27 July 2009

A Bloody Breakfast

When I went to Pantai Hospital one morning to donate blood for a colleague's mother who had fallen ill, I did not expect that a masked woman would come from behind the tinted front entrance glass, point a gun 3cm away from my forehead and pull the trigger right when I walk through the front door.

As it turns out, I passed the thermal screening test for H1N1 and am allowed to proceed after being given a red dot sticker on my clothing by an assisting fellow who looks like a security guard in a turquoise mask (and that's probably what he is, ready to jump on you should you decide to make a run through the hospital, sneezing over both shoulders in an attempt to infect everyone).

The funny part is that when I came here yesterday on Sunday (not knowing that you can only donate blood Monday to Friday 9am-5pm and Saturday half-day), people were watching a muted display of soldiers chasing prisoners with automatic rifles over a swamp full of grenades surrounded by what looks like Southeast Asian tropical greenery, on a flat screen with Malay subtitles - Rambo. Who chooses Rambo for visitor entertainment?? Also quite inconsiderate towards Burmese people in the queue for the registration counter nearby - one can only hope that there merely is ignorance behind showing this movie.

I walk past the granite and marble atrium to the block with the outpatient clinic where I am given the task to have breakfast. So early (or late) in the morning, I am forced to have breakfast at Starbucks (out of all places!) because the other two snack places are still closed. Given the choice between an obscene-looking sausage roll, monotonous pastries and over-sweetened carbonated banana choc muffin, I went for the latter. What irony that Starbucks should be where I would nurture my body to prevent me from collapse.

It's my first time I donate blood and I'm kind of enthusiastic about the whole thing - which is in truth, an understatement. I am nearly disqualified for having "lived in Europe from 1980 to the present for six months or longer" even though I did not "live in the UK, Republic of Ireland from 1980 to 1996 for a period of six months or longer". Many Europeans would think in a wash of haemosuperiority that "clearly", blood from Asians should be more subject to scrutiny than their own with the (more or less) exagerrated image of tropical diseases prevalent in Asia, forgetting that Asians can be afraid of "our" pandemics too. The Malay lab technician, an experienced older woman looks sadly at the encircled YES in the questionnaire and I ask her apprehensively why I cannot donate because of that. She thinks it might have something to do with the mad cow or foot and mouth disease to which I only manage to emit a faint "Oh...!", having totally forgotten about the whole outbreak already because Austria was not particularly affected all these years back. So I argue that no-one was ever diagnosed with that disease in Austria and that if I had been infected, I would probably not be in this very room with her, that Austria is very organised with food control and agro- and biotechnology that it was virtually impossible for an outbreak to occur and that I can't remember a single case (later I did that there was one suspicion of it where the whole cattle was burned down). Besides, if it really about the foot and mouth disease, then they should include people who lived in the UK after 1996... Interestingly, an internet research shows that Europeans or army personnel stationed in Western Europe for five years or longer cannot donate blood in the US either. She tells me to write my country of origin on the questionnaire and says, we can just ignore my earlier answer.

The needle is huge and my sadomastic vein makes my eyes bulge in a manner of an impressed exclamation of "COOL!!!" What was less cool but so entertaining I kept smiling excitedly throughout the process was that (as usual) my vein was hard to find so she stuck the needle in there and comfortingly said "Sorry!" while roaming around in my arm with the really long needle in hope of pricking a vein - in vain!, while I kept saying "It's ok...!" pinching my eyes together in delightful pain and smiling broadly. What a bizarre body experience!

Luckily, my other arm turns out to be the jackpot and I get a red heart-shaped stressball to squeeze and pump on. Before I know it, I'm 250ml lighter. I was looking at the needle, mesmerised (for I have never seen such a big one my whole life) and the Malay woman tries to distract me: She picks up a Hello! magazine (who BRINGS these mags??? The other was a Thai women's magazine with a girl barely looking 14 suggestively posing in a black lace corsage!) and asks me, "Do you know her?" - "That's Kate Winslet, when she won the Oscar!"- "You look like her!" I start laughing. I take it as a compliment for I like Kate Winslet (for a number of reasons).

It's an exhilartating and absolutely fascinating feeling to be put face to face with your own blood. Something you never think about but which is absolutely logical is that a bag full of fresh blood is so warm!

