24 May 2009

Chasing Cars

RM 900 is quite cheap for a driver's license package course compared to what you have to pay in Europe (1000-1500€). However, the difference might only come up later, namely, in your hospital bill once you attempt to navigate through the lawlessness that is KL's urban road jungle.

Public transport in KL is an issue that many locals will agree is, in a nutshell, a mess. Just yesterday, I devoured an interesting interview I stumbled upon in the NST with some professor and another person who it wasn't quite clear to me what his job was (he didn't say much, just came along for the photo-op, I suppose). It did confirm that there are a lot of development issues.

Having gone places at different times of the day, I've tried out taxi, car lifts with colleagues, LRT and walking. No matter which mode of transport I used, there was always adventure involved. Only for your reading pleasure, I will pass on what I've learned so far:

LRT: My favourite mode of transport actually, probably because I'm still in TFL recovery mode, is the LRT. The trains are new and clean, the stations are relatively new and the whole thing doesn't make a racket like the inside of a tumble dryer when in transit (like the Tube). On the other hand, and here I can't say it better than in the article, “the LRT doesn't go where people want to go”. There are two main lines, a monorail and I believe three Komuter lines. There is only one single station where they all come together: KL Sentral. Apart from that, the lines pretty much resemble French absolutist urban planning – in other words, they are built like the rays of the sun and hardly ever intersect. So, if you want to change, there usually is a short taxi-ride involved – no joking, this is what many locals are left to do if they don't use their own car. The frequency is maybe every 5-7 minutes (you've got quite a nice view of the city bathed in sunlight while waiting on most platforms though) and even then, the trains are surprisingly short. The article offers both a reason for and a result of this kind of planning: a) The tracks follow old colonial railway lines b) since the system doesn't meet the demands of their passengers, the passenger volume is below what they expected. Imagine you are in London, you want to go from Covent Garden to Camden Town but the only station to change lines was in say, Victoria. Would you bother?!
A funny thing (or slightly uncomfy, depending who sits next to you) is that the seats are quite small, I was shocked to see a girl today that only filled out two thirds of a seat – any slimmer and she would have disappeared into the rim between the seats! More often than not, you sit cheek-to-cheek with average-sized (local average!) people. Hm, times have changed in the course of industrial development...

Walking: Sth you will learn when in KL even for a short time is is that: There never is a perfect time to cross a road – just cross and traffic will adapt (drivers in town need fast reflexes, so they usually slow down or move to the side)! Other Asian cities are probably worse (ie Bangkok where suicidal people won't have to bother to walk five blocks to the next railtrack). A typical KL sensation actually is the hot car exhaust fumes on your ankles on hot sunny days when you cross between cars queuing at a red light.

Sometimes you can't actually see where the way goes because of all the entwined overhead causeways and their supporting pillars. I didn't actually know for example you can actually walk to the National Museum from Chinatown (one 7min cab ride). All you need to do is, cross a big street under a bridged highway (before it becomes a highway itself later after disappearing behind pillars in a sharp curve), walk up the stairs of the old railway station (built by the Dutch, now hosting KTM Komuter trains), cross on the over-head bridge to the other platform, walk along the platform and then walk along-side a five-lane causeway (that resembles B17 in Austria). No signs guide you of course! So unless you have an agenda of taming the city to your walking needs or know the way because you are local (and I doubt that a busy highway is a pleasant view for a Sunday family outing), there really was no point in building that pavement.

Manifestation of people's perception of walking is that if you ask so. For a distance, they will always tell you, “Oh! Is very far, VERY far! Maybe 30min walk?” when it turns out after a thirty second cab ride that it's actually just seven minutes walk. I am sure part of the abhorrence of walking is made up of the fear of the skin turning dark in the sun. It's as if, you only walk if you can't afford a car and your skin will be proof of your status. Also, they are likely to ruin any high-heels women might wear.

Cyclists: Hm, I have been wondering what KL locals think about the concept of cycling. Riding a bike is the stuff of fairy tales, usually set in nostalgic accounts of country life. I'm not sure cyclists actually exist in KL. Or to put it more delicately: Why work out in the sun when you can afford an A/C-ed car?

