Monday, 30 June 2008

A man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.

Khaled Hosseini's second novel is called `A Thousand Splendid Suns'. The title comes from a line in a 17th century Persian poem by Saeb-e-Tabrizi. The book tells the story of two Afghan women from different generations but ending up being the wives of the same man. While Hosseini's first best-selling book, The Kite Runner, is based about relationships among boys and men, his latest novel primarily relates the struggles of the fairer sex.

The opening sentence of the book reads, `Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.' It was not difficult to guess what harami meant, even though the meaning was revealed in subsequent paragraphs. In Malay, we know it as `anak haram'. In crude English it is `bastard'.

Hence begins the story of an illegitimate child who, with her mother, is sent to live as an outcast at an isolated dwelling outside her father's city. Her rich father comes to visit once each week but never makes the effort to bring her to his own house. Over the years, Mariam got curious and made the trip to the city on her own, in spite of protests from her mother. While she did find her father's big house, she did not manage to get invited inside. The experience shattered her hopes and the high regard she held for her father all this while.

Due to a turn of unfortunate circumstances, Mariam did finally get to come inside and in fact, stay at her father's house. But the respite was only brief. Her father decided to marry her off to a shoemaker from Kabul who was 20-years her senior. Mariam was only fifteen then.

The story goes on about Mariam's life as a wife in the city of Kabul during the years of the collapse of the Soviet-supported regime through to the period of infighting among the Mujahideen factions and finally during the reign of the Taliban. It was during the Mujahideen civil war period that the other Afghan girl Laila, comes into the picture. Laila became an orphan because a bomb had killed her parents. Mariam's husband had helped rescue her from the debris. Upon recovery, she ended up accepting the proposal to become the second wife. Mariam was of course, terribly upset by this but, really... what can she do? The relationship between the two wives began as enemies but as the years passed, the common mistreatment by the husband on both of them resulted in an alliance being formed.

I finished reading this book in three sittings. I liked Hosseini's fluid and smooth writing style. By smooth, I mean that there was never the need to stop reading at the end or mid-sentence, reverse and then re-read the sentence once or twice over just to understand its meaning.

Since part of the storyline is set in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, Hosseini has included vivid descriptions about life as burqa-clad women during that period. The harsh and repressive treatment of women, in the name of religion, is very sad indeed. In any given conflict between man and woman, it is always the woman who is at fault. Surprisingly, in a postscript at the end of the novel, Hosseini clarified that this unequal treatment of women in his country was existent well before the Taliban took power.

Perhaps to sum up the situation, I quote the following words that Mariam's mother gave her as advice, `Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter : Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.'

`A Thousand Splendid Suns' is a really good book. Recommended.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Take a break

In my frequent travels between Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur on the North-South Highway, I very seldom stop at the northbound Machap Rest & Service Area (RSA). In a journey of 320km, it is too early to take a break at this RSA located on the 73km mark.

Last night however, I departed from the norm and decided to stop there because I knew that PLUS had recently completed some upgrading works. To my surprise, the extent of refurbishment at this RSA is much more compared to other areas that have undergone a similar exercise, such as Pagoh southbound and Seremban.

I believe this is the first RSA where PLUS have installed automatic escalators. There is a new water feature at the entrance to the foodstalls. The foodstalls and eating area are now enclosed and air-conditioned, hence making it a no-smoking zone. But smokers need not fret because there are ample seating at the open-air area for them to puff while sipping a cup of kopi tongkat ali.

Other improvements include a semi-roof at the bus/lorry parking with a covered walkway leading to the main building. Lorry drivers and bus passengers can now access the foodstalls without worry of getting wet from the rain.

PLUS has done a good job at this particular RSA. Hopefully they will proceed to do the same with Pagoh northbound soon. While Pagoh is the ideal stopping place, being almost halfway between JB and KL, I seldom stop there either. Pagoh northbound has, I dare say, the worst foodstalls in all of the RSAs that I have been to, up and down the country. There is hardly any stall that sell food that I can call tasty. When PLUS do actually upgrade this RSA, I hope they would change the vendors too.

