Life just got a whole
lot more interesting.
7, 1995 12:30
13:51 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :: 3 MAR 95
I know I've said this already to some of you but it bears repeating.
Wow! KL is smelly, messy, decrepit; confusing, frightening, weird; horrendous,
gorgeous, contradictory. I love it, and I've only been here just a few
I can't wait for Bangkok which should be all this and . . . I don't know
Frenchmen and feminists will have to be put off for a while as I breathe
in an atmosphere dank, foul and intoxicating.
How many onramps to the InfoBahn there are going to be in these parts
I can't tell, but I suspect not many. I spent $138 MR (about $75 CDN)
for this room tonight, partly because I'd get a phone line. Also because
it was the only place in the Lonely Planet open after midnight, the time
when I finally got into town from the airport. An interesting walkabout
finding the place too. I was lucky to find a bed at all, I think.
In past entries to this journal I noted the creeping effects of 'popular'
culture. There is evidence of its presence here: I've seen two McDonalds,
a KFC and an A&W; a video retailer told me he sells as many Malay
produced features as Hollywood. But the place has the stamp of something
completely 'unpopular', something alien and remote from any previous experience.
I'm not certain I can describe the experience of this place in words.
Imagery's normally one of my stronger points but our western vocabulary
may not provide an adequate frame with which to make visceral the subtle
turn between horror, repugnance, fascination and wonder.
What strikes immediately is the smell. One could say, simply, that it
stinks but that would treat the actual experience dishonestly. Foucault
might say that such a statement indicates a conflict of discourses. Put
another way, fish and chips smells awful to a Frenchman and McDonalds
probably produces a wretched stench to the nostrils of a rural Malay.
That is, it smells just like a city except that the food, the people and
their perfumes, the cigarettes they smoke, all these accents on the base
that is the very dust and grime of it all, all of them carry a scent altogether
different from those sniffed in Western cultures. If the result seems
a somewhat stronger, more pungent odour, one must remember that heat and
humidity provokes the mixture.
During the sweltering dog days of August, take a walk through China Town
in your local city. Walk through the specialty shops selling such comestibles
as shark fin. Walk by the hanging pork roasts at the butchers. In the
import shops you'll find another accent, and in the grocers another. Have
lunch where they serve what onetime colleagues of mine affectionately
called 'greasy Chinese'. Buy some lychee and star fruit. Then get off
the beaten path; walk into the alley behind all these shops and take a
deep lungful through your nose.
Kuala Lumpur smells like that. Certainly more like that than Fifth Avenue,
or Broadway, or even skid row. But here it smells like that at the airport,
on the highways and even in the climate controlled hotel room.
Of course, it doesn't help that the sewers and storm drains run together,
barely covered by the cracked asphalt and cement and gaping iron grids,
and that they empty between the concrete banks of the uncivilly engineered
Gombak River. And if street cleaners regularly cleared the collected detritus
and people didn't occupy every square inch of space, perhaps the smell
would take on a more neutral aspect. But then it would smell like North
America, or Europe, rather than Malaysia, and why should it smell like
19:42 Subang International Airport, Malaysia :: 3 MAR
The sun doesn't set here. It plummets.
15 minutes ago was daylight. 10 minutes ago, sunset. 5 minutes ago, dusk.
Now there is blackest night.
Katrin, owner of Stan, the (mostly) trustworthy vehicle of Outback exploration,
arrives here at 20:05 on Malaysia Air flight #120 from Melbourne via Sydney.
Since starting this entry, I've spent some time tidying up a couple other
messages and thinking about the events of the day. So it's taken me 20
minutes to get this far which puts Katrin's flight somewhere on the runway,
I imagine. That's OK, no hurry given the turnover rate of customs and
baggage. I've got at least another 20 minutes or so.
Now, where was I? Ahh, yes.
- Ooooh that smell.
- Can't ya smell that smell?
- OooOooh that smell.
