewhere in the big cities.

To me, Pan Mee is my soul food, comfort food that I've been eating since young, be it breakfast or lunch, come sunshine or rain (lol). And yes, when I was studying abroad I was constantly craving for a bowl of Pan Mee goodness, its piping hot savoury broth, the crispy ikan bilis (anchovies), the fat-laden yet sinfully delicious pork mince stir-fried with black fungus, and last but not least, the good-old handmade flat noodles (although nowadays most restaurants made them by machines).

This is one of the dishes that I learnt from my grandma and mom. Now and then, when I have the chance to make and eat Pan Mee, it really does bring me down memory lane. As a kid, I watched my grandma and mom mixing the flour and eggs to make the dough and I would join in the fun kneading the dough, though I was making more of a mess than being a helping hand. Being a traditional housewife, my grandma is an expert of Southern Chinese cuisines and makes everything from scratch; just imagine she makes fishballs from whole fish! I would sit beside her on a tiny wooden stool, watching attentively as my grandma skillfully scrapped the flesh off the bone using a teaspoon (as tiny fish is used, it's difficult to fillet using knives), she then carefully picked out any tiny bones as she minced the fillet on a chopping board. After the fillet was finely minced, she carefully placed some mince in her palms and squeezed the mince in her fist until the mince came out of her fist through the gap between thumb and index finger. The fish balls were then set aside in ice water for later use. As you could tell, the fish balls were made from 100% fish with flour or other ingredients mixed in unlike the ones sold in supermarkets. Sometimes she made fishcakes using the same method except for shaping them into balls, instead it's a single huge chunk of fish mince pan fried first in hot oil and then sliced. As a kid, I would eat them right after it's being fried when it's crispy and piping hot, yums! As my grandma gets older and weaker, she can no longer cook and make these delicious hand-made fishballs and fishcakes; the taste, however, will forever be treasured and remembered.

So, after knowing the story behind my comfort food, I would love to share with you all my take on this wholesome yet tasty dish.

Preparation time: 15mins
Cooking time: 1.5-2 hours
Serving portion: Approx. 4 persons

A) Noodles:
Plain flour/Multi-purpose flour - Approximately 100-150g
Eggs - 1 or 2 for colouring and flavour
Water - Approx. 1.5 cups
Salt for seasoning

B) Broth:
Pork bones, can be substituted by chicken bones/drumsticks - Approx. 350 - 500g
Dried anchovies - Approx. 60-80 g (can be varied according to personal preference)
Approx 1 litre of water

C) Condiments:
- Deep fried anchovies - amount depending on personal preference
- Pork mince stir fry (can be sub with chicken):
   Garlic - 2 cloves
   Ginger - to taste
   Pork mince - Approx 150 - 200g
   Black fungus - Approx 30g (can be varied) - can be opted out if not available at your nearest supermarkets, but it's preferable for adding extra crunch to texture
   Shitake mushroom
   Soy sauce to taste
   Salt and pepper
   Fish sauce - optional
 - Boiled leafy vegetables (Pak choy or usually sweet potato leaves are used)

A) Noodles
Mix all the ingredients above in a huge bowl and knead into dough. Feel the texture, if it's too wet, add more flour. Continue kneading for about 15mins and set aside covered with a wet cloth (very important as you don't want the dough to dry out).

B) Broth:
Add all the ingredients above in a soup pot filled with water. Turn up heat until boil, you will see brown froth forming on the surface. Turn off heat and pour the water away. Rinse the ingredients with water and fill the pot with approximately 1 litre of water and let it cook on medium low heat for at least 30 mins. Let it simmer longer up to 1 hour for extra flavour.

C) Condiments:
1. Deep fry anchovies in hot oil and set aside.
2. For pork mince stir fry: First, fry the garlic in hot oil until fragrant then add in pork mince and seasoning. Lastly, add mushroom and black fungus. Stir fry over high heat for 3-5 mins and set aside.
3. Boil leafy vegetables in boiling water for 1-2 mins and set aside in cold water.

After the broth and condiments are done, it's time to roll out the dough and cook the noodles. I would advise cooking the noodles in a pot of boiling water and not in the broth to avoid starchy taste in broth.

