Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

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Malaysia: Burkhas in Starbucks


The best thing about travel is that it forces you to learn things you never expected you'd even think about.  For example: never, ever try to pee on a Malaysian train.  As Alec Baldwin said in State & Main "and then that happened..."

I'll get to that story if there's time before this Internet cafe in Penang closes.  One thing Internet cafes in Penang have that we don't have back in the states, incidentally: geckos running along the walls right behind the computer screen.  Neat.

I've been a bit nervous about the Malaysia leg of the trip since the beginning, for a very stupid reason: on every official Malaysian tourist form, they always print in large bright red English letters: "Warning: Drug Trafficking Means Death."

My brain, for some reason, reacts to the word "death" -- in giant blood-red ink on a form I'm filling out -- with fear.  Call me crazy.

Thing is, I don't touch the stuff.  I smoked some pot in college twenty years ago, I had some funky brownies in Amsterdam ten years ago (an experience I doubleplus do not recommend), and took one hit from a joint offered me by a cute girl I wanted to sleep with about five years ago.  That's it.

But still: I saw Midnight Express (and never mind it was in Turkey; I'm being irrational, so there's no point in arguing).  Also, I live in Los Angeles, so I know cops make mistakes, which they'll sooner die than admit later.  And, um, death -- which the Malaysians actually mean, having actually executed a couple of Aussies a while back in a place called Pudu Prison.

(Incidentally, there's an animal called a pudu (genus name: pudu pudu, I swear), which is a tiny deer about shin-high, the cutest little ungulate you ever saw.  So the very idea of putting the words "pudu" and "prison" together... the nerve of these people.)

So, yeah, I know, drug laws are pretty insane in a lot of other countries I'm visiting.  Yeah, I know, as a tourist, they want my dollars with as little hassle as possible, so the chance of the slightest bother from customs is about nil.  And even so, I still did the only thing possible: I overreacted.  Unless you think throwing out my vitamins, aspirin, and Tiger Balm liniment was completely sane.  Death and all.  Can't be too careful, I was thinking.

Thus, with a clean conscience, I approached the Malaysian border... and it took about ten seconds, total, pleasant smiles all around.  And from that moment, I've felt among friends.

What strikes me most about Malaysia is how darned friendly everybody is.  And not just the hotel workers or cabbies, whom you can expect to be friendly in most cities, since, after all, you're paying them.  (Those of you in New York have no idea what I'm talking about.  That's OK.  Just give me the finger and move on.)

Exhibit A: it's so in Kuala Lumpur that sweat seems to pour right out of your fingernails.  Plus, it's humid, and there's often a torrential downpour in the late afternoon.  Which I discovered on one of my first days walking around, at the end of a spectacularly nice stroll through a large park just to the west of the exhaust-hole KL has for a downtown.  I chose the park for two reasons: a) they have mouse deer, which are like pudus only tinier and with snaggleteeth, which is beyond adorable, and b) I enjoy breathing on a regular basis.

So the day went: cough cough, map, cough cough cough, map, walk walk walk walk shade ahhhh walk walk walk cuuuuuute.

And then, the biggest sudden goddam unrelieving downpour, hot water pouring right through the heat, just as it starts getting dark.  And I realize, map map map: I'm about 6 miles from the hotel, with no train, bus, or taxi in sight.  Just a long, dark, wet walk ahead.

And then, within two minutes, a car pulls over, out of traffic, and the driver motions me to hop in.

In the United States, we've been trained to being wondering at this point exactly which field my body will be found in, and whether the pieces will be arranged anatomically, alphabetically, or according to a series of semi-literate Biblical references.

But I wasn't in the United States.  I was in Malaysia, and it was raining incredibly hard, I quite obviously needed a lift, and the car was decorated with Muslim prayers, written in beautiful flowing Arabic.

OK, and now Americans have been trained to wonder whether my murder will be simply announced by the State Department or videotaped and rebroadcast on CNN.

But I'm not a well-trained American.  Also, there was a stuffed Pink Panther attached to the windshield with suction cups.  Which hardly screams Al-Qaeda.

This was just a really religious guy driving home from work trying to give a damp tourist a break (and isn't that the sort of thing religious people are supposed to do?) and practice his English.  So I hopped in happily.