Anybody remember the next line? Lynard was referring to a different smell,
While your nose is dealing with that smell, your pores are responding
to the humidity assault. SPROING! Sweat! Live with it because the only
respite is air conditioning and you're a budget traveler so that'll be
all too scarce. Fans just speed the rivulets on their way down your arm,
leaving a thin, sticky film like a second skin. If you've ever worn theatrical
makeup, imagine covering your entire body in base.
Your own sweat, at least, adds a more familiar accent to the alien mix
still confusing the hell out of your nostrils. However, this only lasts
as long as you keep eating McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. Asian spicing
and food preparation are about to change your body chemistry. Soon, that
smell will permeate.
12:31 Kawana Budget Hotel-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :: 4
We've downscaled from the $55 RM ($1 CDN = $1.79 Malaysian Ringitt )
Starlight Hotel. Dumpy by western standards, the room had a phone (no
direct dial so useless for Infobahning), a ceiling fan and, buh Daaaah,
air conditioning. The firm bed (8 cm of foam on plywood) and insuite bathroom
with a showerhead were nice touches in this price range. The sole window
opened into the courtyard leaving nothing to look at. (Thus, the louvers
were frosted) Paradoxically, we've found this to be a bonus.
Now we're paying $35 RM for a partitioned room large enough to hold a
bunk bed and two traveler's belongings. The bathroom's just around the
corner and an adequate fan. While the window looks out into Kuala Lumpur,
the traffic noise rising from Jalan Pudu Lama (Pudu Lama Street) may be
problematic: the Starlight was oodles quieter. Also, without window blinds
I wonder how bright the room will be tonight. Of course there's no phone,
but the room also lacks power points. I'll have tend the computer while
Me: sitting here under the fan in my underwear and sweaty second skin.
Katrin: on the bed under the fan in her underwear and sweaty second skin.
Sound: the rhythmic barrage of two-stroke scooters, 'teksi' horns and
thrumming buses with the whirring undertone of the fan. Out the window:
concrete the colour of a gloomy, overcast sky; construction is rife with
it and the nearer the ground it is the nearer it comes to charcoal black.
23:00 Kawana Budget Hotel-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :: 4
Yep. Much quieter at the Starlight.
To finish off the sensory first impressions I need only three words:
Well, maybe a little context will help.
19:19 Traveler's Lodge, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia :: 6 MAR
Drab because the colour of everything here is grey, or grey in
intention. The BAS MINI (mini buses) may once have been bright pink but,
as with all other once bright surfaces, tropical sun, rain and city grime
ended any such aspirations quickly. "A fresh coat of paint,"
appears not to be in the Asian vernacular.
Shabby because repairs seem intended only to be applied to objects
that firstly, no longer work and secondly, are absolutely necessary for
life as we know it to continue; here the warning "if it works, don't
fix it" is followed to a ridiculous extent. Thus, while primary infrastructures
continue to function, they do so in a creaky, whiney manner belying their
state of disrepair. When repairs are finally applied recall that "a
fresh coat of paint" won't find its way to the repair.
Haphazard because, left to their own designs, the inhabitants
would make no designs. As a result glass towers rise out of the middle
of shanty towns, buses run "oh, about every hour or so", walkways
become so overrun with fruit stands, drink stands, and little eateries
that the pedestrian throng spills over into the streets creating havoc
in an already chaotic tumble of cars, buses and motorcycles. (Katrin reminds
me not to forget the 'teksis', er, taxis.)
So-drab, shabby and haphazard. I mentioned earlier that describing
this experience in a vocabulary the western mind would grasp would be
difficult. The picture I have painted here presents only the horror and
repugnance we of the west experience when confronted with this culture.
But beneath this surface one might find the fascination and wonder, if
one is willing to place themselves within a separate discourse.
Drab because our western tastes are for clean, bright and thorough
colour; for brilliant white, or 'whiter than white' as detergent and toothpaste
manufacturers would have us believe. Shabby because 'good as new' has
a meaning for us. Haphazard because order and planning are central to
our natures-as is the bureaucracy through which all order comes.