By the way, I've checked the official PLUS website. It seems that PLUS themselves have not reported the latest upgrade at Machap northbound.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Good friends are like stars...

It's been some time since I posted a story from the forwarded email category. So here's one that I received a few days ago.


He was tired and aching and on his way home from a long day at work, so he almost didn't see the old lady stranded on the side of the road, but even in the dim light of day he could see she needed help. So he pulled up in front of her Mercedes and got out. His old Pontiac was still sputtering as he approached her.

Even with the smile on his face, she was worried. No one had stopped to help for the last hour or so. Was he going to hurt her? He didn't look safe; he looked poor and hungry.

He could see that she was frightened, standing out there in the cold. He knew how she felt. It was that chill which only fear can put in you. He said, 'I'm here to help you, ma'am. Why don't you wait in the car where it's warm? By the way, my name is Bryan Anderson.'

Well, all she had was a flat tire, but for an old lady, that was bad enough. Bryan crawled under the car looking for a place to put the jack, skinning his knuckles a time or two. Soon he was able to change the tire.

As he was tightening up the lug nuts, she rolled down the window and began to talk to him. She told him that she was from St. Louis and was only just passing through. She couldn't thank him enough for coming to her aid.

Bryan just smiled as he closed her trunk. The lady asked how much she owed him. Any amount would have been all right with her. She already imagined all the awful things that could have happened had he not stopped. Bryan never thought twice about being paid. This was not a job to him. This was helping someone in need, and God knows there were plenty, who had given him a hand in the past. He had lived his whole life that way, and it never occurred to him to act any other way.

He told her that if she really wanted to pay him back, the next time she saw someone who needed help, she could give that person the assistance they needed, and Bryan added, 'Pass it on.'

He waited until she started her car and drove off. It had been a cold and depressing day, but he felt good as he headed for home, disappearing into the twilight.

A few miles down the road the lady saw a small cafe. She went in to grab a bite to eat, and take the chill off before she made the last leg of her trip home. It was a dingy looking restaurant. Outside were two old gas pumps. The whole scene was unfamiliar to her.

The waitress came over and brought a clean towel to wipe her wet hair. She had a sweet smile, one that even being on her feet for the whole day couldn't erase. The lady noticed the waitress was nearly eight months pregnant, but she never let the strain and aches change her attitude. The old lady wondered how someone who had so little could be so giving to a stranger. Then she remembered Bryan...

After the lady finished her meal, she paid with a hundred dollar bill. The waitress quickly went to get change for her hundred dollar bill, but the old lady had slipped right out the door. She was gone by the time the waitress came back. The waitress wondered where the lady could be. Then she noticed something written on the napkin.

There were tears in her eyes when she read what the lady wrote: 'This isn't a tip, it's a gift. You don't owe me anything. Somebody once helped me out and if you feel you want to pay me back, don't let this chain of love end with you, pass it on.'

Under the napkin were four more $100 bills. Well, there were tables to clear, sugar bowls to fill, and people to serve, but the waitress made it to closing time.

That night when she got home from work and climbed into bed, she was thinking about the money and what the lady had written. How could the lady have known how much she and her husband needed it? With the baby due next month, it was going to be hard....

She knew how worried her husband was, and as he lay sleeping next to her, she gave him a gentle kiss and whispered soft and low, 'Everything' s going to be all right. I love you, Bryan Anderson.'

There is an old saying 'What goes around comes around.' Today I sent you this story, and I am asking you to pass it on. Let this light keep shining.

Good friends are like stars....You don't always see them, but you know they are always there.

Friday, 20 June 2008

A Good Makan Spot in JB (3)

If you were to discount the ones in 5-star hotels, there aren't really that many upmarket restaurants in Johor Bahru. So when I found out about a brand-new Thai restaurant (just opened in April 2008) from an online forum, I decided to try it out.

