South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Life just got a whole lot more interesting.
Date: March 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 hours.

I can't wait for Bangkok which should be all this and . . . I don't know what.

Wow. WOW!

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 that?

19:42 Subang International Airport, Malaysia :: 3 MAR 95

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.
  graphical element Lynard Skynard

Anybody remember the next line? Lynard was referring to a different smell, anyway.

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 MAR 95

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 charging it.

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 MAR 95

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 95

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 too important.

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 'Aboriginal themes'?

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 MAR 95

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.

The river through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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

  graphical element Henry David Thoreau