Faraad (phonetic spelling) is a contruction worker from Melaka who has worked and lived in Kuala Lumpur for ten years.  He likes American action movies and envies our freedom of speech.  Really loves David Letterman, and wishes there was an equivalent here.  While the radio played the latest hits from Coldplay, Outkast, and Kylie Minogue (aaaggh!), we talked soccer and work and women (Faraad is divorced and still bruised about it) and, eventually, the war in Iraq, which Faraad brought up.  His feeling: Saddam's a very bad guy, but the United States doesn't have the right to invade and occupy countries at will, much less lie about it to start.  He was surprised when I told him a lot of Americans feel the same way.  Apparently a lot of Malaysians see America through Bush, just as a lot of Americans (if they ever think about Malaysia) see it through Mahathir bin Mohamed.

Or, come to think of it, Midnight Express.

Other than that, we agreed that in both Malaysia and the United States, crime exists in the newspapers more than in real life, that religion is misused entirely too often, and racism often occurs as a result.

I told Faraad I was a writer.  He asked me what I write about, and I needed to boil it down to something in very simple English.  What blurted out: I write about peace.  Not sure if that's a good way to characterize everything in the past -- that stint over at C.S.I. wasn't exactly Desmond Tutu territory -- but what the hell, there's always the future.

Faraad went about a half-hour out of his way to get me to my hotel.  And he asked nothing in return but my company and my honest opinions.  Pretty cool.  And this level of friendliness is unsurprising here, where I am greeted constantly on the street with friendly smiles and open faces.

Of course a half-hour in traffic here only gets you a mile or two up the street.  I've never seen streets so choked in my life.  There is nothing in the United States or Europe that compares to this -- cars and buses flowing like lava, with black-belching one-stroke motorbikes filling every opening between them.  Where jaywalking was impossible in Singapore, here it's a way of life.  And it's done with near-suicidal enthusiasm: I've stood paralyzed on the sidewalk, unable to discern an opening, while experienced locals merely waded right into the ooze, as if their thighbones could repel steel.  Then comes the bobbing and twisting their way between lanes, often turning halfway back so a bus can pass, then they sally onward -- somehow surviving routinely.

These people must be incredible at Frogger.

The traffic is a result of a set of national policies intended to leap this steamy mess into the First World via rapid expansion of trade and infrastructure, incurring enormous debt along the way.  There seem to be two kinds of buildings in Kuala Lumpur: fifty-story skyscrapers, and tenements.  Eventually, in all that, a middle class is apparently supposed to emerge, and wealth is to trickle out into the rest of the country.

Near KL, that means suburbs that look a lot like new American suburbs: malls, sprawl, and constant signs promoting investment in new construction.  The rest of the country, seen from train and bus windows (so I don't know shit, OK?), looks a lot like between-town Mexico, but with tropical heat.

Ah, the train again... OK, here's that bit.  Malaysian highways are new, so everybody here takes buses, which are air-conditioned, comfortable, and fast.  The Malaysian railroad, however, is old.  So nobody takes it, the trains are in bad shape, and the tracks are worse.  I didn't know this, and operating with Europe in my head for some reason, assumed the train was a good idea.

Which meant a nine-hour ride to go about 200 miles on some of the bounciest track imaginable -- a singular ability to combine a lack of both speed and comfort.  And as a result, the bathroom provided less a "toilet" experience than a "general direction" experience -- a set of guidelines really, just something to vaguely aim at during all the convulsive shaking.  And given that the bathroom was barely large enough to stand in, and several other people had already experienced major turbulence, the result was like climbing into a small urine-soaked game-show isolation chamber attached to a high-speed paint mixer and trying to get your sphincter muscles to release while simultaneously not touching anything.

Take the bus.  Trust me.

The highways, on the other hand, look a hell of a lot like American highways, if American highways were dotted with Muslim couples on motorcycles, the women's veils flowing in the air from underneath her helmet.

The feminine dress here is wildly varied, depending on religion.  Any Saturday night in the upscale Bitang Walk shopping district -- the night I was there, incidentally, a bar band was playing the oldie:

Oh where oh where can my baby be?
Allah took her away from me...


