Thursday, August 25, 2011

Spice Girls

One of the things Andrew really misses is vanilla extract. I've found vanilla essence and vanilla paste, but he claims that only extract will do. The first week that the kids were in school, my friend and fellow Austinite, Sally, invited me to join her exploring the Tropical Spice Garden. Ah, the perfect place to pick up some vanilla beans to make my own extract. After dropping off the kids, I ran into my new friend, Meredith, and convinced her to come along.

Yoga Spice, Nice Spice and Mommy Spice

Back in the States, one of my favorite catalogs and stores is Penzey's Spices. They have an amazing selection and an encyclopedic listing of all the varieties of various spices and herbs. Sometimes, they'll have pictures from around the world of the plants being grown and harvested. Well, strolling through the Tropical Spice Garden felt like walking into the pages of a Penzeys catalog. If you're a fan of The Amazing Race, you may recognize this as the place where they had the tea challenge last spring.

When we arrived at the gardens, they spritzed us with a little citronella oil to help ward off the hungry mosquitos that roam the jungle. And aren't we in luck? They happen to sell it at the gift shop, too. The guide led our little group through the wooded paths, stopping often to educate us about the spice plants surrounding us. He'd pick leaves for us to nibble on such as the sweet tasting Stevia plant and hold up various nuts and tubers while explaining their culinary and medicinal uses. We even saw the betel nut tree that gave Penang its name.

Ceylon Cinnamon

Here's the bark of a Ceylon Cinnamon tree. Shhh... don't tell it that, thanks to Penzeys, I've figured out that I actually prefer Vietnamese Cinnamon.

Botany Quiz: Can you identify this plant?

Vanilla! I was actually a little bummed that it wasn't in bloom, and I couldn't witness the bean growing on this large orchid plant.

I just love how these leaves are waiting to unfurl.

And I'm always a sucker for water lilies.

At the end of our tour, we made our way to the gift shop. Apothecary jars and bins filled with spices and herbs surrounded us. There were also a number of gorgeous handicrafts and cookbooks. I may return to buy some gifts before I travel back stateside. I purchased some vanilla beans, but alas, they were grown in Bali instead of in the garden we had just visited.

On my future To-Do list: Take one of the cooking classes and enjoy a relaxing meal at The Tree Monkey restaurant adjoining the gardens.

Vanilla Extract Recipe roughly based on Martha Stewart's version
1. Go to tropical island and purchase Vanilla Beans plus some vaguely Russian sounding vodka. I used 4 vanilla beans for a 350 ml bottle.

2. Split beans and put into bottle.

3. Download either The Car's "Shake it Up" or Metro Station's "Shake It" to your iPod and ...

4. Store it in a dark place for 2 months, shaking it weekly, and voila Vanilla Extract.

This post is part of Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys. Check it out for more delicious inspiration.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back to School!

The kids started school last week. It seemed like a short summer for us, but we get five weeks off for Winter Break. Back in Austin, my kids just go to the neighborhood public school (Go Comets!), so I've never had to really evaluate and select a school before. If the amount of over-thinking that went into this decision is any indication, I am in for a bear of a time when shopping for a college rolls around.

We love our new school.

Our primary criteria were that a) the classes are taught in English; and b) all three kids can attend the same school. Criteria B ended up delaying our move by a semester, but it was for the best since that gave my eldest a chance to graduate from elementary school in Texas. It provided a more natural break in his education journey. Thank goodness that hubby's company was so supportive and let him wait months for the whole family to move before starting his new position.

Of course, I expected this school to be different than our last one. Even in Austin, I've noticed that my neighborhood school has its own culture compared to my friends' children's schools. The number one best difference about our new school is ......drumroll, please..... the kids don't have to be there until 8:20 a.m. Yes, I know it's silly to be so excited about that, but every stinkin' minute helps. You might have thought that the best difference is the view from the dining patio.

FYI, there's a fence between the kids and the beach.

Wouldn't you say that this is nicer than a windowless cafetorium? However, Clark tells me that the kids don't notice it at all. There's no clamoring to get a seat near the beach or even one looking out at the view. Kids these days! Perhaps you have to be old enough to sip margaritas while noshing on chips and salsa to appreciate it.

Before the school year began, we headed over to buy uniforms. They were about US$18 per outfit. How can you beat that price?! We put moola in the lunch account, too. Unlike our old school, this one asks students to sign up for an entire semester of meals instead of just debitting their account each time the kids make a purchase. They also provide a midday snack for the elementary school. Every day's lunch offers a choice of a Western Meal (e.g. Spaghetti), an Asian Meal (e.g. Nasi Kandar), a sandwich bar, a salad bar and dessert. Since my typical mom-packed lunch is a sandwich, I decided the kids could just as easily slap together their own sandwich at school. Between not making lunch and not having to decide on clothes, my school day prep has become much easier.

Americans make up about a third of the student body which encompasses everything from 3-year-old preschoolers to high school seniors. Ten percent are well-heeled locals, and the rest come from all over the world. Our former school back in Texas had a very multicultural group of students, so my kids don't seem to find this mix strange at all. One interesting difference is that the students here are permitted to converse in only English during school hours. You can actually get written up for speaking another language.

The school is a Christian one, and all students do Bible Study and Chapel plus memorize a bible verse each week -- even the first graders. My kiddos have always attended Religious Education classes at our Catholic church back in Austin, but I guess Catholics are more into memorizing prayers than particular verses. So, this is kind of new for us. Since I'm helping all three kids with their verses, I figure I'll have the entire Bible down in no time at all.  Non-Christians also participate, but they don't have to actually profess a belief in what they're learning.

