Tag Archives: arrival

Trusting the Companion on the Way to Malaysia

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.

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Bangkok Butterflies and a Bangalore Nocturne

Auckland International Airport, Saturday 6 October. A few stomach butterflies already airborne. As in past flights alone, I was comforted by the words of my namesake three millennia ago, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139). Withdrew US$300 against credit card failure, chomped a last beef Big Mac, hugged my parents at the departure gate, and followed the butterflies aloft.

11 hours to Bangkok with Thai air, “smooth as silk”. Videos on the Thai king and Buddhist history, key phrases from the Thai language game. A tip for visitors to Bangkok airport: don’t drop your tickets on the floor while heaving luggage off the carousel. The guard won’t let you back in. You’ll spend the next near-midnight hour chasing round the facilities, chatting up the staff, chafing at their English, till the dozenth grasps your plight, so you can re-enter the luggage area, scour the naked lino with growing disappointment, flag down a friendly taxi salesperson to translate for the cleaning lady, who reaches deeply into her bin and – better than any rabbit from a seedy conjurer’s hat – draws out your creased tickets. I tried to keep smiling and practising “thank you” from that in-flight Thai game. Though in principle, as one official said, it shouldn’t be necessary as it’s all electronic…

A night of luxury in the Bangkok Novotel, with the grandest hotel foyer I’ve seen – outclassing my usual backpackers’ digs. Three books in the bedside drawer: a Gideon’s Bible, “What the Buddha taught” and “A Constitution for Living: Buddhist principles for a fruitful and harmonious life”. Through my window a highway flanked with billboards beckoned towards the city. But I’d been warned of travellers who taxied quickly into town, to rush hour-crawl back – with un-harmonious and unfruitful sentiments – as their plane taxied for take-off.

So a day of countdown in the airport, that no man’s land between worlds. Breakfast was instant noodles from my room’s “minibar”. Lunch with the Bangkok Post over spicy mushroom and crab soup. Vietnamese vege wraps for tea. Boarded the flight, and spent two hours on the ground for repairs. Next to me sat a young Bangalorean, visiting home from his IT job in Taiwan – one of India’s new global tech successes. After a 3 ½ hour flight, we touched down about 11:30pm in Bangalore, India!

Less light and advertising from the sky than more Easterly Asian cities I’ve seen. Airport signs in three scripts: curly circly Kannada, straighter-lined washing-on-a-clothesline Hindi, and English. After Bangkok’s airport (completed last year), you’d hardly call this an international airport (to be fair, it’s to be retired next year). No air bridge to the terminal, but steep stairs to an old bus. Flashing Christmas-tree-like lights framed the elephant god Ganesh above the driver’s head as the bus coughed and bumped along to the terminal building. Stained walls, loose wiring. A slight scrum at the baggage claim. Passport check at a bulky cathode ray computer screen, less high-tech than high time for retirement, certainly not the cutting edge IT I’d expected in India’s IT capital. A short queue past customs, and it was time to face India.

After the two-hour delay I feared I might be stranded at midnight. I ventured into the foyer and saw only eager transport and accommodation touts. No ATM in sight, so squeezed back through a row of plastic chairs to change US$50 to Rupees, officially unobtainable outside India. Later realised I’d been too flustered to count them. My plane seat-mate lent his cell phone to ring my course director, who told me to go out further. Slipped back through the seats, and an official told me off – that line of chairs demarked pre- and post-customs areas. The official (or not – too dazed to tell) insisted I go through customs. I protested – I already had! He changed tack, grabbed my trolley. I held on. We push-pulled it out together as he wheedled for a tip. Seldom have I felt more grateful than when I spotted a slim man with a big ECC sign. The pseudo-official chappie vanished.

Jabaraj chaperoned me through the chaotic parking-lot, into the jeep, and we were off. No seatbelt for the front passenger (me). The driver tooted and flashed headlights before swerving to overtake. Excitement and exhaustion anaesthetised my fear. Streets were dark, many lights dead. We wove past hopeful hitchhikers, shadowy pedestrians, clusters of stray dogs, small temples or shrines through the gloom. 15 minutes later we reached the suburb of Whitefield, turned and bumped down a dirt road and the iron gates of the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) loomed out of the dark. The guard emerged from his gatehouse, swung them open, and we entered the compound. Walked for ever down a corridor of empty bedrooms, shadows receding as Jabaraj flicked on cold fluorescent lights, past two open courtyards, and arrived at my room. Jabaraj opened the heavy door, assured me it was boltable and guards were on duty, promised to return at 8 in the morning to take me to breakfast, and left me alone in the building.

I shot the bolt and turned to inspect my room. Spacious and tidy, walls painted cream. On two walls (a corner room) were windows with bars and insect mesh, frames painted blue and turquoise. I drew the burgundy curtains to shut out the foreign night. White mosquito nets shrouded the twin beds. Two cane chairs and a desk, with reading lamp, vase of artificial flowers and carafe of water. Rummaged in my bag, found the pot of medicaments, dropped in a Puritab. Watched it slowly fizz through the amber glass. Paint was peeling on concrete shelves; their deep recesses reminded me of Roman catacomb graves. Empty except for a candle, matches, and cake of Medimix Ayurvedic soap, with “a unique formulation of 18 herbs”, recalling KFC’s secret herbs and spices. Tiled concrete floor, swept clean. In the corner, two towels and a few coat hangers dangled from a wooden frame. The bathroom had big plastic buckets and a cold shower. Washed my feet under the tap labelled “hot” – it wasn’t. Cleaned my teeth, rinsing mouth and brush in a cup of the purified water – my tablet didn’t leave much taste.

It was 23°C on landing, down from the 28°C night in Bangkok, and there was an overhead fan, so I had a cool night and even put one blanket on, but didn’t sleep much. Fluttering with adrenaline, my butterflies hadn’t all landed yet, and like Prospero’s enchanted isle the air was full of noises, sounds, and strange sweet airs: dogs whining and barking outside the compound, chanting or singing – perhaps a distant temple or wedding music, a train horn, airplanes; nearby were loud crickets and the calls of unknown birds.