I'm so excited and bubbly, I keep using this opportunity to learn more about donating blood in Malaysia, or in general. Apparently, blood and plasma is stored separately in huge refridgerator rooms at the blood bank after it is screened for Hepatitis ABC, Malaria, HIV, TB and what have you else. So when a patient uses up blood, especially if it is a lot, their family and friends are asked to replace the blood in the bank as a manner of goodwill. Since I found out about the whole incident at work when an email was sent around for people to volunteer, many were confused if it was a direct transfusion or just to replace the amount of blood at disposal. The Malay woman said that in some private hospitals, they actually keep a money deposit for the blood used. I asked her if there were any religious issues attached to donating or receiving blood in Malaysia, for any of the many religions or if there are any special preferences and refer to orthodox Jews who would often rather die than receive a blood transfusion. She, as a Muslim, summarised simply that Muslims only care about preserving life, and that that is more important than anything else.

To commemorate the whole experience, I had the lady take a picture of me (might as well make it fun if it hurts, right?) and proudly receive the donor record booklet (which looks like a passport, so very official) as well as a fridge magnet (I've been secretely looking forward to a reward). I am offered a cup of Milo (a popular brand of chocolate drink in Malaysia) to replenish before I hop off to work (showing off two awe-inspiring very visible white pads on my arms) - business as usual!

13 July 2009

Ba Na: The hills are alive - with the sound of tourists

The wind is gushing against my face, my hair is flying in the wind and my bum comfortably planted on the back seat of a Honda scooter: Never was going on a day trip to the mountains so sexy!

Racing so fast on the causeway that my helmet keeps slipping off in order to escape the already quickly heating morning sun, and later cautiously slithering between long inert lorries that drive as if they were motorcyclists while endangering the real ones with their indecisive driving behaviour, Aike, his girlfriend Nhung and I are on the one-hour-ride to Ba Na Hill Station, about 48km west of Da Nang.

What used to be a mountain resort developed by the French in the 1920s and after a brief heyday in the 1930s became a victim of the war, has more recently been revived by the erection of a cable car which boasts two world records: 1) Longest single-strip system in the world and 2) Largest gap in height between departure and arrival station

Already at the lower station, one can see that while most foreign tourists would have received a flyer at the airport, 98% of all visitors are actually local or Asian. Should be interesting to observe them from the eyes of an anthropologist.

While we are standing in the queue for boarding the cable car, the slightly echoed sound of a running cable wheel and the clonk of steel reminds me of skiing trips in the Alps and Aike must have read my mind for he chided, "Just like in Austria, isn't it?", knowing my tendency to compare things to my home country already, haha! As our cable car is approaching, I read the company sign on the pillar and guess who built the whole thing, GUESS!!! Doppelmayr Ropeway Technologies from Wolfurt, Austria!

From the cabin you can have a good view of the surrounding hills and Da Nang beach and below, a waterfall. I wonder how they built this thing amidst the thick undergrowth in the heat. We bet the height of the station, for fun and I guess 1300m and win (it's 1500m) - I know my mountains! ;)

Quite a great sight until you reach the top station, abuzz with local tourists in their sun hats, shuttle buses for the lazy as express ride to the giant Buddha on the top. In the back, the rather romantic sound of a construction site for a second, higher cable car so you can actually skip the "boring" walk in the trees and the risk of getting tanned - how convenient... Clearly, one can see that the motive was not to promote appreciation of local nature but ego and greed. It's like Aike blogged about the temples in Chiang Mai: "The Buddha is big business" As to why one would build a cable car in the height of tourist season close to the height of the rainy season, I don't know. Maybe it was actually scheduled to finish earlier this year...?

Trying to avoid the concrete roads, in an attempt not to get hit by one of minibus shuttles full of stereotypical visitors, we take the (concrete) stairs up into the forest instead and as it turns out, my flip-flop footwear is among the more better within the spectrum, judiging from some pencil-heeled, ultra-mini skirted girls who somehow got lost and ended up on this hill. I wonder later if they ever get as scrutinised in public with their (also) Asian boyfriends for dressing so suggestively whereas Aike and Nhung at least dress decently for local standards. I will elaborate on why this is relevant in a while.

Our first stop is a temple for Quán Âm (or Guan Yin, her more widely known Chinese name), the popular bodhisattva of compassion, who I quite like. Her Christian version would probably be the Virgin Mary.