Cars: KL is a city made for car owners. When it comes to cars, Malaysians have a unique attitude to them. Everyone who can afford a car, will buy a car. Not any car but the most fancy they can get. Cars are about prestige. While in London you can recognise people's social background by their English, in KL people will show off their status and enthusiasm for cars quite publicly. This goes for women and men alike. Actually, the Malay version of Cosmopolitan dedicates a whole page to cars where readers discuss opinions like the price of petrol and how to drive economically! I've seen women and men drive to work in shiny limousines, huge-ass polished SUV's (and these people are not always senior management level) and even landrovers. One can only hope that the rest of the Asian family or large group of friends ride regularly as a group in their spare time or at least that it's the only car in the family to make such a large car necessary. Fat chance! Malaysia or at least KL is a place of many multiple car owners. At this rate, I am actually surprised that there isn't yet an ozone hole over town. Already a view from the Towers will usually give you a smoggy view over the city. I would love to see an Asian version of “Pimp my ride”!

Whatever their ride, drivers usually look really tense behind the steering wheel which they grip so tightly, their knuckles turn white. They will make only sparse conversation with you while they focus on the minefield ahead. Out of nowhere, at any second, a motorcycle can shoot out. I once saw a near-miss when two decided to manoever through the same thin space coming from behind two different cars and not having seen each other. I've seen motorcyclists and cars the wrong way in one-way streets, huge buses swerve around the corner at 50km/h and impatient pedestrians crossing in front of them. I saw a maybe two year old crawling across the chest of a driver! I saw a taxi without a front bumper - my fellow intern spotted it stuffed onto the back seat! We also discovered that motorcycles speed-o-meters go up to 120 km/h (!). The real fun starts when traffic lights are out of order! It took me 15 minutes to get to the other side of a busy but normal-sized crossing under the Monorail tracks. A police officer had been ordered to control the mass of cars. From the way he was managing this task you could guess he'd been standing there in the sun for a while, directing drivers who do what they want to do anyway. He was lazily waving what I figured must be “Go!” (at times a spiral arm movement, at times straight waving with the arm) but in no particular direction. Sometimes he signified the next lane to Go and left it to the current one to Stop by themselves. In Austria facing traffic usually means Stop and standing sideways Go. In KL, the fastest driver of any lane gets all the jammed up impatient ones behind him moving, in other words, they actually over-rule the policeman by force who doesn't seem to have thought about fairly timing all the sides. We few pedestrians were not of his concern. Maybe it's because he's too busy not getting knocked over himself by the stream of cars blindly following the front cars at 40km/h.

I'm not even sure law enforcement even bother about the shocking reality of every day traffic violations, simply as to the sheer pervasiveness. Even if you get caught, you pay your fine at the station but get to keep your license, so I've been told by a local who suggested Malaysia should introduce a point-based drivers license.

21 May 2009

Resurfacing into the world!

Hi everyone and apologies for disappearing from the surface of the earth. A wormhole in KL has sucked me in and whirled me around at infinite speed for the last week. Also, after criticising a friend's article on an issue dear to my heart (human rights in the Philippines) on stylistic matters I got hit by a second wave of writer's block (the first one being praise about my style of blogging!). Lastly, there wasn't much happening between the last post and this Monday, 18th.

Anyway, on Monday I finally started my new internship (yay!). Those of you who know what I am talking about: congrats for being able to decipher my cryptical messages! Those of you who don't know what I am talking about: Well, sorry but I won't tell you here.

#1 I do not want to compromise my work
#2 I do not want to get into trouble with anyone
#3 There definitely is a safety issue. I don't even type the NGO's name into emails.

So basically, my first few days were hectic. Everyone is very friendly, efficient and organised. However, work is like being thrown into the cold water. It's a bit like being told that you will have a tough exam on a difficult issue and and are only given two days to prepare. Or having to learn as much as possible about a complex machine, you read a lot of manuals but will only be able to really know how it functions once you start to actually use it in practice. It definitely is challenging but there is a lot to do and no time to fool around. This, I guess is what distinguishes an internship from volunteering, the latter sth I've wanted to move on from for quite a while.

Sth that I have a hard time to get a grip on are the longest list of abbreviations used on a daily basis. The jargon goes a bit like this: “Oh Heidi, can you please make sure that ABC [office] receives CD [document] so they can do the EF [process] for the GHI [person]? If you don't know what to do, there is a JKL [document] in the MN folder. Once you're done, please go to OPQ [office] and ask them how far they are with their RS [process]. Thank you!” At some point during this instruction, I usually turn into a legged question mark but eventually say sth like, “Sure! I'll get right to it”, perusing all TUV's for any clue as to WTF I am supposed to do...