After picking up my sons from their extra-curricular activity at school last Saturday, we headed out to this new place called Tera Thai Fine Dine for some lunch. The restaurant is located at Jalan Abdul Samad, quite near my sons' school. It is originally an old Malay type house that has been extensively renovated. The interior is pleasantly furnished with high quality teak furniture and traditional wood carvings. Very classic decor, indeed.

The restaurant claims to serve authentic Thai cuisine. We tried a deep-fried fish dish (Chu Chi Plah), a small plate of asparagus with prawns (Knor Mai Farang Phad Gung), fried beef (Nea Thod Kratiam) and of course, the common denominator of all Thai eating places, tom yam (Tom Yam Talay Nam Khon). I'm writing down the Thai names just to show you that they are really serious of this authenticity thing. Just don't ask me what the words exactly mean.

The fish was not bad. It was prepared in a way that I've not tasted before. The beef and vege were average. Most disappointing was the tom yam. Not that it tasted bad... only that for a true Thai restaurant, I had expected a real kicker of this well-known soup. I have tasted better tom yam at so-called genuine Thai restaurants in Ipoh and in Sungai Buloh. Even my wife makes better tasting tom yam than this.

The full meal for four persons including soft drinks cost me a shade under RM200.00. Reasonable enough I guess, considering the upmarket settings. Given the new squeeze on our pockets due to the recent petrol price hike, coming to a place like this can only happen very rarely, unless you have a fat expense account.

Nonetheless, Tera Thai is really a nice restaurant if you want to take your date out to somewhere exclusive. It is also a good place to hold lunch or dinner discussions with clients or potential customers because of the quiet ambience.

So, will I come back to this place again? Hmm... maybe, I think.

Tera Thai is open for both lunch and dinner. They can be reached at 07-2226300.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

So why did the chicken go cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Blogger friend Emila Yusof posted about this joke riddle in her beautifully illustrated blog a few days ago. It is an age-old riddle that's been around as long as I can remember. Over the years, the answers (apart from the original ` get to the other side') have evolved from the inane to the hilarious. Googling this question will give you tons of websites that display a whole range of responses.

These are generally western-oriented, a sample of which I reproduce below :

Barack Obama : The chicken crossed the road because it was time for a CHANGE! The chicken wanted CHANGE!

George W. Bush : We don't really care why the chicken crossed the road. We just want to know if the chicken is on our side of the road, or not. The chicken is either against us, or for us. There is no middle ground here.

Colonel Sanders : Did I miss one?

Bill Gates : I have just released eChicken2008, which will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, file your important documents and balance your checkbook. Internet Explorer is an integral part of the Chicken. This new platform is much more stable and will never cras..#@&&^(C%...... reboot.

Emila invited her readers to submit their own response. I managed to come up with a few Malaysia Boleh! versions and the following is what I sent in yesterday :

I don't have my own response as to why the chicken crossed the road but may I venture the following replies with local context in mind?

1. Chef Wan : The chicken saw me coming... that's why she crossed!

2. Pak Lah : Err... did the chicken really cross? I didn't know about that. Let me check with my Agriculture Minister.

3. TDM : Dia tak seharusnya melintas, bahaya tu... ayam ni mudah lupa.

4. Anwar Ibrahim : Of course the chicken will cross over. I had said so! And there's no money involved.

5. Chief of Police : It's alright for the chicken to cross. As long as they don't assemble more than 5, they are not breaking any laws.

My apologies for the political nature of the responses. Just that it seems to suit the times...

Coolest quote on the web

My contribution to the Cool Quotes website was selected as 1st place Editor's Choice for the week! Check this page to view the quote that I submitted.

Now, that's cool....

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Firefox 3 Download Day

I've just downloaded the lastest version of Mozilla Firefox browser. Thanks to the info from blogger friend Apple, today 18 June 2008 (Malaysia time 1am), Mozilla is attempting a Guinness World Record for the most downloads in a single day.