Next, we venture up to another temple where a monk rings a singing bowl (not sure about correct translation for Klangschale). Outside is a little fountain with little sculptures including monkey-God Hanuman, illustrating the stories of the Mahayana. Later additions include young kids conquering the rock wall behind and climbing around the scenes and small soft drink bottles and plastic wraps swimming in there, complementing the story with a more recent accentuation. On the other side of the temple, a hotel with what appears to be a publicly used toilet. What a great and secluded place for a spiritual get-away... Buy one (Buddha) and get 1000 (tourists) for free. AND you can play Tennis too!!!

The Buddha, a majestically meditating white figure, is surrounded by picnicking locals who protection from the tanning sun in his shadow, kids who climb the reliefs in the high footstone under the gigantic statue and (large!) Asian families posing proudly for group pictures (plural, sic!).

The sun suddenly burns very strongly on us, now that we have reached the "summit" while it reached its zenith - a perfect time to have lunch in the busy eatery under the marquees. The half-full leftover plates of some Asian visitors make it difficult for us to figure out whether the group of the abandoned table will come back or if it indeed is free for us to sit down. As it turns out, eating only 40-50% of your meal is a way of showing you can afford to do so. While Filipinos like to at least take home what they can't eat and while in some countries eating all that is served to you when in somebody's house is a sign of greed, it appears that some people don't have any relation to their food, where it comes from and poor people.

Nhung has bought some lovely Rambutans for the trip and makes me try them for the first time! These "hairy" fruits (rambut means hair in Malay/Indonesian) are indeed delicious, being of similar taste and consistency as lychees! At the same time, she is tasting my imported Malaysian Dodol (a coconut molasse kind of sweet), Durian flavour, and is trying to convince Aike that it's really edible, haha (trying Durian is a running joke with foreigners, for while a delicacy in Asia, it has a sickening smell and aftertaste for the unrefined Western tongue). I ask her to commemorate this Rambutan premiere by taking a picture of me which turns the attention to the khaki-coloured uniformed police man sitting on the table behind me with his back on us, shamelessly downing his rice wine or whatever alcohol it was. We muse a bit on why he would drink during his duty: Maybe he is on break? Maybe it's his free day and he doesn't have any other clothes to wear? - Ah, the irony with communism...

We have a look at a ruin of what appears to be a former French house. It has an eery feel with its roof missing and what is left of the walls covered in plants with black plaster underneath, as if it caught fire after bombed from the air. Locals don't mind though, napping in the littered space around it or having a long phone conversation on their mobile.

It's our last stop and by the time we're on the way down back to the hill station in the afternoon, it starts to shower down on us. Good I brought a broken umbrella. We run to the roofed porch of a small hut to seek shelter together with some other Asian tourists on three square metres. Nhung rammages for the last Rambutans while we wait for the rain to stop and one of the Northern Vietnamese tourists (their accent is so different that even she can't grasp all of the words) points towards the Rambutan and at her, saying something unintelligible. She, at first unsuspecting, offers them two Rambutan which they take eagerly. The group starts talking quite visibly about us, in front of us, while curiously moving their pink-capped heads around (a tour group) to look at us. Suddenly, I get poked on my arm and an elderly woman says sth to me I don't understand. Then another person pokes at me from the other side, making my head turn around sharply at them. Finally, an old man who seems to be the leader pokes again at me, points at Aike, then at me and crosses his fingers. He's asking if we're together/married. I say no, he's just a friend. I already had a feeling where this was going, having read Aike's posts about the harassment he and Nhung had been receiving for her going out with a foreigner. Even Lonely Planet acknowledges that this frequently happens. I probably added that I live in Malaysia, so there would not be any misunderstanding of them believing the tall blonde Dutch guy is dating two Asian girls at the same time. Nhung is getting poked too and she tells them to stop doing that, in English, pretending she does not speak Vietnamese. The mob gossips some more and some smile, a hostile smile. Finally the rain eases a bit and they take the opporunity to run down and catch up with their tour bus. We perturbed and annoyed, decide to move down to Quan Am's temple and seek shelter with her instead, lest they come back and she shall indeed save us indeed from any further pestering and send us a bit of sunshine as the clouds around us clear. That was when Nhung explains that the Rambutan is the symbol for HIV/AIDS because it looks like the virus that foreigners are being associated with for their promiscuity and presumed nymphomania (and before marriage at that! Obviously all these foreigners are corrupting our girls). Man, all these people who think like them should move to Thailand to deter all the real sex tourists.