Of course, I do not mean to talk my way out. I am here to learn and since people use these terms all the time, there is no point in asking not to be exposed to them. So don't get me wrong, I am not complaining, just trying to give you guys an idea of what work is like from my personal (shrewd?) perspective without breaching any code of conduct.

Also, it doesn't help that my short-term memory is out of practice and I have to bother people all the time about the same damn thing. Therefore, there is only one way through: Revision, revision, revision.

Another great thing is that I am meeting a lot of new people who know people and have been able to finally arrange two viewings for condo flats. One I will check out tomorrow evening and one I already saw yesterday evening – it was a very nice area which is a bit too posh for my taste (too many expats) but seems to be a proper residential area. It reminds me a bit of the town in Austria I went to school in, in character and also in location, namely suburban. To be honest, I was actually astounded how safe the area seemed. While walking alone at night in many Asian cities is generally not advisable, I had the impression that this would be one of the areas where the likelihood of getting mugged is actually lower. First, due to the safety arrangements of condos (security guard, grills on windows and doors) but also because of the demography and accessibility of the place. In other words, you can only get here if you have a car (or can afford a longer taxi ride) and because everyone here is more or less rich and looks like it too, any potential criminal would probably be recognised immediately. While having been spoilt by living in Western Europe most of my life I prefer to live in a demographically mixed middle-class area, it is sad but definitely wise to be careful with living arrangements in many big Asian cities. My mother grew up in such a megacity and although I always used to find it a bit weird she would tell me “to be careful when walking home across Vienna” (a generally very safe city) and when, likely more justified would ask me over the phone whether or not I was “with your friends, yes?” when I call her up while being on a nightbus in London on my way home. She used to be quite a sheltered person and spent the first two and a half decades of her life in an Asian city rife with street crime (and a sensationalist tabloid press culture). However, after staying in KL for a while now and always in a part of town where every Malaysians' eyes go wide when I answer the frequent question of where I am staying. Apart from what I already told you, the area is often associated with snatch-theft (handbags from motorised vehicles, usually motorcycles), drugs and even prostitution (even if I have been trying to train my perception to spot them, I really don't recognise the signs for neither dealers nor sex workers, no matter which continent or perhaps I normally just don't pay attention to these groups).

The prostitution thing is sth an Indian lady actually told me just yesterday and ever since I've suddenly been noticing the surprising variety and display of condoms from street convenience stalls and in drug stores (or perhaps it's because I usually stick to my end of better-lit street blocks and only roamed further today searching for a local pharmacy the next one of which is of course is not here but a taxi-ride away – more on taxis soon!). I kinda peripherally noticed them before (vibrant colours of packages displayed in the glass counters where you have to pay or if a stall, somewhere in eye-height) but hadn't really given it any much thought. I've been reading academic and other expert literature on HIV/AIDS issues in the last few months and also a report on awareness and incidences on several countries in the Southeast Asian region, including Malaysia, so maybe that's why. By the way, while HIV/AIDS has a shocking epidemic scale in many Sub-Saharan African states, Southeast Asia has comparatively and also in absolute figures very low rates. The one country in the region where there was a sudden quick spread about ten years ago (?) was very fast, organised and efficient in tackling the issue very early and has been commended on the quick response (Thailand). However, new infections have been on the rise in the last few years in many countries throughout the region which can be because people are getting careless or because people might be more likely to seek medical attention and therefore report it.

Ok, gotta go and mentally prepare myself for tomorrow's new day at work and visualise while my concentration is still there. I hope to be able to catch up with blogging too by the end of the week, to give you guys some meat! Two weeks ago, I was thinking of writing sth on beauty but gave it up after starting at least 15 times on the draft. Either it's just not my topic or it's a sign I haven't made up my mind yet on my opinion. As indicated, another topic which I saved for later was taxis. Since I so far I had a good time at the hostel I am currently still staying in, I should also put here some pictures and experiences.

Pictures – I am sure you guys are dying to see some images of what Malaysia is like! I yet have to buy new rechargeable batteries for my digital camera and my UK phone I didn't want to use until after I moved to a safer place (ideally with stable internet). Then I will roam around one afternoon and attempt to capture the spirit of KL for you!