For rolling out or flattening the dough, divide dough into several smaller portions. Flatten the divided dough using a rolling pin or a glass bottle to approx 0.5 cm thickness (as thin as possible). Dust your work station or board (or whatever you are rolling the dough on) and rolling pin with flour from time to time to avoid the dough sticking to the board. Slightly stretch the flattened dough and tear the flattened dough into small sheets (it can be any size or shape you want, free style!) and cook them in boiling water for about 2 mins. Alternatively, if you have a noodle-making machine, the machine does all the job for you :)

Lastly, put the cooked noodles in a soup bowl, then add in the broth. Last but not least, assemble the condiments however you like on top of the noodles. Voila, the dish is done. Dig in and enjoy while it's piping hot.

ps: For those lucky Malaysians who can easily eat Pan Mee at the nearest restaurant or food court, I envy you. For Malaysians living abroad and craving for Pan Mee, I know making it is quite tedious and somewhat time-consuming, but you know, sometimes nothing is more comforting than a bowl of comfort food in the middle of winter. So I would do anything to replicate this dish just to satisfy my cravings, I'm a foodie afterall :)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Colourful euphoria, a feast to the eyes

Have you ever wondered what can you create with light and music when combined together.

This is what TeamLab has achieved over the years with their amazing creativity using space, light, music and technology that resulted in an entire novel niche of art.

I went to one of their latest events: Teamlab Jungle at Dojima River Forum, Osaka.

When I first went into the venue, it was a dark room filled with hundreds of rotating spotlights. Surprisingly there were many young families who brought their children and parents along, didnt realise its a family affair.

At 4pm sharp, the event started with parallel beams of light shot across the dark room and the patterns were constantly changing depending on the angle of the spotlight, created a wonderful array of shapes and symmetries.

Just as I thought the remaining half an hour is gonna be the same thing, the show surprised me with big helium-filled colourful balloons floating all over the room, it's not just a feast for the eyes, it's also a fun interactive event where people get to play with the art! Ingenious!

What came next was us being covered with a huge piece of translucent black cloth. I wonder where they got such a big piece of cloth, it covered the entire venue! At first we didn't understand whats the meaning behind the black cloth coz it was messing with our hair :/ but as I glanced at the spotlights through the cloth, I realize it felt like we are being underwater. It's like looking at the lights while we are underwater! It creates a surreal and ethereal experience you would never experience elsewhere.

The show ended with hundreds if not thousands of colourful lightbeam shooting from all directions and confetti started to fall all over from above, it really brought the inner child out of us where we can be so happy and have so much fun with something so simple :)


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Heaven Lights @ Goa Jomblang

I was very thankful to the bunch of travellers from Malaysia that I encountered at my hostel "Nasi Bungkus". They were the ones who recommended this website, which contains a lot of useful information and useful tips on the not-so-mainstream sights and places of interest. One of them is Goa Jomblang, about 90-minute drive from Yogyakarta, it is situated in Semanu, Gunung Kidul Regency.

To get there, one has to set off pretty early from Yogyakarta around 7-7.30am because you have to get there by 10 am as there is a restriction on the number of people that could go down to the cave per day (around 30 or so). In this case, my friend and I hired a private driver whose name is "Wahyu" which was recommended on the website above, I recommend having him as the driver as he is highly entertaining and very knowledgeable and he speaks pretty good English too! En route to Goa Jomblang, Wahyu would actually stop by some food stalls to buy us some snacks and some seriously delicious pineapples (really really sweet that it's called Honey Pineapple!)

The last stretch of the road going to Goa Jomblang is pretty bumpy, it is literally a dirt road with rocks and no tarmac. And there is a "Jomblang Resort" at the end of the bumpy ride. At the resort, we were given tea or coffee and a bottle of water each, and we had to change into rain boots in preparation for the rough terrain at the cave.

The sinkhole is enormous and it drops 50 metres to the bottom. Never had I imagined myself to be dangling midair 50 metres from the ground! Imagine how nervous I was when I had to rappel down a sinkhole which is 50 metres high!!! Thankfully the staff were pretty well-trained and with all the safety harness and equipment they strapped on me, I felt pretty safe. The moment I let go of my grip and step off the edge into the thin air was one of the most terrifying moments in my life.

