Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 24 Nov 2000
“Oh-oh I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York”
Now I know how Sting feels. I’m definitely an alien here – though I can’t say an unwelcome one – rather the opposite. I really haven’t felt unwelcome here since I arrived (with the exception of at work, but that’s a whole other story).
Still, it most definitely is a foreign country, and despite the Versace and Gucci stores in the mall, and the McDonalds and 7 Elevens on the corner, I know I’m not in Colorado anymore. Sometimes, you can sort of forget you’re in a foreign country – then the Muslim Call to prayer starts ringing out from the local mosque. Or you pick up the paper with it’s decidely non-western slant. Or you glance up and see the Petrona towers towering over the city, with an architecture that definitely would not fit in NY. Or maybe you simply walk out of the AC into the 90/90 heat and humidity.
Yes, it’s hot here, and humid. It hits you like a wave when you walk out of an AC’ed building, which most of the modern ones, thank goodness, are. Even New Orleans doesn’t seem bad compared to here. Doesn’t matter what time of the day or night – it’s sticky. At night it’s bearable, and can be even pleasant. During the day it gets, well, lets just say I’m beginning to know what a poached egg feels like.
I arrived here close to two weeks ago, bleary eyed after about 30 hours of plane rides and airport lounges to get here. The customs forms given to you on the plane states in large red letters “Warning, Death Penalty to Drug Traffikers.” Then you get of the plane, pick up your bags, and walk past the customs guards, whistling to yourself and just hoping they don’t want to check in your bags.. It’s like when the cop is behind you while your driving – you know you’re not quilty of anything, but you can’t help feeling a twinge regardless. Luckily, the guards didn’t even glance in my direction when I went through customs – guess I don’t look like a drug traffiker – good thing.
The KL airport is fairly large and modern, but about an hour’s drive from the KL proper. So I grabbed a taxi, and headed into KL. The taxi dropped me off at the Centra Hotel – not the Hilton, but clean and reasonable. I have a two bedroom apartment (I’m not sure why I’ve got a 2 bedroom, I don’t need it). Living room, dining room, kitchen (skimpily equipped, but a kitchen nonetheless), 2 bathrooms, 2 bedrooms – way more room than I need.
I have a nice view of the Petrona Towers (the worlds tallest building – at least according to the Malaysians [it all depends how you measure] – until the Chinese apparently finish building a new one in Bejing), the KLCC pool and park (an urban redevelopment project a few years ago, apparently), and the Muslim Mosque.
Unfortunately, that means I’m also within earshot of the Muslim Mosque. Which means when the man starts his 4:30 AM call to prayer, I can hear every word from my bedroom.. At times, it sounds hauntingly beautiful, drifting in through the window. At other times I just wish he’d finish so I can go back to sleep. I don’t know how it all works – the prayer times are listed in the local paper but they change from day to day – from what I’m told, they’re supposed to pray 5 times a day, but there’s always 6 listed (pick any 5 out of 6, maybe?). And I swear, sometimes it’s relatively quiet and short, and sometimes it goes on for half an hour and they sound like they’ve got the PA system really cranked up. Oh well.
“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien.”
Reading the paper in the morning is a trip – the NY Times, it’s not. It’s in English, but with a decidedly none-western slant. It seems like there’s typically one article on the front page designed to show the decadance and/or silliness of western culture. If its not “Bush and Gore may have to play a hand of poker to decide New Mexico (apparently, if they had tied in that state that’s the traditional way to settle it)” its “13 year old girl in NYC kills own other and father.” There’s also usually some article somewhere in the paper discussing life in the new, modern Iran and another espousing “Asian” (i.e. Muslim) values. Yet, at the same time, the entertainment section of the paper is filled with the Spice Girls, Arnie Schwarzneggar, and Madonna – yes, Madonna seems bigger over here than in the U.S.
It’s an odd mix of Asian and Middle Eastern, old and new, Western and Eastern. Muslim woman clothed from head to foot walk side by side with chinese women made up to the nines wearing skin tight jeans and the latest fashions. Right next to the Petrona Towers with it’s high fashion mall and gourmet supermarket is a few ramshackle “buildings” – more like open air sheds, housing street vendors selling food cooked under, well, lets just say not exactly the most sanitary conditions.
Even the traffic is a mix – big expensive Mercedes, buses, and lots and lots of mopeds.
