A week ago the 2014 IFTA to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur came to a close. Yet, I can firmly say that the memories from our two week visit to both nations will last for years to come. It seemed like a dream: I could have blinked and I would have totally missed my experience as a Asian cuisine addict, an urban explorer/researcher and a wide-eyed American tourist. I write this final post from Mumbai, India, the country’s financial capital located on the western coast, and my home away from home. Famously coined as “the city that never sleeps”, this urban megalopolis boasts a 22 million strong population, and within the next decade will be the world’s most populous city, matching that of Pennsylvania. This is my 13th trip to this city in the last 21 years of my life and each time I appreciate even more how far Mumbai has come along in each facet of its urban development. Although many of my friends and family back home in Pittsburgh would call me crazy, I can definitely say that I am at peace here, along with my 94 year-old grandfather who is just as proud to be an Indian as am.
Nevertheless, as I reminisce on the IFTA, I can state with conviction that I miss Southeast Asia, maybe Kuala Lumpur more than Singapore, but regardless, hopefully one day I can go back. Who knows? Maybe I won’t graduate on time in April 2015 and have to stay another year at the University of Pittsburgh, which can only mean one thing: IFTA round 2, and that Dr. Glass will probably toss me out of a moving van so he doesn’t have to deal with me for yet another two weeks. Jokes aside, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore had their own charm. The former reminds much of Mumbai, perhaps just a bit more crowded, more civil, and yeah, definitely more homogenously Indian. Not to mention, Royale Chulan hotel is leagues apart from the apartment building in the heart of this densely populated, South Asian hub that serves as my temporary abode.
Jalan Alor Food Street is therefore replaced by open air bazaars and food stalls, which are incredibly less organized, certainly more populated, less hospitable to the curious tourist, and noticeably, much cheaper. Mumbai definitely has its own set of Bukit Bintang malls and high end retail, somewhere in between these high-rise apartment-condos, hotels, and office buildings that have been erected amidst the numerous slums that dot the city; I have just never been. Why should I? I try as much as possible to consider myself a local rather than a tourist while I am in Mumbai, which places such venues out of my jurisdiction (and price range). Mumbai does not have a Chinatown, but instead includes numerous East Asian restaurants and cafes that have sprouted up all over the city, some of which are as or even more delectable then what I consumed in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Furthermore, perhaps the best element is that while in Mumbai, I do not have to worry about exploring the city’s Little India neighborhood; it’s all around me, all the time.
When I am back home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I always long for city-life. Why else would I have spent 33 college credits on a B.A in Urban Studies? Because of this desire to at every given point live an urban lifestyle that I simply cannot find 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh’s version of its Central Business District, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will be missed. Sure, Pittsburgh has its rivers and subsequent waterfront development. But do the Southside Works, Station Square, or the North Shore even compare to Robertson, Clarke, and Boat Quay and Marina Bay? I think it would be safe to say: not really. Mumbai’s rivers? Well, not so much but a few creeks here and there. But there is the Arabian Sea! Yet, it seems that any waterfront development that lines the ocean here is too obscured by the overwhelming pollution and shantytowns that empty into it. However, things are certainly improving, as slum clearings are becoming more and more pervasive across Mumbai’s urban landscape, which is an entirely different story.
What will stick from my time in Kuala Lumpur the most, are our visits to Jalan Alor Food Street, Imbi Wet Market, the National Mosque (although the architecture was a bit too modernist for me), the National Islamic Arts Museum, and the Batu Caves, so essentially everything. In Singapore I will never forget our numerous jaunts to various hawker centers, our meeting with Dr. Bunnell and Professor Gillen, the National Museum of Singapore, Moustafa’s Mega Center, and Bugis Village. Lastly, a taste that continues to linger is that of the numerous mangoes that I consumed during my two-week visit. Kuala Lumpur and Singapore provided me with all the tools needed to meet my daily dose of mangoes, thereby contributing to my addiction. The particular kinds of mangoes found in Southeast Asia are truly special, and I tried them using as many methods as possible: juice, ice-cream, freshly sliced, and lassi. Being in Mumbai during the peak of Alphonso Mango season does not help me give up my habit, as I eat about 3-a day in some form or the other. It’s all right though because back in Pittsburgh, the Mexican Mangoes my family buys are simply no match, so I should probably stock up while I still can.