My initial attempts to download Firefox 3 was not smooth. I had to refresh the link several times. This is possibly due to the heavy traffic. But once I could connect through, the download and installation was a breeze.

I'm actually a very new user of the Firefox browser... just installed the earlier version only last month. Yeah, yeah... you can say I'm slow in adopting the latest in the IT world. Heck, I just started blogging two months ago.

Having been brought up and weaned on IE, its taking me a while to get used to Firefox. My webpages now seem to load faster (or is it just my imagination?). A small gripe that I have is that the font display of my blog page looks less cool in Firefox compared to IE. Maybe I should try out new templates, eh?

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

For you, a thousand times over...

While browsing at MPH bookstore two weeks back, I chanced upon the latest book by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini titled `A Thousand Splendid Suns' (see sidebar for link). This book is Hosseini's second after his debut bestseller called `The Kite Runner'.

The Kite Runner has been adapted into a movie and I managed to get hold of the DVD last weekend. It was a really good watch. It tells the story of two childhood friends from Kabul in Afghanistan who are so close that they are almost like brothers. Something happened that caused them to move apart. One of them had to leave the country after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and after years of living in the United States, found a reason to go back.

This is a story about close relationships.... between friends, and between a father and his son. It is also a story about trust, loyalty, cowardice and redemption. No high speed action, just pure drama. If you had a real close friend who stood by you during your years of growing up, then this movie is for you.

I have not yet read Hosseini's first book. Perhaps it is better that way because I tend not to enjoy movies based on books that I have read. This is simply because I would invariably compare between what is written and what is screened. And when I come across scenes that have been modified or realised that some scenes are omitted, it sort of spoils the fun.

A recent example is the movie The Da Vinci Code. To me, the book is a fast-paced action thriller but somehow the movie does not seem to fully capture that.

This is of course, a general observation only. There are exceptions and a good example is the movie `The Shawshank Redemption'. This movie is based on a Stephen King novella originally titled `Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption'. It is part of a four-story novel compilation called `Different Seasons'. I had read the book before I watched the movie. There are some scenes in the movie that are not in the book but I must say that this made the movie even better.

I'm about half-way into reading Hosseini's second book now. Real hard to put down.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

A Good Makan Spot in JB (2)

The food stalls at Hutan Bandar is a popular breakfast spot among Johor Bahru folks. Hutan Bandar is actually a public park managed by the City Council and I like to stop there for breakfast because there is a variety of food to choose from and parking is still free.

The standard Malaysian breakfast fare of roti canai, nasi lemak, lontong and mee soto are available but if you like to try something different, there is a stall selling sup tulang merah and another one selling char mee.

I'll write about sup tulang merah later because in this post, I want to write about Stall No. 4 called Atirah Eatery that sells char mee, koloh mee and sabau mee. I understand the dishes are common among the Chinese in Sarawak. The stall is run by a husband and wife team of Mohd Ashraf Abdullah and Latipha Mohd Yusoff. The New Straits Times has even run an article on this popular stall in their Johor Buzz Section. Read it at this link.

I like all the dishes sold at this stall but char mee is my favourite. It's only RM4 a bowl. Char mee consists of flat noodles in a tasty soup with slices of sauteed chicken meat and fishballs, sprinkled with a bit of spring onions and lobak asin and finally topped with a dollop of homemade ground green chilli sauce. Marvellous...

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The price of petrol! (2)

Yesterday was the first time I filled petrol for my car at the new price of RM2.70 per litre. Apparently, my long wait at the petrol station last Wednesday night managed to postpone the inevitable by 5 days.

Yesterday's feed for my car cost me RM136 for just over 50 litres. Ouch!

The government has advised us to change our lifestyles to cope with the increasing cost of living. Get real!

The last `real' holiday that I took was ages ago. I don't go to see movies at cineplexes. I take my family out for dinner only occasionally. I don't play golf and I can't remember when was the last time I bought a music CD. The only real pastime that I have is reading and I buy books because it is a tax-deductible expense.