We decide to sit some more in the calming presence of Quan Am with the view over the other hills. Some cheerful younger Asians come (Japanese?) and want Aike to snap a picture of them. When they discover he speeks their language, they excitedly pose for a picture with him in the middle. Happened to him before, Aike laughingly admits.

Right when we decide to get a move, it starts to rain again and what they said about this mountain having all four seasons in one day, suddenly rings quite true, especially as the misty clouds suddenly are back to envelop us with a visibility of three metres, entirely covering the station, a five minute walk away. I think of the Mists of Avalon.

Eventually, we do make it to the station - where we are made to wait 1.5 hours in the queue, the cable car service temporarily stopped. Interestingly, nobody gives information, nobody asks questions and everybody just complacently accepts that they have to wait for an unknown period of time for an unknown reason. The communist government conditioned them well. I wonder what would happen if I tried an anthropological experiment and shouted to the guard across the hall to tell us what is going on. Would I get kicked out? Would I encourage other people to follow suit? Of course, nobody is running around to sell drinks or food - in other words, make the business of the week. Nhung, tired and bored, is reading my Vietnam book so it is to Aike that I complain in German that the woman behind me is literally trying to overstep me in the narrow barricaded queue to get to what she claims is her husband. She actually asks me after putting all her weight suggestively on my backpack for an hour or so while bitching about me and a lot of things in general with her daughter, if she can go to her husband, pointing at the third person in front of us who is smiling nervously at me. Annoyed by her constant pushing, I flat-out said no. How do I know this is her husband? Clearly, if they were so eager to get together, the husband wouldn't mind going back to join his wife and children. Aike suggests that maybe he actually is secretely grateful to me for keeping his bubbly wife at bay and giving him a break and Nhung laughingly agrees. Shortly before they get the whole thing running again (lightening warning, good to know it's not just the rain that kept a double world record Austrian cable car from service), she just pushes passed me, shrilly laughes at while yanking her reluctant husband towards her in victory. Her son with the husband, sees this as an invitation to go back to his sister past me. Before he can return to his parents, I open my umbrella horizontally side-ways as if to dry it and block his way, haha! SERIOUSLY, as if one minute earlier would decide whether or not they would get off this mountain or have to spend the night (which perhaps, is not too far fetched a possibility).

Unfortunately, once we reach the motorcycle car park, we discover that one of our helmets had been stolen. The irony is of course that you PAY the people from the guard house to take care of your stuff. I suspect the helmet probably disappeared very soon after we arrived, probably another message for the foreigner who is not going on a trip with one Asian girl but with yet another Asian-looking girl. I really hope for Nhung and Aike that it gets at least a bit better once they move to urban Ho Chi Minh City.

Otherwise, a great trip on an ugly mountain!

(Watch this post, pictures following soon!)

12 July 2009

Ba Na: Some pictures

As promised!

See also Aike's blog post for more (and much better!) pictures!
(My battery was low on that day)

Vietnam: Of Motorcycles, Beaches and Bamboo

A stroll through Hoi An can be quite therapeutic. Avoiding motorcycles while dreamily walking through narrow alleyways, dodging motorcycles in the small aisle between stalls in the canvas-covered food market while trying not to step on a display of jackfruit or vegetables arrayed on a woven rice mat on the floor, crossing the street with a mouth-to-toe covered woman with Vietnamese hat just swerving at high speed from one side and a motorcycle with a 2m tree on each side approaching fast from the other, drinking iced coffee in the shadow of a frangipani tree and an old woman with two large cardboards full of sunglasses strapped over the shoulder, trying to sell you one.

Walking along the riverside promenade and respectfully observing a motorcycle taxi with two rather rotund English girls holding on to the driver, laughing (probably only until her bum hits the handle frame while speeding over the next bump at 40km/h).

These are a few of my first impressions in Hoi An, an otherwise rather laid back place if it wasn't for the flocks of French, Australian and even Asian tourists and the rows and rows of shops selling everything from arts and crafts, cutlery to lampions and lacquer kitchen ware to communist memorabilia (red ties with yellow stars on them – the Vietnamese flag). Aike finds the whole place looks much more beautiful at night, once the art, souvenir and tailoring shops close and, as I should see later, it's true, as only then you can admire the slightly Chinese-inspired architecture. Some houses in fact reminded me of Melaka. And the city is being kept in just as clean by the town council for the tourists.

