Thursday, April 5, 2007

Malacca: Venice of the East

We didn’t have anything planned for our first two and a half hours in Malacca, so we spent them trying to find the taxi cab in which I left my shoulder bag with passport, video camera, sun glasses and palm pilot!! After speaking to 25 drivers and the local police, we managed to track our driver down, despite the fact that he looked nothing like the description we gave. (I was right about the mustache.) Everyone was incredibly helpful and compassionate, except for the driver… who kept my video camera! He knew it was missing before I did. In hindsight, I should have realized this when he asked me to check to see if everything was there. Finding my passport and Palm Pilot, I said everything was fine, but he immediately opened his trunk and removed the mat to show me there was nothing there! I only discovered the camera was gone when we got up to our room.

I’m trying to imagine his surprise when he discovered the viewing screen was broken, making the camera virtually worthless to others! I’m happy to replace it, with a new digital hard drive version, but all the cameras over here have a PAL system, and I’m not sure if they are compatible with our NTSC equipment. Consequently, I may have to wait, which means you’ll be spared having to watch the video account of Malaysia!

We came to Malacca because of its incredible history. I remember from school and stamp collecting days that this was once the ‘Venice of the East’. A former Portuguese colony, also under Dutch and English control, Maleka, as it is known locally, offers a unique mixture of cultures. This is particularly evident in the foods. The first night we ate in the lively ‘Portuguese Settlement’. The next night, we had authentic Malay seafood in a remote restaurant complex outside of the city on the river. The third evening we had a combination of Indian, Chinese and Malay food in our hotel.

I know that you must be tired of me going on about our hotels, but the choice can greatly iinfluence how we experience a place. In this instance, I chose what I thought was an old heritage hotel on the outskirts of the city centre. The web photos showed a beautiful stained glass dome in the lobby and a very ornate exterior. You can therefore imagine our surprise when we arrived to discover it was 5 years old. But it was surprisingly luxurious for $70 CDN a night. Again we were spoiled with a separate study area, dimmer switches and night lighting in the bathrooms, separate shower, lots of marble, and a well designed bar, dressing and closet area. The latter is important since it makes it easier for me to forget my clothes when we check out; something I have now done on a couple of occasions!

While we were disappointed with Malacca’s crumbling streets and sidewalks, and generally run down appearance in many areas, it has an attractive historic precinct with museums and historical sites dating back to the 15th C. But the city needs a Director of Tourism. There is little to help visitors find their way around. There are few brochures, few operating tours, and a very poor Tourist Information Centre. This is quite different from just about every other city we have visited. Given Malacca’s roots and its place in Malaysia’s history, it should be a fabulous tourist destination. And hopefully one day it will be. But at the moment, too much effort seems to be going into building fancy new McDonalds and indoor shopping malls, while older buildings are covered with ‘for rent’ signs and broken windows. It’s a shame.

It was here that we tried to celebrate the first night of Passover. Since I can remember, I have always had a seder with family. We had originally hoped that we would spend Passover with Michael Goldberg who has lived in Singapore for the past few years, since we have spent many seders together in Vancouver. But as soon as we told him we were coming, he and Deb decided to move back to Vancouver! So this year was a bit different.

While I did check the ‘Kosher Malaysia’ website to seek out Jews in the city, I had no luck. Furthermore, the stores must have been sold out of Manischevitz wine and matzoh since there was none on the shelves. But we did our best. We ordered one of the few bottles of red wine in the Hotel. Sally substituted papadams for matzoh; she put something that looked like matzoh balls into something that looked like chicken soup. I found a dish that resembled my mother’s famous chicken fricassee. We had eggs and many other traditional Passover foods. We recited a few excerpts from the service; but we didn’t miss out on the four cups of wine, nor the one we poured for Elijah. We chanted the ten plagues while doing the customary dipping of fingers into the wine as we counted to ten.

Of course, all of this confused the Moslems who were seated near us in the hotel restaurant. I tried to explain to our waitress what was going on, but it was difficult for her to understand. For one thing, she didn’t know what Jews were, let alone a seder! But I think we may have started some new family traditions. Next year, instead of the traditional Odessa Chicken, we may well have a nice curry, and papadams along with the matzoh! And as for Goldberg….of course he’s invited!


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