Love-Hate: Kuala Lumpur
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The big KL seems to like me more than Melaka. For lack of time to research, I drop by the No. 8 guest house, the place Caro stayed at back when she was in KL. With the metro it is easy enough to reach, and after some searching I finally find the place. Although more expensive than anticipated, the hostel is nice except for the construction going on and the bed bugs that I find on my second night. Seriously? Again? The search for an alternative is fairly sobering, however. All other places are really expensive or in worse condition than the hostel under construction. Later I will find out that other places are even worse on the bed bug front and in fact it seems pretty hard to find a bed in KL without them.
So far, I have only seen the city walking it’s streets as I couldn’t go up the Petronas towers when I tried on my first real day in the city. My impression is not exactly good. Concrete pathways cross concrete roads going by concrete colored buildings inhabiting places selling concrete colored food (they call it “Fried Chicken.2 Downtown is full of skyscrapers that either host these fast food chains, banks, insurance companies, construction companies or the oil industry. To be blunt: the city is ugly as hell! And the impression does not improve much when I manage to go up KL tower to get an overview. There are some green spots, however.
In the Mouse Deer Park I finally get to see mouse deer. To get up to the park feels like an accomplishment already. This very shy animal exists on Tioman island, but has never shown itself to us. Its body looks like a deer, but it is tiny and it’s legs are mere sticks. It is surprising that the thing can actually stand and walk. Their head is also deer like, but that have rodent teeth sticking out of their mouth, which are kind of scary. However, I’ve completed my quest. One more check on my list of exotic animal bingo.
At the nearby Orchid garden I have more time to relax. I know that Caro has been here and during a sunny rain shower I sit down to think. Why is she not here? Why are we not doing this, enjoying this together? That is totally stupid. I really want to go our path together, maybe sooner than I thought initially. Instead, she is in Germany working her ass off and destroying herself slowly but surely, although she knows it’s not the right thing for her.
It strikes me as very odd that the West is starting to realize that money really isn’t everything and neither is working yourself to death, leading people to create more sustainable lifestyles. Many people look towards Asian cultures for guidance in terms of balance of life and relaxation, such as Yoga, Buddhism, Zen and all these things. These cultures in turn are racing towards the mighty dollar themselves and have not yet arrived at the turning point. Money has become the mighty measure and progress is symbolized by American brand names and fast food. I keep trying to think of ways to tell these people to stop what they are doing and that there is more to life than money. I don’t want to be part of the system, it disgusts me.
While the outside isn’t too pleasant except for a colorful food street nearby, the hostel has a nice atmosphere despite the construction. I spend quite a lot of time in the lobby simply chatting with people. One guy who looks incredibly relaxed and just arrived from Thailand tells me about this book he is reading and how it explains that 2012 the world is going to change drastically and we are entering a new era. He wears jewellery of glow-in-the-dark stones apparently from some rare Chinese source which he has bought for about 2000 USD. I forget how they are going to help him reach the next stage of all our existence. A British dude who has been traveling Southeast Asia for several months with his girlfriend is taking a month off from her while she writes a book. Although having plans to go and roam the city, I find myself stuck in these conversations usually around and after breakfast. It seems I am ready to socialize again. Maybe I even feel a bit lonely after the island.
Don’t run against the wall, run through the wall!
I also spend quite some time writing e-mails, mostly to my family and Caro, researching and doing other stuff I couldn’t do for a while. I also try to find out how to get a Visa for my trip to China. I find a map of Chinese embassies in Southeast Asia and the only place it shows South of Thailand is actually Kuala Lumpur. I get nervous. It’s not logical, but what if Chinese relations with its neighbors are shitty and there really isn’t a way? It’s a Friday and the embassy closes in three hours. Also, it would cost me a fortune if I wanted to get my passport back before leaving on Monday as I planned. I get frustrated, confused, start filling out forms. For the application, I need an invitation, which means I have to book a hostel. That, however, doesn’t work because the websites will not accept my credit cards. Also, the woman at the reception tells me their printer is not working. That means I have to find an internet café. Fuck.
I’m about to panic, but panicking has never done anyone any good. So I stop. I stop it all. It’s incredible how fast all the chill from Tioman has been washed away by this ugly city. I take a step back and consider my situation. I’m hungry – not a good precondition. And I can’t think properly right now. Caro always managed to get me out of shitty moods and situations when I got upset with packing my things and dissolving my live. “What would Caro do?,” I think to myself. She would stop running into a wall, step back and do something fun instead.
And first of all, she would get (me) some food I head out to food street and get my blood sugar in order. After I’ve done that, I actually find some place with yummy saté and have some more before I dare to have a go for Durian as desert. Durian is a divisive fruit: Either you love it or you hate it. It is banned from metros and buses for its strong smell. The taste is somewhat cheesy and so is the consistency. Like a soft cheese that has been sitting in the sun for too long. It turns out I am not a big fan, but I finish it and I’m glad I tried. Finding an internet café is also an adventure. “Internet café” appears to be code for shady badly-luminated and probably illegal internet gaming and gambling bat caves. None of them has a printer. So I head out to get more relaxation, I try to find a fish spa.
Kuala Lumpur is known for its multitude of foot reflexology centers, foot spas and fish spas. You stick your feet in a tank and the fish will nibble away on your feet. I walk around for quite a while, going from one shut-down place to another. But I actually find a real internet café and mark it on my map. Finally, in a large shopping mall, a spa place is open, but turns out to be ridiculously expensive. So I decide to go for another desert instead and get a delicious sesame ball filled with peanut butter from “I Love Yoo.” Surprisingly relaxed and happy I return to the hostel.