-- you can see women wearing everything from the latest in trendy slutwear to all-black nothing-but-an-eyeslit burkha deals, walking not ten feet apart.  (The men, of course, dress however the hell they want, which is hardly fair, noting the obvious; also, I'm told the burkha-wearers aren't Malaysian, but visiting Arabs, but still.)

You frequently see the burkha women with their husbands in Starbucks, incidentally.

That squishy noise you just head was Thomas Friedman having an orgasm in his pants.  Sorry to be the cause of it.

But there it is.  And I gotta tell you, unless a bunch of Starbucks managers are increasingly going all Wahhabi, this looks like a one-way revolution.  Fifty years, I'm wondering how many of these burkhas are still gonna be in use; fundamentalism only thrives in isolation, and that's one commodity on our tiny Planet Kylie I wouldn't invest in long-term.  It's not a coincidence that the worst idiot bastards tend to come from monocultures, no matter what country you're in.

Here in Malaysia, there are three separate and distinct cultures -- Chinese, Indian, and Malay -- all functioning and interacting with each other as part of the "New Malaysia," in practice not dissimilar from America's own "New South" in both objective and practice.  And most of the Malaysians I've talked to, of all three stripes, at least say they're sincerely giving it a shot.

Then came the cab driver in Penang.  Three kids, pretty young wife, playful sense of humor -- until he got started on the Jews.  I cannot repeat a single word he said, and I'll write the word "fuck" right here, so you can be pretty sure it was worse.  The hatred that sprang forth was almost unimaginable.

I asked him if he had ever actually met a Jew.  He looked back at me measuringly, as if he was beginning to wonder if he had one in his cab.  (He didn't, but when I was younger I was once deeply in love with a Jewish girl and would probably have converted if things had worked out differently.)  I don't look remotely Jewish, however, and it was clear that the answer to my question was "no."

It was also time to get out of the cab and walk.

But that shit's just not gonna last.  One thing this trip has convinced me of: our planet is incredibly small, and we are all going to know one another, like it or not, sooner than we expect.

Here's the list of movies playing at the multiplex at the Petronas Towers (which, yes, are huge beyond all freaking description, and light up in changing color at night):

Spy Kids 3D
The Haunted Mansion
Lang Buana
Ong Bak
Master And Commander
Kal Ho Naa Ho
Brother Bear


And unless Miramax starts greenlighting projects in Bahasa Malay, you know damn well which of these two cultures is still gonna be represented this way in fifty years.

"Culture" is an odd word in Kuala Lumpur, since the whole notion of a major city here is new enough to make Los Angeles look like London by comparison.  Maybe the feeling will be different when I get to places with more ancient and entrenched cultural histories.  But something else I'm finding: people just loooove American shit.  I hate idiot triumphalism as much as the next former Z magazine contributor, but here in Malaysia, even the flag looks American: red and white stripes, with a blue union, replacing the fifty stars with a simple Muslim crescent.  We can argue the whys and hows, we can debate about preserving cultures, and I'm all for that.  Gotta do it.  Gotta find a way that works for everybody.  But man.  Even here in a Muslim country whose government is fiercely independent from (if not sometimes hostile toward) the U.S., American shit is everywhere, most of all where it's not labeled.  Never mind that the newspaper had a front-page photo spread because the Power Rangers Are In Town -- Malaysia could ban the import of Coca-Cola and McDonald's tomorrow, and they'd still have American-style highways, skyscrapers, debt, and consumer culture.  That's hard-wired now, as far as I can see.

Speaking of culture, here the local bookstore check, this time at Times Books, the biggest store in the capital: yup, another big Michael Moore display -- almost as large as the section devoted to His Beloved Everythingness "Dr Mohamed," as this Mahathir guy is often called.  There are also big displays of Al Franken, William Blum (whose Killing Hope and Rogue State are worth a hard read), and, oddly (or not), Tom Friedman.

This is the last time I mention Tom Friedman more than once in an article, I promise.  In the context of orgasm, certainly.  Jesus.

Other stuff: on the ride in, there was an enormous Arabesque structure I mistook for a national mosque of some kind.  Nope; it's the Palace of the Golden Horses.  Thoroughbred racing.  Big time.

On the first night here, I ate some white stuff, some green stuff, and some orange stuff, purchased at (if I can read my notes) Kelazatan Keju for about US$1.30.  Really yummy, whatever the hell it was.