My friend and I were lowered down to the bottom of the sinkhole, the whole process was actually pretty quick (a minute or so) and the scenery from above was very beautiful and serene. Once we reached the bottom, we had to wait around until the rest of the group is at the bottom, we then hiked to another cave system via a muddy and slippery trail (due to the rain the day before, it's rainy season in September). In order to get to another cave where you could see the "Heaven Lights" you have to go through a dark tunnel to get to Goa Grubug. I highly recommend to bring a head light or torch light as it is pitch black inside the cave, I had to rely on the spotlight on my phone. The trail was muddy and slippery so one has to be extra careful in the darkness. The tunnel is about 250 metres long, and once you entered Goa Grubug you would be greeted by some lights shined through the roof of Goa Grubug. In order to see the "Heaven Lights", one has to be quite patient, as it's not something that's readily available once you are inside the cave, you need a lil bit of luck depending on weather and condition. We had to wait for about 20 minutes before the clouds finally gave way for the rays of sunlight to shine through the trees which were growing around the mouth of the cave. The result was rays of sunlight hitting the bottom of the sinkhole, the rays of sunlight were sparkling, iridescent and scintillating, its intensity and direction constantly shifting and changing, and sometimes within minutes it's gone out of sight. Therefore time if of the essence to capture such a beautiful sight!

I would highly recommend this adventure to those who are looking for something different, off-the-beaten track kind of trip when in Yogyakarta.

Goa Jomblang (including safety helmet and harness and lunch) - IDR 450,000
Private driver hire (Whole day including other destinations 7am-7pm) - IDR 600,000

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My first hospital stay and laparoscopic surgery

Those of you who are close to me may have already known that I undertook a laparoscopy surgery last week to remove ovarian cysts and some adhesions due to endometriosis.

For those who don't know what endometriosis is, is a chronic and debilitating condition where the endometrium tissue or implant grows outside of the uterus instead of inside the uterus. These endometrium implants can grow anywhere outside the uterus, most commonly found in ovaries and even the organs surrounding the reproductive organs. During the time of the month, these endometrium implants would bleed as they would inside the uterus, except now they are bleeding and shedding outside of the uterus and causing all sorts of inflammation and pain!

Despite being a 4-bed room, I have plenty of space and privacy!
Anyway, due to the severity of my condition, doctor found adhesions formed between my ovaries as well as the bowel, there were also cysts in my ovaries. According to the surgery plan, doctor is going to make three small incisions on my abdomen about 5cm each, and an incision in my belly button for the camera to be inserted in the abdominal cavity. This form of surgery is less invasive than the traditional open surgery, but it's still considered a major surgery nonetheless with a certain extent of risks involved.

Thanks to the National Health Insurance program in Japan, medical fees were significantly reduced and it had really helped a lot with my finances! Every resident who is working or living in Japan will get a 70% discount on medical services, treatments and medicines. And I was utterly surprised to see my medical bills (inclusive of 1 week of hospital stay, nurse care, meals, medication, surgery, etc) to come slightly under 100,000 yen (about RM 3500 or USD 1,000). It would have cost way more than that amount of money if I'd done it in my home country or anywhere else given the excellent customer service I'd received throughout my stay.

Nurse care was excellent despite the language barrier, they were really patient in trying to communicate with me! From drawing figures to using an electronic dictionary, I felt taken care of and being attended to. It was never frustrating or annoying because of their patience and dedication. Before the surgery in the operation theatre, the nurses tried to calm me down and they even put some lavender essential oils in my oxygen mask to calm my nerves down! Slowly I drifted into deep unconsciousness. Soon after the surgery is over, they gently woke me up, and the next thing I know I was back in my hospital room. 

Despite the language barrier, the nurses tried their best
 to communicate with me
Post-operative care was pretty impressive too, with nurses coming to check on me every other hour throughout the night, taking my body temperature and blood pressure. 

Due to hospital regulations, every patient has to be hospitalised for a week. That's very different from other countries I know where patients are often discharged 2 to 3 days after the surgery. But here in this hospital (I dunno about other hospitals in Japan so I can't generalise), they really make sure you are well and are fully recovered before you head home. Contrary to what most people would think, hospital meals here are surprisingly not bad. There would be 3 dishes: 1 main (usually meat, fish or tofu) and 2 sides (veges, salad, etc), and they put in a lot of thought and attention to the balance in nutrition, calorie intake and taste of the food. So overall I would give it a 3 out of 5 for the quality of food you get from a 360 yen-meal! 

I am now discharged from the hospital and on my way to recovery. I only felt some discomforts and pain on the first day after surgery but afterwards, as I gained consciousness I felt pretty good after a couple of days. So I must say the doctor did a darned good job at the surgery and the nurses too for nursing me to health, and not to mention my dear mom who flew all the way just to be with me (tears of joy)!

Thank you to those who have supported me and cheered me on! :')

A typical hospital meal, well-balanced and nutritious! I like!

I had to drink 4 packs of arginaid water (kinda like energy drink) before surgery