But does a bright pink bus work better than a grimy grey-pink
one? Several times I have tried Dim Sum in Vancouver's plushest Chinese
restaurants but the first time I liked it was here in one of those grungy
white-tiled eateries with stainless steel tables and plastic dishes. And
is not the bureaucracy chief amongst our every-day complaints?
The difficulty I experience in separating my culture from my
self disturbs me. How important is colour, efficiency and order? Within
the Commercialized West, all important. But to me, how important? All
For example, purchasing a few examples of Aboriginal art was
among my 'todo' items while traveling Australia. I picked up what information
I could, learned the background necessary to understand the meanings of
the symbols used in the paintings. Each Aboriginal 'dot' painting tells
a story through these symbols.
Dot paintings originated as sand paintings which vary in complexity
and significance from simple gestures scratched in the dirt to teach children,
for example, "why the emu cannot fly", to intricate, secret
and ritualized designs using a variety of colourful mediums. The one thing
all sand paintings had in common was a transient nature; when the story
was told, or the ritual completed, the sand was wiped flat again.
It was a quick-thinking missionary who bridged the gap between
folk-art and commerce. He gave the Aborigines canvas, acrylic paint and
brushes and a few lessons in applying paint to canvas. The translation
from sand to canvas proved to be a hit.
It's several decades after that and the genre has matured and
developed several sub-genres. Many artists have studies at mainstream
art schools and bring new techniques into the dot painting art form. And
it is these artists that I prefer, and those who attend to the detail
of painting so that dots are regularly sized, lines curve gracefully and
colours complement one another. These, of course, are all biases of a
western artistic tradition and mean little or nothing to the Aboriginal
mother teaching her child about emus or the shaman executing his ritual.
So, I ask myself, what did I buy? 'Aboriginal art' or western art applying
If I go back to the Foucault 'well'
once again I can say that the Aborigine's 'discourse' (that is, body of
knowledge) differs significantly from my own. A painting-a statement within
that discourse-will naturally represent different meanings within each
of these two discourses. That much is unavoidable. This is the same kind
of conflict I undergo when assessing my responses to Kuala Lumpur. The
question is whether I will learn enough of the other discourse to appreciate
the statement as it was intended to be stated.
8:14 Traveler's Lodge Backpackers, Kuala Lumpur-Malaysia :: 7
Katrin, who read yesterday's entry over my shoulder as it was
written, commented that the bit about Aboriginal art flows readily while
the description of KL as drab, shabby and haphazard feels stilted-as if
it were wrung from an unwilling confessor. "Obviously," she
said, "you are much more comfortable with Aborigines than Kuala Lumpur,"
which is an absolutely correct observation. I am more comfortable because
I have studied and observed more.
I know so little about the culture to which I apply such first-impression
pejoratives as 'shabby'. It seems a little unfair. The first question
out of most westerner's lips would be, "How can they live this way?"
And that's the question I am at a loss to answer. I could bail out with
the obvious, "Because they're used to it," but that explains
nothing. And so, instead, I begin the task of understanding.
The word "Jalan" means street and in the Malay language,
like French, the object precedes the descriptor so we have Jalan Sultan
Ismail, Jalan Sehala and Jalan Tuankan Abdul Rahman, commonly referred
to as simply Jalan TAR. Actually, Jalan Sehala isn't the name of a street
but that took us a while to figure out. Street signs here are big and
blue with white lettering and borders and aren't attached to lamp posts
as we're used to in the North America but stand alone on street corners
or affixed to the sides of buildings.
One street sign we kept seeing was "Jalan Sehala ->"
or "<- Jalan Sehala" and we figured this must be an important
street, even though we'd never managed to actually find it. What was particularly
confusing was that the signs seemed to point in all sorts of directions,
indicating Jalan Sehala was everywhere. In an already confusing, dare
I say, haphazard street environment this was the icing on the cake, until
we realized Jalan Sehala means 'one-way street'.
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools,
but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with
a liberal allowance of time
||Henry David Thoreau