04 May 2009

Lat Lover

He is THE Malaysian hero.

A naughty boy with unruly hair who grew up in a Malaysian village with a notorious predisposition to get into trouble.

His name is Lat.

Gifted with a great sense of humour and blessed with the ability to pull the leg of every race and political figure in the country by the power of pen and paper, his cartoons have been cherished in Malaysia for nearly three decades. The animation of his Kampung Boy landed a Best Animation award at the Animation Film Festival in France in 1999, his drawings fly with you on AirAsia planes and he managed to make fun of the PM without getting sued for defamation (at least he hasn't published any court sketches as far as I am aware of...)!

(Image: Former Singaporean PM Lee Kuan Yew with former Malay PM "Dr. M.")

Imagine my excitement when one unsuspecting afternoon last week, I lazily open a high-gloss expat/high-level magazine and on page 5, stumble across the announcement that on the following May Day weekend, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is going to accompany live a trilogy of specially commissioned animated short films by Lat! Cheapest ticket: RM 25! I couldn't help but exclaim, “WHOA!” and make other cafe guests look over in surprise (or suspicion) from their netbook tunnel vision.

My first impulse was to screw my holy cafe break and storm to the ticket office (I was literally five minutes away). That's when I remembered the last time I excitedly bought a concert ticket last minute, it involved two hours of running up and down Suria (six floors) looking for the cheapest deal on a pair of formal trousers (no jeans) and a pair of elegant-looking shoes. Sure enough, the shop that had it all and in my size (15 min before the show) was Marks&Spencer. I tried both on, was prepared to rush to the drug store afterwards for some pins to shorten the trousers into place.

To my endless regret though, my card didn't work! I even had the items put aside to dash to the ATM but to no avail. It was a shame for I really wanted to go to “A Viennese New Year” and hear how the Malaysian Philharmonists play Strauss, part of whose extensive opus is played every year at the traditional New Year's Concert by the Vienna Philharmonists! The tickets for THAT are sold out half a year in advance and cost up to 940€! (It helps to have gone to school with two philharmonists). Life decided to teach me a lesson in renouncement that day...

The irony is of course that while I never went to the Royal Opera House in London (apart from the summer open air screening of Don Giovanni in Trafalgar Square) where they actually let people in in casual wear (!) and jeans (!!) for the noble purpose of reaching out to a larger scope of people (in Vienna, going to the opera is a very serious business – people dress up to pay respect to the institution, even if their ticket cost only 3.50€ and they have to stand for three to four hours), half across the world, I now could not go to a cultural event I was dying to see for deciding to backpack without evening gown.

Anyway: So this time, despite my dream to see the legend in person, despite the possibility to attend the world premier of his latest tongue-in-cheek depiction of Malaysian life, and despite my silent urge to lift the jinx on me and anything Petronas (two events I wanted to see but didn't see and I also haven't been yet up the Towers), with a huuuge sigh of disappointment, I sit back in my chair again and decide to await the newspaper report and release on DVD, missing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend what has before and after been described as “a grand tribute to his work”!

Some of you may wonder what sparked off this obsession with a comic not so well known in Europe. I first came across Lat and his work when I started uttering my first words in Malay and had this idea that my newly discovered passion for comics & graphic novels would help me learn faster if only I could get hold of some good Malay ones. I delved deeply into the recesses of the SOAS Library which usually holds all kinds of surprising treasures, only to emerge with surprised empty hands (I did find a book on “Malay editorial cartoons” though).

Quickly remedied on my first visit to Malaysia in January, I now also proudly hold two of Lat's more than 30 comics: Kampung Boy (the pilot of the series) and Dr. Who?! (a one-off about the illustruous figure of re/former visionary PM Dr. Mahathir Mohammad) next to my cherished illustrated versions of Poe's works (yes, including Nevermore!), Kafka's Trial, Persepolis, Alan Moore's The League of Extraodinary Gentlemen and Aya (a lovely African woman's account of growing up a young lady in Africa).

While the Kampung Boy hasn't taught me any Malay (naturally published in English), he definitely gave me something more valuable for more difficult to gain: Insight into what is typically Malaysian – with a twinkle in his eyes.