Mango juice, lemon juice over Cao Lao (speak: Gau Lau), a local speciality, while admiring the sunset over the riverside. Needless to say, on my first day I had already forgotten that I actually had a job to return to in a galaxy far far way.

Aike's flat is rather funkily situated at the back of a mobile phone shop you have to walk through. A sad lonely fish s swimming in a basin under the wooden staircase. I am sure it's throwing off enough fortune (Feng Shui!) for Aike's landlady is sure a rich woman (more on that in another post!). The family who runs the shop actually sleeps in the shop, on a mat on the floor. That does not necessarily indicate that they are poor, they perhaps just want to make sure their shop is not broken into. We sometimes see them watching the TV they put on a chair when we open the front grille to park the motorcycle in the house.

It's fascinating to see what people can carry on their motorcycles. Half a farm, a young forest and even a car full of timber. Least appetisingly, over-stuffed cages of pigs: another reason to go halal...!

A trip to the beach
If I hadn't read that Da Nang is also famous for its sandy beaches and warm, shallow water, you could have easily told by the popularity of the beach among locals, especially from sunset onwards, when there is less danger of getting a tan. If your lucky, you can spot a jellyfish (which they might sell on the side of the road for cooking), if you are less lucky, it will even touch you. Neither happened to me.

After paying to leave our motorcycles at the motorcycle stand (a very Vietnamese thing, you pay someone a few dong, they give you a piece of paper with a number and will write it on your seat with chalk), we head for a beautiful bamboo cafe/bar towards the quieter end of the beach. The roof, the fence, the supporting pillars, the bar, all made from bamboo. There is a bucket with water to wash your feet if you come from swimming with a bamboo cup swimming in it. The changing room/toilet at the back, while surrounded by solid wall and privately facing trees has a bamboo revolving door that you can lock with a wooden bar. You can put your clothes on bamboo hooks fixed for your convenience. The toilet seat itself is made of bamboo – no, just joking! Aike, Nhung and me lie on wooden stretchers, facing the sea and drinking mango shakes in the breeze. Nhung is reading Dostojewski, Aike is dreaming of a new European currency and I? I just feel very content with myself.

There is an admirable bowl-shaped tiny Vietnamese round boat (used for fishing) parked in the “front yard” of our hut, it looks more like an over-sized fruit bowl than sth you can actually navigate around in by sticking poles into the sand. It looks fun to try out but I wonder at the same time how many Vietnamese people were desperate enough in the war to attempt to flee hostile shores by driving these boats far out into the sea and perhaps died one or the other way in the process.

On the ride back, my hair flies in the wind and Nhung and me past the rice paddies...

09 July 2009

Heidi đi đến Việt Nam! (Heidi goes to Vietnam!)

Having Aike pick me up from Da Nang airport on a motorcycle after last time we saw each other six months ago on a pier in Southern Thailand was quite a special treat! Especially considering that on that particular island we actually had an accident before the whole adventure on two wheels had even started.

I did not have many ideas about what Vietnam would look like before I came here but realised with mild excitement that this was actually my first time in a non-European former socialist country. Then again, there is so much more about Vietnam - its history, its culture, its people, its nature - that it would not be served right by stereotyping it into a socialist context, even if the olive-uniformed people at the airport fit very much into that image.

Aike has to teach later that evening, so we have some amazing beef noodle soup (famous Vietnamese speciality) with basil, soy sprout, coriander and onions. Vietnamese cuisine so I have been told, uses less spices (apart from chili sometimes) and loads of different herbs instead, probably because of its availability due to the quite humid climate. The sun is maybe three to five degrees hotter than in Malaysia and the combination of mountain forest range along the Western border of Vietnam and sea winds on its east make for a quite wet weather sometimes, despite the heat (especially during the rainy season from May to September). Thanks to that though, Vietnam is the world's third biggest exporter of rice (which only costs 10 000 Vietnamese Dong or 41 €-Cent a kilo over here!). Having lived in approximate conditions in Malaysia for a while though, I probably fare better than the pork-eating Austrians who get struck down by the sun far more easily.