Wonder how long my luck on that's gonna hold out.

Best meal so far: here in Penang, a big mess of Indian food, all allegedly vegetarian, served using a banana leaf for a plate, next to a movie theatre playing Bollywood releases without the slightest sign of English.

Strange sound, right outside: a car alarm.  Haven't heard one on three continents from the moment I left the U.S.A.  I also haven't yet run into or spoken with a single American anywhere on this trip.  Here in Malaysia I very rarely even see a Western-looking face.  Although I bet I could find one if I follow that loud obnoxious whirrup-whirrup noise.  Still, haven't met even one American in my travels -- not in South Africa, not Singapore, and certainly not here in Malaysia.  Then again, I consciously avoid all the Hard Rock Cafes and shit.

Speaking of which, McDonald's here makes an unmissable point (I wouldn't set foot, but still, I've seen it a dozen times; most recently while watching Chinese drummers busking on the street outside a McD) that their food is halal -- the Muslim equivalent of kosher.  Geez.  I guess they know how to market.  I wonder if in Thailand or Japan, Ronald McDonald is bowing.

Advertising here is remarkably American, in that a sexually-repressed audience is bombarded with images of light-skinned hardbodies undulating against products with no conceivable sexual application whatsoever, intentionally causing an involuntary synaptic connection in the viewer between said household appliance and physical gratification.



Religious and political discussion here, however is a bit different: I'm seeing women included in TV roundtables on politics and even Islam on a level I rarely see back home.  I can't quite follow it all, so my impression may be wrong.  Your mileage may vary.

They have real-deal sultans here, incidentally.  Like with the big hats and swords and mustaches, just like you're imagining.  There was a huge ass-kissy fold-out special in the newspaper this morning about the grand estimable works of the Sultan of Sengalore or some such, apparently the local equivalent of governor.

American equivalent: Arnold Schwarzenegger and his media coverage.

Not sure which one I prefer.  At least the people reading the paper here already know that it's probably slanted bullshit.  Need to know more about this sultan guy, and if he can do math.

The newspaper is also just as lurid in some ways as the American press.  The crime-of-the-century du jour: a pretty girl named Noritta was recently rape/murdered, and so her full, pouting lips are now in full color in almost every edition of every newspaper, often right next to that day's schedule for Muslim prayers.  So far, the Malaysian cops have rounded up eight people from Noritta's friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.  And they're all still in jail, awaiting further information.  I can't find anybody here who even knows when any of them might be released or who seems sure how that works.

Shit.  Say what you will about American justice.  Damn.

I'll close with a road story that had a lesson I wasn't expecting: took a trip up to the Batu Caves.  ("Batu" just means "stone," by the way, which is how a lot of the translations work here, unfortunately.  Which is how it's possible to travel on the Klong ("River") River and visit Pilao ("Island") Island, while speaking the Bahasa ("Language") Language.)

Imagine climbing an enormous staircase up the side of a mountain, leading to a cave about 300 feet in the air, in which you find a hidden Hindu temple; meanwhile, tame monkeys scurry at your feet.

Pretty cool.  The monkeys were a freak-job for me, after my South African baboonfest.  But still.

Inside, there's another four-story staircase leading up to the innermost temple, and when I was there, six guys were moving a house-sized pile of bricks up the staircase simply by throwing them, one-by-one, bucket-brigade style, apparently the only way to accomplish the job in such an enclosed, remote space.  Hard work?  Definitely.  But they were laughing and singing and playing, even as their arms must have wanted to fall off.

Never having been the kind of guy who could laugh and giggle while my arms fall off in a cave, I had to stop and chat.  They were all from Indonesia, it turns out, and they had moved to Malaysia for the money -- the brick-slinging option apparently paid way better than anything back home.  Thus the whole we-are-Santa's-elves deal.

Keep this in mind, next time you're bummed because somebody cut you off in traffic or whatever.  At least you're not so poor that

lifting bricks
by hand
up a four-story stairwell
in the middle of a cave
in Malaysia


would be a step up worthy of singing about.

Like I said, travel forces you to keep learning things that otherwise you wouldn't even have to think about.

Aside, back in the Internet cafe, which is closing: anyone need a gecko?  One of them keeps running in and out of my bag.  Apparently looking for a good home...