You have not experienced Southeast Asia until you have heard the sky open up on top of a market of corrugated metal roofs during monsoon season. That was the introduction that Kuala Lumpur yielded me.
The mood of the Petaling street market changed, time to hunker down for an hour to keep you and your belongings dry on what was otherwise a hot sunny day. A man selling his wares used a stick to lift his tarp roof, dispelling water in every direction and wading through it. We stopped to sit in plastic lawn chairs. An open air buffet steamed beside us. A street person with what appeared to be the middle stages of gang-green on his leg came up to ask for change. He pulled out a chair and sat at the table. The buffet worker came over and offered him a mound of hot lunch. He didn’t eat it.
I sat in the tea parlor of the Majestic Hotel fingering curry puffs and high tea cookies. I reflected on the surprising downpour from earlier that afternoon. As I sat thinking, I looked through the white window panes as they dripped with condensation from the air conditioning. English couples observed a white linen tea time on the lawn. This was my first stay in a five star hotel. It was nice, but uncomfortable.
The “help” ran around in their perfect white outfits, serving tea; it wasn’t much different than what I imagined colonialism might have felt like sixty years ago. Now THAT’S a big statement.
I know that Malaysia has so many more creative and important new ideas to write about that colonialism. I tried to write a piece without it. But the truth is, that sixty years ago really wasn’t that long ago. Those wounds still felt fresh.
Kurman was my first friend in KL. He had a bindi, a third eye, signifying his devotion to Hinduism. It represented the universe. His red religious dot was the second thing that I noticed about him. The first? The uniform of the hotel: he wore a white pith helmet and and white straps that made an X across his breast. His entire uniform was white. It looked like he was about to go on a safari. Initially I could barely see his eyes under the overbearing safari hat. He took it off, holding it under his elbow, and standing at attention. I liked him better that way, where I could see his face. He stood that way each time that I saw him. And I wanted to scream, “You arn’t enslaved to to the British Empire anymore!” Because that’s everything that the uniform represented. The past.
And then he catered to my every whim. He lugged around my cumbersome backpack, even after I begged him not too. I insisted that he take 10 Ringiit (my $2.40). He was elated about it. And then a question nipped at me from inside. Was I who he was enslaved to? A Western tourist? Because I didn’t want to be. Or was he enslaved to his employer, American big business, the Mariott? He later went out of his way, during his evening free time, to help us figure out a complicated train schedule and tickets to Penang.
Eating With My Hands And Liking It
On the walk from the hotel to the city center we immediately noted the crumbling infrastructure at street level which starkly contrasted against the skyscrapers of the business district and high end shopping malls. In the shadow of the Petronas Towers we sought out a secret lunch spot, who to this day I wish I could tell you the name or location, but it’s lost to time.
The truth is, you can find lots of buffet looking spots like the one below all over Kuala Lumpur. And there’s plenty of opportunity to be adventurous.
The texture of chicken feet made me think of my backyard flock at home. I couldn’t do it. But I did have about ten other dishes. All wonderful. And looking around the dining room, there wasn’t silverware. I’d been waiting for that “first” to come. We dug right in with our hands. There was something about touching the texture of food to get familiar with it before putting it in your mouth. I liked it.
Getting Tough With a Monkey
This trip was my first time experiencing the temples and practices of Hinduism. Just seeing the colors of these places was surprising because I simply had no prior knowledge. It was also my first introduction to Hindu mythology, which further emphasized my life-long realization about the remaining ties to European culture that my country has. Why had I been assigned readings in Greek and Roman mythology during school but other myths weren’t on the syllabus?
The Batu caves looked like a rainbow escalator up into a temple. At the foot of the stairs I pulled my floor length skirt out of my bag and shimmied it over my shorts. I tried not to trip over it as I dodged monkeys with bad attitudes and dripping stinky water. Monks sat with their painted faces emerging through smoke wafting through the air. On the decent I watched a male monkey jump at a young woman. She dropped her bag which he them claimed and emptied, finding a bag of chips.
It then became apparent that this was a habit of a learned behavior. I watched the bag stealing happen several other times.
I tried not to make eye contact as a trouble making juvenile approached me. My instinct was to begin stepping backward as he became more aggressive. That was the “flight” instinct. Realizing that I was in trouble the “fight” kicked in. I became the aggressor. I met that S.O.B. head on, stomping my feet belligerently. And that was enough to make be feel like a bad A.
Later I met a van driver from Borneo. His colleague joked with him about cannibalism. Later during the trip I found myself alone with him in the van. He asked about the events of the day. He was surprised that our ventures had taken us to working class neighborhoods. He became excited when I told him that we made it all the way out to the Batu Caves. I broached the subject of religion, how it seemed that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all manged to live together peacefully in Malaysia. He declared that it was because “In Malaysia no one talks about religion. We can all sit at the same table, share a meal, sit side by side with people from other religions, but we never talk about it”.
I wanted to talk about it. But I shut up.
Then The Rats Got Me
Through and through travel has taught me that the more you experience, the less you truly know. As harder as they are to come by, there will continue to be many “firsts” in the time to come. On my last night in KL we visited the wholesale markets of Chow Kit. I can stomach a lot. I was unfazed by the open butchering of animals, unfazed by the sight of sickly chickens crammed into cages, still unfazed when my shoes became wet with the days remnants of fish being washed away by a garden hose. But then I saw them. Rats, swarming the market, a foot long each without their tails, twice as long with. I had a really difficult time choking down my street food a block further down that night. For the first time ever, I was ready to go home.