Da Nang, a buzzy city of 750 000 inhabitants right at the centre of Vietnam and subsequently the country's fourth-largest city lives mostly on its major industrial port and tourism. There also used to be a big and important US Air Force base during the Vietnam War.

The Cham Museum is quite interesting, not just because its (French) architecture. The Cham were a culture that ruled southern Vietnam for about a thousand years and has produced some impressively detailed carvings of (mostly Hindu) deities:

"Concertinaed between the Khmers to the south and the clans of Vietnamese (initially under Chinese rule) to the north, Champa's history was characterised by consistent feuding with the neighbours. [...] Wars raged with the Khmers in the 12th and 13th centuries, one fateful retaliatory Cham offensive culminating in the destruction of Angkor. [...]

Champa's economy hinged around agriculture, wet-rice cultivation, fishing and maritime trade, which it carried out with Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Arabs through ports at Hoi An [...].

Though Buddhism flourished for a time in the ninth century, Hinduism was the dominant religion in Champa, until Islam started to make inroads in the second half of the 14th century. Orthodox Hindu gods, and in particular Shiva, were fused with past kings, in accordance with the belief that kings were devaraja - reincarnation of deities."

Aike in fact considers doing PhD research on the topic of lingering Cham elements in religious practices in central Vietnam...!

Tired though that I am from spending the night awake at the airport, I decide to at least have a look at a Catholic church where a group of Vietnamese women (and a few husbands?) are chanting a litany in Vietnamese and some men pray at the other side of the aisle. The church is quite simple but very nicely so on the inside with fresh white flowers around the altar and a statue of the Mother Mary with a blue neon halo. The side of the church is lined with doors and playing children are running past the open wooden blinds. There also is a small grotto outside with a Mother Mary inside and a lot of plaques of people who thank her.

I then walk back to "Bread of Life", a really good cafe-restaurant managed and run by deaf people. It's kind of a small-scale project led by a US-American woman and they provide training in sign language and job training, so it's a sustainable work place and the people working there are quite having fun! It serves really delicious food, too!

On our 40-minute ride home to Hoi An (30 km South of Da Nang), we dash past kilometres of really big upscale resorts, some already finished, some still under construction. It looks as if Da Nang really wants to develop tourism over here. There are security guards, no matter if there's a house on that ground yet or not even a wall. You see them sitting on the roadside on a folding chair, perhaps reading a magazine. Once we cross the provincial border, the already dimly lit street turns completely black (for no street lamps anymore) and if your light breaks down you'd be stupid to drive and become a risk for other drivers too. Sometimes, you see shadows in the distance - children who run home across the street after playing/hanging out in the area. Quite dangerous for them. And oncoming cars like to keep their high beam lights on, interfering with your own lights and reducing visibility. You also see into the odd living room right next to the street with its front wall (instead of door) completely open and people comfortably lying on the tiles on the floor, watching TV.

Eventually, we reach the countryside. You can guess in the darkness at the smell of manure over large open spaces (rice paddies) and a brief whiff of fish sauce that is locally produced. It is maybe 11pm and already most houses are dark, window blinds closed and hardly any people or motorcycles on the street. So different from KL where you can find food stalls open until midnight or early morning even but then I kinda like that, a rural town is exactly where I wanted to get away too.

04 July 2009

A Ritzy Night of Song and Blues!

Kuala Lumpur, while seemingly straightforward to the unsuspecting, can hold quite a few surprises. The other night for example, when a friend and I and his visiting friend from Cambridge met up for dinner at the night market in bustling Bukit Bintang, hauled into a street eatery by a crazy Chinese grandma in a barbie pink frottee minidress and the graceful walk of a male mine worker, I did not expect to attend an evening of classical violin and then later on, haute cuisine for virtually no money in the same building as the Ritz.

After having some satay skewers in really yummy satay sauce, and after buying my favourite Chinese red-bean paste filled mini-buns from the Chinese bakery at the corner, in lack of not finding the lady selling the awesome red date juice (popular especially among Chinese) at her stall, we walk five minutes off the bling bling of the market into a quiet side street. The jazz club No Black Tie instantly looks very Japanese, with black square tiles leading across white rounded stones and carefully planted bamboo to a solid elegant wooden door/gate that must be imported from Japan.

