28 April 2009

First Week's Feedback from KL

You guys been probably wondering what I've been up to lately and eager to escape into the exotic world of Malaysia. As many of you know, I'm staying in Chinatown, one of the popular backpacker areas, as it is conveniently located near KL Sentral, Puduraya coach station (with its regional, national and international links) and a direct short LRT link to the Towers.

Chinese hawker stalls line up the quarter that from above, is an area of 3x4 largely pedestrian alleys made up of run-down concrete blocks at the ground floors of which you find all kinds of small Chinese shops selling everything from gems and beads, through hair accessories, to lampions and love letters (popular crunchy rolls with a dough similar to the fortune cookies), phones, and the omnipresent kedai kasut (shoe shop) and kedai beg (bag shop), haunts of every local woman.

Every day from late afternoon to midnight, the night market comes alive, Indian stalls appear selling all kinds of fashion stuff, usually all fake, that you don't need. Interestingly, these stalls are predominantly run by South Asian men. Browsing or not browsing, you are everyone's "friend", "young lady", "beautiful lady" - or simply a sound from pursed lips. It is so annoying. I usually ignore them or pretend not to notice, after all, my name does have syllables but since I haven't had that much sexual harassment in the last seven years combined than in the last seven days alone, I sometimes feel like ramming my heels where it hurts. The desire for revenge is my constant companion; I can now imagine what drives Filipino domestic servants who are abused in foreign countries to snap and charge against their aggressors. Malay and Chinese women get less (or even no attention at all) than foreign ones. In my case, it's probably my fair skin that shines like a mosquito light. Many Malaysians (men and women) distrust South Asians too, so I have heard. Even the locally hired South Asian security guard at the gate of the British High Commission offered to take me around KL - with the cunning grin of a hyaena, being utterly useless in my request. You may call me racist but a) you should know me better than that and b) AI's South Asia team doesn't have a big campaign on VAW (Violence against Women) for no reason. So, in a nutshell, I am eager to move into a place of my own out of here asap.

The area I'm eyeing is Kerinchi which is near the University of Malaya where I hope to use the library for some research. Also, it is on the Putra (its old name, Star, is still being used) LRT line that like the Picadilly Line, ties all the (at the moment to me) most interesting locations in town together. It's also right South of Bangsar, an upscale vibrant area favoured by expats that don't live in Ampang, the posh CBD where the Petronas Towers are, as well as the French and British embassies = fortresses. Bangsar, from what I have heard so far, I imagine to be the Malay/KL version of Kentish Town: Neat and near an entertainment quarter.

Being on the right LRT is not to be underestimated while in London or Vienna it is (relatively) simple to transfer between train lines. Here, it often requires a 10min walk either across overhead walkways or across heavy traffic or may even require a short taxi ride (maybe RM 5; I think a lot of people really do that). In addition, if you change from LRT (on two tracks) to Monorail, you have to queue up again for a separate ticket. This can be avoided with a touch'n'go card like the Oyster that, as I read recently, integrated both systems. Also, it is so much more comfortable to stay in an A/C-ed environment even if I don't mind the heat much. The A/C - after the wheel and its later evoluted model, the fan - is probably the best invention of human race ever, especially as it's hotter inside the concrete buildings (like my hostel) than outside. Even Malays get sweaty these days in the hot season that lasts until about September. I actually sleep on the side, topless all four limbs spread out like the Peugeot animal to avoid heat building up as much as possible, especially if the fan's cable is not as long as I'd love it to be.

While I was hugging the kettle in London, I now sometimes find myself hugging the fan in desperate attempts to chill down where the concept of "cold" is virtually non-existent and is instead substituted by "several degrees of hotness".

Language-wise, lazy English monoglotts will get by easily in most situations. Most newspapers, magazines and books (fiction, academic and reference) are published in English. I, hunting for young readers Malay novels (esp. illustrated) and comics to improve my understanding of the language, actually have difficultires finding them, as most bookshops are 65% English, 22% Chinese and 3% Malay. The other day, I discovered the world of Kinokuniya, a Japanese export bookshop chain, a bit like Amadeus incl. stationery and cafe. I feel like a child in a toy shop!

Else, I may keep repeating myself but Malay cuisine is simply amazing!

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