I take wing on a prayer and verify Biggles, leave camera, guidebook and Gucci behind to find playground, housewives and life.
So much has happened since my last communication, it’s hard to remember that for many back home it’s just been a few more days at the office.
Last Tuesday morning, after a night of talking to my sister in Berlin, helping Mum, final packing, and four hours sleep, I shot off for a morning run, camera in pocket, to catch final memories of my home suburb – even passing my first school, May Road Primary. Once at the airport, check-in was smooth, although with so much hardware security scans are a pain: unpacking and repacking my computer, power supply, hard drive, camera, Kindle, phone. I was on Malaysia airlines and my boarding pass was in English in Malay, making me tingle with an exotic anticipation.
I had a window seat, though the wing blocked the view. Once upon a time, the personal entertainment consoles; compared to iPads, they feel sluggish and clunky. They still offer a linguistic bonanza. I frolicked around in Berlitz basic Hindi, two Bollywood flicks, the interactive Holy Quran, and relished all the movie languages: from English, French and German that I learnt at school, to tongues that span the Orient from east to west: Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic. I perused my New Straits Times, imagining myself sailing out to the colonies when the paper was founded in 1845. Daily temperatures in Kuala Lumpur, I learnt, currently range from 24-32 degrees Celsius, but are a cooler 12-26 in Delhi, that city of myth where I’ll be next week!
Hanging on the rear wall were “Muslim prayer leaflets”, with pertinent supplications in Arabic, Malay and English. “Allah is the greatest… The One Who has placed this transport at our service… O Allah, You are The Companion on the journey… I take refuge in You from the difficulties of travel, from having a change of hearts and being in a bad predicament…” I said Amen and then read on the back: “In the name of Allah when taking off and landing, verily my God is most forgiving and merciful.”
Thanks be to God, we arrived with no predicaments. The sun was setting as we touched down 45 minutes early at 7:45pm, in 30 degrees heat. A few minutes later, on board the shuttle from the satellite terminal, I was surprised it was already dark. I recall reading in boyhood romances of Biggles in Africa (or the like) that night falls fast near the equator – and by gad he was right!
My in-flight companion was a young Chinese chap who’d moved to Kuala Lumpur for his work with Huawei, the Chinese manufacturer of my new phone. He invited me to share the company-funded taxi to his flat in central KL, which was just a few minutes down the road from my accommodation.
After that auspicious arrival, I found the guesthouse locked, with no reply to my ringing and knocking. I was a little nervous alone on the back street after dark, but a passer-by offered his phone to ring the guesthouse manager. Its screensaver displayed, in big colourful lettering, a message I needed to remember on my solo challenge: “Trust in God”. Below was the verse, echoing the on-board Muslim prayer, “God is our refuge and strength: a very present help in trouble.”
In 2004 I spent a week in Kuala Lumpur ticking off Lonely Planet’s recommendations. The last few days, however, I’ve been considering a multi-month stay when I return from India, and it changes your perspective! I’m roaming without a bag or camera – just umbrella and water bottle in pockets. I’ve felt very safe, no-one’s tried to sell me anything I didn’t want, and I’ve only spotted tourist traps from the train while en route to outlying suburbs. KL proper has about 1.5 million inhabitants, but it’s nearer 7 million with the contiguous satellite cities, which may be better accommodation prospects.
Yesterday I struggled along – and hair-raisingly across – central KL streets in the midday dust and noise and heat. It was not idyllic and I wasn’t that glad to be here. Half an hour later, I stepped out of the train in Petaling Jaya to the west, and heard more birds than traffic. Below the station was a park. I walked around its small lake with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola-copy drink. Kids swinging in playgrounds; a ball from a schoolyard rolled down the hill – a cheerful “hey uncle!” when I threw it back up; old men chatting or sleeping in a shady pavilion; many trees – should be able to sling my travel hammock – and exercise stations around the circuit. I could imagine living here. KL is a booming city, full of cranes and construction sites, but much of it has an almost rural feel, with fields of palm trees and lush greenery overgrowing embankments. Most buildings look looking rather dilapidated and frogs croak in the canals at night.
Two stations up the line is the University of Malaya campus, with busy streets but lots of fields and its own lake. Of course I checked out the library. In the “Blue Zone Quiet Area – no noise” I saw more blue from Facebook than study on the computer screens – students are the same everywhere! During an afternoon downpour I shared the umbrella by a chicken-rice with two high school pupils. Rain briefly cools the air, but when the sun returns it steams up like a sauna and fogs my glasses. Signs on trains threaten 500RM (approx. NZ$200) fines for smoking, eating, littering, sticking gum. But on campus they read: “No smoking at University of Malaya … RM10,000 (approx. NZ$4000) penalty or 2 years imprisonment”! Central KL was nicer in the evening cool, as I relaxed with sizzling roti bread and tasty chicken curry in an outdoor eatery. I thought of that University sign with more appreciation when a guy at the next table lit up…
On my hunt for KL living ideas, I’ve had a fun catch-up with one of my former biochemistry lecturers, the person who first paid me to program, who recently moved here. I bought a book of KL maps and found the Expat Magazine. It targets bods in power ties not bums in gender roles like me, but I ripped out a few resources.
I emailed and Skyped from Starbucks wifi in upmarket fashion malls. Their glitzy glamour is a novelty at first, making Kiwi malls look pretty tawdry, but soon comes to seem plastic and sterile. I was charmed to find a suburban mall where real people shop – and I may soon too! It felt much more like a home. There was a RM10 shop (like our $2 shops) with cheap crockery and cutlery like I might need for an unfurnished flat, and the “Handy Fix: your DIY store” for household appliances. A row of safes suggested there are more handy burglars here than at home. My heart warmed to see “Reader’s Paradise: Rent-a-book” with a range of classics and contemporaries, and find that Giant supermarket stocks essentials like peanut butter, toilet paper and Sanitarium “Weetbix Bites” from New Zealand, the box labelled in English and French.
I’ve seldom been overly conscious that Malaysia is a Muslim country. I’ve seen pretty mosque domes and tessellating lattice grills, as well as separate Muslim bathrooms for washing before worship, but heard no prayer calls, and the central malls seem western, commercial and secular. This suburban mall, however, had stalls of henna hand dye, Muslim headscarves, and long gloves that recalled Victorian Englishwomen. A stand of Islamic literature, CDs and trinkets for devotion was manned by a Palestinian. All much more interesting than Armani and Christian Dior. I can’t wait to live in this world for a while. I breathed a prayer of thanks and half regretted I’m going to India first.