The bar inside gleams by subtle elegance, impressing by understatement. A veil keeps out the sound from the bar from the theatre area. We order a glass of excellent wine, a Mojito and my own cocktail-loving self tries the Lycheetini (Martini + Lychee syrup and floating Lychee on a pick – only in Asia!!!).

There is a break in the performance (tonight: classical evening) and we sneak up to the gallery where a table right in the middle at the front is practically waiting for us! The performer is a charismatic Italian woman on the violin who we later find out teaches music in KL. She is accompanied by a young Malaysian/Chinese? pianist who she works with. The latter's parents were watching in the front row and must be so proud of her! That's even more impressive considering that classical music or jazz does not seem to have that big a community here. Yes, there's the Malaysian Philharmonics at the Towers (and I still haven't been) but I do not believe that this style of music is much appreciated in Southeast Asia as it is in say, Japan or Korea.

It's sad to see that there are maybe only six tables of people in the darkened audience room for quite a great performance. To be honest, I haven't been to a classical event ever since I left Vienna and moved to London. Yes, you can attend concerts in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-fields (the big church on Trafalgar Square) or in a church in Sloane's square or even go to the Royal Opera but it costs so much (without the evening gown already!) that as a student, I did not really follow that up. Jazz and blues must be a bit cheaper and more accessible to get to with gigs in Camden etc., perhaps I should make an effort once I'm back!

Nevertheless, the captivating sound of the violin, so universal in its magic makes a familiar chord in me resonate with memory. It is a sound that will always remind me of Vienna, I guess. The first piece after the break is this famous medieval tune which I am sure all of you know, in 14 variations, really interesting what Correlli (like 140+ other composers who were obsessed with the tune) did with it. Then we hear two tangos and some Southeastern European dances collected by Bartok who she describes as “ethnomusicologist”, going to the most remote villages in order to look for “unspoiled” folk music.

It's awesome, somebody brings flowers for the two musicians at the end of the performance and my US-American friend, suggests we get pictures and talk, whereas his Cambridge friend and me were slightly embarassed at the thought of asking for pictures with the artist, who turned out absolutely great about it, even suggesting to do it on the stage (!). She asks us where we are from and it is such a relief that there are people who know Vienna is famous for its music not for kangaroos! Our American friend eventually asks for business cards and we move on to another venue he knows about.

It's inside a posh mall where Louis Vuitton, Dior etc. are back to back in the same building as the Ritz-Carlton. Everything is polished white marble and brass and we feel slightly underdressed in our casual shirts, flip flops and backpacks. We first get lost in the hotel part of the building and the Cambridge friend remarks that, “even the cleaner looks at us thinking, 'Get a hint from the white marble and the big paintings and mirrors!'” :D

Eventually, we find the plaza of the mall, with restaurants around and a central bar that, judging from the 200 or so elaborately described drinks (including Austrian Mozart liqueur) and at least as many separately listed wines, definitely know their trade. I go for the Tahitian vanilla coffee on ice though as it's already midnight and I feel like chilling (which is why actually I shouldn't drink coffee anymore). With it, I order an amazing Tiramisu with a pistaccio biscuit which has been taken out of the oven at the EXACTLY perfect time (as sb who loves baking and was deprived by quality baking during years in London, I was stunned), my friend orders a banana split and the Cambridge friend orders the most delicious berry bake ever, fresh berries, warm cake. And all that haute cuisine including my drink for just 10€ each! We later get a card with a picture of the three head chefs, all Asian and very professional cooks. One's first name is Johann, we muse if he's half-Austrian maybe, he looks like he could be.

Unforunately, we seem to be the only audience attending the stage after midnight. The singer has a great voice and gives a personal note to well-known songs. The bassist looks as if he's contemplating for how long he'll have to continue playing in empty malls. The pianist, I don't know about him. The advantage is that we get amazing food and get our chosen music (and can study expensive fashion we will never be able to afford without having to feel embarassed by the presence of people who can). My friend, shouted “Mariah Carey: Hero!”, his Cambridge friend and me blush again. Ten seconds later, the singer announces she's going to see Hero for us!!! Oh dear. I blush even more.

She delivers the first lines, “There's a hero/If you look into yourself/No-one reaches out a hand for you to hold/There's an answer/If you reach into your soul/And the emptiness you feel will disappear” and I instantly have to joke, “That sounds like me, doing filing!” Haha!