Apparently, there’s a lot of money in KL – especially in the area we’re staying in, which is near the Petrona Towers and the KLCC – Kulua Lumpur City Centre – also near all the foreign embassies and big, fancy hotels.
KLCC – literally in the bottom of the Petrona Towers, contains a big, fancy mall with just about every designer label you’re likely to have heard of – and a number I hadn’t heard of. And on the weekends, it’s packed – hey, somebody’s living the good life for sure in KL.
The area in between my hotel and the towers is a lushly landscaped park filled with tropical plants, a kids pool, fountains and a neatly manicured lawn. Surrounding the whole area is a 1.2 km jogging track – I’ve tried running on it once or twice – if you go before sunrise it’s almost bearable and you don’t quite melt into your shoes. If you go after sunrise, well, you know the saying “Mad dogs and Englishman?”
The 3 of us (me and the 2 other guys from Sun I’m working with – Peter Murray and Will Schenk), were lucky enough to get up in the Petrona Towers the other day – only half way up to the observation deck on the same floor as the bridge, and not onto the bridge itself (it was locked up), but still a nice way to get a birds eye view of the city centre.
Of course, it’s pretty easy to get into different parts of the city – this weekend, I took the subway to ChinaTown, for instance, which looks, well, like ChinaTown in San Fransisco, or New York. A bit more crowded and dirtier, perhaps, but Chinatown is Chinatown, no matter what city your in. A walk down the main drag provides the opportunity to buy any “designer” watch you’d like, for between $10-$20 a piece, DVD’s, the latest Madonna (Madonna again) or Boyz II Men CD’s, software for about $3 a pop (yes, Jason, someone was claiming to be selling Photoshop 6.0 – I didn’t pick up a copy), a snake or a bird to take home as a pet, and, if you need it, a coffin. Yes, there was an open air storefront selling caskets.
That was yesterday.. Today, a friend (one of the guys from Sun I work with) and I ventured a bit further afield and took the bus out of town to the “Bhatu Caves” on the edge of town. The Bhatu Caves are couple of large caverns set up in some cliffs just outside of Kuala Lumpur… walking up some 270-odd steps to get to the entrance of the largest one (past the monkeys that seem to be hanging out all over), reveals a huge cavern open to the sky with a Hindu Shrine in the middle of it. Smaller caverns host statues and murals depicting various Hindu gods. Apparently during a big festival in January those for whom the gods have been fortunate that year perform sacrifices and various feats in honor of the gods – often involving piercing the skin with hooks and other instruments. Not my idea of a good time but hey, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien..
Speaking of feeling alien, unfortunately, that’s exactly how we’re feeling at work.. Like not particular welcome aliens, at that.. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say we’re working for company “A,” whose paying a lot of money for us to be here. Unfortunately, company “A” really doesn’t want to pay for us, but is forced to by company “B,” who holds the contract company “A” is trying to fulfill. So essentially, we’re working for a company that doesn’t seem to want us here, and it shows. Not much you can do but keep your head down, try and stay out of trouble, and add value where you can…
Still, can’t complain too much – most everyone has been very friendly, and even at work it seems like the “unwelcome” extends strictly to business matters and is not personal. The local Sun folks have been great to work with and super supportive. The other evening, in fact, they were having a celebratory dinner and went out of their way to invite us along and give us a ride to the restaurant – a 9 course Chinese meal, which was an experience, to say the least. “Pregnant fish” (small cruncy fish stuffed with egg – salty), Jellyfish (sweetish, with an interesting half crunchy half slimy texture), and whole small Octopus (kind of chewy and rubbery) for appetizers. Shark fin soup for the soap course. Duck, prawns, and other assorted goodies for main courses. The trick was to try a little bit of each course, but it just kept coming, and coming, and coming..
And when it’s not raining, KL is certainly an interesting city and Malaysia an interesting country to explore. Of course, it rains a lot . Guess that’s what you get for coming during Monsoon season.. While it’s not your classic “pour all day every day from morning until night” monsoon, it’s definitely the rainy season – it has rained every day since we’ve got here.. Usually in the afternoon or evening, and it rangs from a brief shower to a several-hour long, complete-with-thunder-and-lightning, torrential downpour. The Petrona Towers are often half shrouded in fog and lightning, adding to their “Tim Burton film” like look – if you’ve seen the movie “Batman,” you know what I mean.
KL is worth a visit, and hopefully I’ll get out into the rest of the country at some point and see what that’s like. Just remember, if you do come over:
“You’re an alien, you’re a legal alien..”