The Middle School (5th-8th grades) had an off-campus retreat at a local resort hotel the first Friday of school. It's on an even smaller island than the one we live on and accessible only by ferry. The older kids spent the night, but my boy is in the grades that just made it a day trip. In addition to some free time on the beach and in the pool, they did a lot of team building and getting acquainted exercises.

The New Parent Breakfast was at another local hotel.  I'm accustomed to something along the lines of muffins and styrofoam cups of coffee in the public school library, so this was new to me. Eventually, I realized that nice breakfasts and hotel retreats must be some of what private school tuition pays for.

My kids like their teachers so far, and I'm hoping for a good school year. Before we moved, I was worried that my kids might fall behind academically and have trouble reintegrating into our highly rated neighborhood schools when we return to Austin. The boys had been in the Talented and Gifted classes, and there's not an equivalent program here. During orientation, the middle school counselor met me wandering around the campus and said, unprompted, "Our curriculum is challenging. Some students who were considered gifted at home find themselves to be average here." Perhaps there's a picture of me up in the Staff Lounge with a sign reading, "AWAS! This woman thinks her kids are special."

Brad's former 2nd grade teacher gave me a good piece of advice based on her experiences as both a teacher and a mom who spent years overseas with her young kids. She said that even if their education takes a bit of a hit, it's all worth it. The knowledge that they'll gain from living abroad will be priceless.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Butterflies and Burkas

We gave Maria the honor of choosing our first sightseeing expedition in Penang, and she chose the Butterfly Farm -- or as I like to call it, the Butterfly-arama. "Rama-rama" is the Malay word for "butterfly", so that would turn the nickname into the Rama-rama-arama.

Having read Fancy Nancy: Explorer Extraordinaire, Maria knew just how to dress us for the excursion. After decking ourselves out in flowery, bright clothing (who cares if it matches!) and spritzing on a little perfume, we were ready to go.

Penang is hot and steamy to begin with.  So, strolling around inside the butterfly greenhouse was extra hot and extra steamy. (Good if you're referring to coffee or certain movies, not so good if you're just on a family outing.) For Maria, seeing the butterflies flitting around made it all worthwhile. She even made a friend-for-the-day when she encountered another English-speaking girl from Australia. The boys didn't shrug off the heat as well, but they were somewhat distracted by the snapping turtles, humongous scorpions,

and the foot-long millipedes.

I particularly enjoyed the small theater showing film shorts by Miniscule TV. If you're not familiar with Miniscule, they're a series of films featuring anthropomorphic insect slapstick. Very funny! That the theater was air conditioned and had seating was an extra bonus.

Something else caught my eye at the Rama-rama-arama. Several women shrouded from head to toe in black burkas provided quite a contrast to the brightly colored butterflies. Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country, so I  don't normally see burkas around town. However, Penang is a popular vacation destination for the more consertive Muslim countries, so seeing burkas at tourist hotspots is to be expected, I suppose. My first thought was, "And I thought I was hot and sweaty..."

I assumed they would be meek, nonparticipatory, and silently follow their husbands everywhere. I was wrong. They were chatting while pointing out pretty flowers to their children and taking pictures just like I was. Even though their mouths were covered, I could tell when they smiled because their eyes crinkled up and looked happy. I realized those women and I had a lot in common despite our different religions and dress. I've also come to realize that I can't tell the difference between Americans and Canadians, but that's a whole different story.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Almost Everyone Drives on the Left Side

AWAS! That means "caution" or "beware" in Malaysia. Take it to heart if you ever decide to hit the roads here.

Driving on the left side is, in itself, not as mind-boggling as I was worried it would be. After a couple days on the road, I've pretty much adjusted. At first, I'd forget that the car extended to the LEFT of me and would unintentionally straddle lanes. Also, the turn signal and windshield wiper controls are flipped, so I'll often turn on my wipers when I mean to signal a turn. I'm now comfortable enough with driving so that I don't turn around and tell the kids a heartfelt, "Always remember that I love you," whenever I start the engine. However, I still haven't reached the point where I can simultaneously drive and listen to music.

I've never properly appreciated road planners in America. In fact, I've probably complained about them and their crazy ideas. But now that I've driven over here, I'll never take them and good design for granted again. There's a main one-way thoroughfare in Penang that's three lanes wide... until it suddenly turns into two lanes with all of 2 meters of warning. Bam! Just like that, my lane has disappeared. Lanes disappear and reappear so that you can't just pick one lane and stick with it if you want to drive down the road.

On a daily basis, I'll be in a through lane, but there's something else immobile in it. Sometimes it's a row of cars parked in the narrow lane, so that I have to move over to get by. Sometimes it's a truck making a delivery. Once, I came out of a roundabout and dodged a restaurant that had extended it's patio dining into the middle of the road.

Scooters abound over here, and they're constantly darting in and out of traffic. They are the prime culprits of driving the wrong way on a divided road. Part of me knows that in a game of chicken, my minivan will win. On the other hand, I'd feel really guilty running head on into the scooter and the family of four riding on it. But I don't want to stereotype. I've also encountered a lorry driving the wrong way, too. ("Lorry" = "Truck"; Malaysia belonged to the British until the late-1950s, so the English language has a definite British slant to it.)

The other difficulty with driving is that I don't know the Malay language, so I don't understand some of the signs. I was driving down the road that Clark likens to the twisty part of 2222 in Austin. Suddenly, I see the sign "AWAS". Caution! Okay, that's fine. I understand that. But then the next sign says "AWAS  Blah Blah Blah". The sign after that one says "AWAS BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!!!" Clearly, something bad is about to come up. And then -- no kidding -- comes "AWAS" with a skull and crossbones under it. I'm still alive, so I dodged whatever danger was on the road, but I'd really like to know what it said. For the record, Andy interpreted this all as "School Bus Stop Ahead."
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