So how do I change my lifestyle to reduce my spending? Maybe I should not send my son to any more tuition classes. Or maybe I should stop subscribing to Astro... but then I would have to go to the 24-hours mamak restaurant to watch football games. This would not make the wife happy for sure. Or perhaps I should turn in my Streamyx service to save the RM100 plus a month... this would mean that I would have to stop surfing and blogging... Ouch!

And yet I read that our PM is going to curb the paid holidays for the Cabinet Ministers (and their families!) in an effort to reduce government spending. What?! Our Ministers get to go on vacation on taxpayers money?! Crap!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

A nation living on subsidy

I guess the grumbles about the fuel price increase is not going to end anytime soon. It is quite difficult to reconcile the fact that we are an oil-producing nation but yet not able to sell it cheaply to our own people. The government has been saying that our petrol prices are still cheaper when compared to other countries, be it the region or worldwide. I'm sick and tired of hearing this lame excuse.

Firstly, if we want to compare, then we should do so against other oil-producing countries, say Brunei or Iran or maybe even Nigeria. My blogger friend Lucia Lai has a comparative price chart in her posting, here.

Secondly, we should compare ourselves with nations that have equivalent purchasing power. Former PM Tun Dr. Mahathir explains, `Obviously our increase in petrol price is far less than in the United Kingdom or the United States. But our per capita income is about one-third of theirs. In purchasing power terms our increase is more than in the UK or the US.' Read his full post on this subject, here.

AAB's government says that they can no longer afford to subsidise the fuel price. But they will continue to help the rakyat by subsidising other things. Crap!

Actually, some time ago I had posted at an online forum discussion that I would quite agree the government remove the fuel subsidy. However, these savings should be returned to the rakyat by other means. It's all a question of budgeting and financial management; of income and expenses. Improve public transportation so that it becomes easy and convenient for the people to move about. Buy more buses, improve the trains, subsidise the ticket prices etc. etc. etc.

Also reduce the taxes and duties on cars so that more people can buy them. This would make the ownership of cars to be cheap but the running of it expensive. Car owners would then only use their cars for really important trips only.

I'm no expert on economics but I'm pretty sure there are better ways to use the profits that Petronas makes. Hosting an annual yacht race called Monsoon Cup is definitely not one of it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

An alternative place to stay at Port Dickson

In an earlier post, I mentioned about extending our stay for another day in Port Dickson. We checked out of Tiara Beach Resort and by chance, got an apartment at Tg. Biru Condo at Tg. Tuan. The place is not actually a hotel but a condominium complex where the individually-owned units are let out for rent.

Amenities are pretty basic (no towels or those tiny shampoo bottles in the bathroom) but the rooms are clean and the beds comfortable. There is also a small kitchen equipped with a rice cooker, gas stove and basic utensils. For RM150 a night, I'm not complaining. If you plan to stay long and do some cooking to keep down expenses, then this is the place for you.

The good thing about this place is that it's located next to a nice cosy beach. At low tide, the water recedes to more than 200m away to expose a flat seabed. There are some foodstalls nearby, so finding something to eat is not a problem.

Not too far away, on the main road, is another stall called Gerai Kak Hapzah that I got to know of from fellow blogger Zach. I stopped by for a roti canai breakfast that tasted not too bad.

But what I liked most about staying at Tg. Tuan was the beautiful sunset. Check out the pics below.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The price of petrol!

Crap! It finally had to happen. With the world price of crude past the USD130 per barrel mark, there was no way our government could keep the pump price down.

As of midnight tonight, the price of petrol will be raised to RM2.70 per litre. That's a 78sen jump from the previous price of RM1.92, a 40.6% increase!