On my way back I receive a message from Caro. Finally, I will be able to talk to her. The first time in three weeks! It is amazing and I am completely unable to stop smiling. We talk a bit about what is going on and although I’ve told myself to think about it for a bit longer, I can’t help myself but to ask her eventually: so, when do you think you could join me here at the earliest? She is surprised but excited and we start to figure it out, actually making quite intricate plans. Three weeks in Southeast Asia? That isn’t much. No problem, so I cancel the trip to China and that doubles our time. She needs to figure out how to pay for the flight. Meanwhile we discuss on how we are going to travel, giving both of us the freedom to do their own thing and roam around alone if we feel like it. We just want to give it a try and see how we feel. No pressure. I get off the phone and my chill has returned. For the first time in this city, I am happy!
Your home away from home
I’ve left Tioman with the idea of buying a parachute hammock. One of the other guests used to sell them and I had mentioned my original plan to go to the Cameron Highlands and put up a hammock there and relax. Only I didn’t have a hammock yet. Now that Caro and I will be traveling together, it is really time to get one, to get a “bed” for the two of us. Louis, the Philippino guy at the reception is on board straight away when I tell him about my quest. We research different ways to get the hammock until about 3 am. Ironically, they are produced in Indonesia, not too far away, but in the different direction and NOT on my travel list. Finally, we find a reseller here in Kuala Lumpur.
The outskirts of KL are actually a lot nicer than the center. My sudden relaxed mood might also have something to do with it. I take the metro in the morning past the University of Malaysia and the area is quite green. Actually, the neighborhoods look a lot like suburban America. Maybe not the most desirable, but definitely an improvement over the ugly money-ridden center. It’s also not quite as hot here, even though midday is coming up. I get to see quite a lot of the neighborhoods, because I’ve made the mistake to ask a bunch of taxi drivers for directions and trusted them.
Despite its strong Muslim influence, Malaysia is at heart an Asian country and as such, people are not afraid to lose their teeth or wallets (many have neither), but their face. And the streets must be covered in lost faces, because it is actually quite easy to lose face. Any sort of embarrassment will be a loss of face and that includes not knowing the answer to a question, for example when you are asked for directions. So you just give any directions instead and get to keep your face. Hence I circle around, looking for streets with irregular numbering and houses within those that are also irregularly numbers, trying to find the place. In the distance it gets dark. It looks like there is a storm coming.
Half an hour later I get caught in the shower and have confusing conversations with more locals leading me in the wrong direction. When I finally find the place, buying the hammock feels like taking another small step towards our joined trip, “our” bed. As I step out of the place, I see the train station down the hill, only about 300 meters from where I had gotten off, only on the other side of the tracks.
Student Protest: I have a dream, or do I?
On the way back I decide to get some sight-seeing in and go by the independence square, where I run into a student protest for free education. They are camping in the square living of food and water people donate to them, like the leader of the opposition party from Brunei, who has come by to drop a huge package of cookies.
I talk to some of the people and we discuss the student protests in Germany and the situation in Malaysia. Adam Atli tells me about their idea to provide free classes in the square in order to prove that free education is possible. The free classes are held by either students or professors, actually. Usually they are surrounded , as we are at this moment, by a bunch of police officers. With my camera, I probably give the impression of a journalist, I think and wonder how save it is to be on this square right now. Around the square there are preparations for a royal inauguration in a couple of days. I cannot imagine a couple of tents would look good at a royal inauguration.
Suddenly, there is a commotion and more people with cameras show up. And these actually do wear signs identifying them as press. Adam disappears and a minister of parliament (from the opposition party) has arrived to speak with the students. She wears a headscarf and a very strict face, but smiles at the students every once in a while. Accompanied by body guards, she makes her way through tent village, then disappears again.
The next moment, a Mandarin class begins and carpets are laid out on the floor. “This is our class room,” Adam explains, who has suddenly returned. “It’s not good if I am seen with somebody from the opposition party. Government will not believe this is an independent students demonstration and claim it is set up by the party.” He is the leader of the group and has been expelled from university for three semesters for disobedient behavior. After this maneouvre, I take him to be a very good tactical player, quite the politician indeed.
When Mandarin class is over – I can’t seem to remember or even pronounce a single word correctly – it’s only half an hour until Zunar, an acclaimed cartoonist will show up to give a basic cartoon drawing class. He is critical towards government and so his work has been banned. His main subject for the night is the upcoming election. The anger and excitement with which he talks about politicians is amazing. All these people are so angry at their government and so frustrated, yet so peaceful. I wish I had a passion like this. Instead, I’m just a bystander who does not know his place.
Zunar shows graphically how the scandals around the president are finally going to drive him out of office and possibly into Mongolia. Mongolia? Yes, the president supposedly had a mistress from Mongolia who died under mysterious circumstances involving C4 when she started to demand money from him. The only entity in Malaysia with access to C4 is the military and the president has very good friends in high military ranks is what I am told by a PhD student with the prettiest black hair and nerdy glasses who seems to enjoy translating – which is my luck, and laughing loudly at me – which I am not so fond of.
This is a good fight, I think to myself. But it’s not my fight. I need to move on and find out what my life is really about. Maybe I will have a better idea when I am dangling in a hammock in the Cameron Highlands, finally completing after a month of travel my initial plan for the first couple of days.
When searching for the protest online later, I found an article on a blog saying that the same night I was there, the group was attacked by thugs. I’m glad I decided not to stay with the group for the night as I had planned. Also check out the pictures of the day (“Thug attack”) on the protest Facebook page.