I just got back from filling up the tank of my car. The queues at the petrol station were horribly long. It took me 45 minutes of waiting before I could fill up. I managed to pump in RM80 worth of petrol. A quick calculation showed that the volume filled was 41.67 litres. If I waited till tomorrow, this quantity would have cost me RM112.50. In other words, I made a `saving' of RM32.50. Not bad for a 45-minute wait.

I heard over the radio that petrol stations all around the country are jam-packed with people. I'm sure there must have been stressful situations at some of these places. You can imagine dealing with queue jumpers, people filling up petrol in plastic containers and worst still, the stations running out of petrol.

Let us now brace ourselves for the increase in prices of other goods. Crap!

To the leaders of the newly-elected government who just got in on a simple majority, I say you guys are crap! I'll remember you for this.

Here in my home

I heard this song for the first time earlier today over the radio while driving back home from work. Great song, there is hope yet.

More details and downloads can be obtained at the Malaysian Artistes For Unity website, here.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Working holiday

Since it was also a school mid-term break, I decided to take my family along during my short outstation duty to Melaka. It is quite difficult for me to take a break from work and go for a real family vacation, so when an opportunity to combine work and holiday comes, it's always better than nothing. Not a great option, but hey, who's says life is perfect?

We chose to stay at the Teluk Kemang area of Port Dickson since it is not too far away from ALAM, around 20km or so. We've been to PD a number of times and each time stayed at a different hotel, just to experience the variety. This time I decided to try Tiara Beach Resort based on impressive reviews I read on websites. When I first made the online booking at RM460 per night for a two-room suite, I thought it was a bit pricey.

My sons were initially impressed with the external view of the resort when we arrived late Sunday night. But as soon as we entered our suite, I was greatly disappointed. The room furnishings were somewhat sparse and amenities were frugal. The bedrooms were sized just big enough to fit the beds and they provided hanging racks in lieu of full wardrobes or cabinets.

The bedrooms no doubt, have air-conditioning but the remote controls were missing. You can switch on the air-cons but you could not control the temperature or blower speed settings. When I checked with housekeeping, I was told that the remote unit is available from the Front Desk by paying a RM50 deposit. Sheesh, now why didn't they tell me this when I was checking-in? It's not like the Front Desk is just a few minutes down the lobby, it's a few hundred metres away in another block!

Yeah, I know they need to do this deposit thing because the air-con remotes always get stolen, but hey, you're in the hotel business, it comes with the territory. If you want to take a deposit for things that are easily nicked, then let us know in advance!

All in all, Tiara Beach Resort is not value for money. In the first place, the name is a misnomer. The hotel is not situated on a beach. It lays claim to the name because it has spread sand around its swimming pools. Okay, it has large pools and a sort of water theme park (so-called included in the room rate), but I still think we are overcharged. In November last year, we stayed at Ancasa Resort Allsuites just a few kilometres up the road. It has larger rooms and a beautiful view of the Melaka Straits, and cost us only RM360 per night.

I have a simple system when it comes to rating a hotel, restaurant or similar establishments. It's based on whether I'll be coming back or not, i.e :

a) Yes, I'll come back,
b) Maybe I'll come back,
c) Nope. I ain't comin' back.

No prizes for guessing how I rate TBR. Anyway, it so happened that I had to extend my work at ALAM for an extra day from the original 2 days. We checked out of TBR on the second day and moved to a simple apartment unit at Tg. Tuan. I'll write about this last day in my next post.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Steady as she sails...

I spotted this poster while at ALAM early last week. I guess most mariners would know this one by heart.

Why is a ship called `she’?
A ship is called a "she" because.....
  • there is always a great deal of bustle around her;
  • there is usually a gang of men about;
  • she has a waist and stays;
  • it takes a lot of paint to keep her good looking;
  • it's not the initial expense that breaks you, it's the upkeep!
  • she can be all decked out;
  • it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly;
  • and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely uncontrollable.
  • She shows her topsides and hides her bottom, and
  • when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.
Queen of the Netherlands, a 173m long trailer dredger on duty at Port of Tanjung Pelepas, Johor, 2003