30 June 2009

Islamic Arts Museum & National Mosque

When I was watching “Ayat-ayat cinta” the other day (and was mesmerised by a three-hour romantic tale in an Islamic context), I had no idea I would be going to the Islamic Arts Museum and National Mosque yet two days later. The movie did however put me in the mood.

First of all, the Museum of Islamic Arts is in a beautifully designed building whose modern and open transparent architecture bridges the gap between the perceptions of some Western non-Muslim visitors as well as creating an image of transparency and dialogue while retaining an appeal for Muslims visitors from abroad (or so I assume at least).

There were a lot of very interesting artefacts and I do want to come back again, perhaps to see the second floor which under time pressure, I reserved for another time as it was of secondary significance to me (ceramics, arms & armour, coin & seal, metal work, textile and wood), visit the great shop again and try the Arabic restaurant which is supposed to serve really yummy food (but looks a bit expensive from the outside).

Arriving with a lift on the first floor, the first section takes you on an architectural journey to Mosques around the Islamic world, explaining different ground plans prevailing in different regions, intricately illustrated by miniature models of mosques from Uzbekistan, over Iran, India, Mecca, Turkey and even Africa and China. My favourites were the famous one from Uzbekistan (hard to find pictures, try this one or the pic of the beautiful gate) and the Chinese ones which would absolutely pass for a Chinese temple (so unconventionally typically Chinese roof, no minarets and no Arabic elements whatsoever that I recall) except for the tiny gold crescent on a roof (in some countries they call to prayer by using drums; China might be one of them).

Then follows a section on the Qur'an. You see differently ornamented and painted versions and can even guess as an amateur what regions of the world they are from, depending on the preference of colours or the use of gold. Qurans in all shapes and sizes from all over the world including Indonesia and even Mindanao in the Southern Philippines (less intricately painted and quite worn). In Africa, kids use little boards on which they write verses of the Quran, then wipe them out when they learn them by heart. Once they memorise the whole book, they get to write their favourite verse on it and keep the board as sort of diploma.

Also shown are the five or so different Arabic calligraphy fonts and the beautiful banners/painintgs where verses in Arabic are so arranged as to look like flowers or resemble other shapes. You can also see typical writing/painting tools, usually ink, except for China where they tended to use brushes. Further, there are also a couple of very finely woven sarongs.

The shop is amazing and sells everything from African-looking basket bags over Islamic jewellry to more elegant and artsy headscarfs, the usual fridge magnets and mugs; greeting cards and children's illustrated moral bed-time stories (and even a boardgame!) as well as the kind of books Arthur Probsthain (who runs the SOAS bookshop) would love to sell. My two fellow interns I was there with came out with a bag of books, including a book called “Hijab or Niqab – an Islamic xyz of the face veil” and “Political participation of Women: Contemporary Perspectives of Gender Feminists and Islamic Revivalists”. I could so be at SOAS right now!

The Masjid Negara next door, we venture on to the impressive building that you practically see or pass every day in KL (or maybe just me as it is visible from Pasar Seni Station in Chinatown where I used to stay and if taking a taxi home from there, it is likely you pass it too), as it is relatively centrally located. Impressive because its roof is not a dome but a blue umbrella-like structure that can hold up to 10 000 worshippers.

I don't know how many of you have been to a mosque before but usually anybody can visit as long as they are appropriately dressed, often visiting hours are confined to between prayers only. After the female ward ties my borrowed scarf with a knot under my chin, more Yugoslavian-rural grandmother style than anything (for the cloth is too small and starched for some reason, apart from being light grey so everybody knows you are a visitor from miles away) and my female friend who looks like a priestess with a purple hooded robe (there's no way we could blend in discreetly among the crowd), we enter the big open-plan mosque which I just like for its spaciousness and the fact that the trees around have a calming effect as well as sound-proofing from the urban landscape stretching out visibly on the side of the entrance.

So, the roof has 18 points on its perimeter, which symbolise the 13 states of Malaysia plus the five pillars of Islam. On the entrance to the roofed praying hall, a volunteer greets us and explains to us the particulars of the Mosque as well as giving some basic insight into Islam, meant for Western visitors who might not have had much prior exposure to Islam before. It is interesting nonetheless. A bit quaint but admirable are the more than 20 differently coloured leaflets on the kind of topics some non-Muslims may find interesting. It could be an interesting study on how Muslims perceive to be perceived but also what kind of FAQ's they might really get from non-Muslim tourists. Examples: “How to become a Muslim”, “Women in Islam”, “Sex and Islam”, “Jihad is not terrorism”, “The five pillars”, “Food”, “Muslim Syariah Law”, perhaps even homosexuality and Islam; some leaflets even printed in Spanish and Chinese (if not other languages)!

At some point, I ask where the women pray (because sometimes there is a separate hall) and it turns out there is a long white cloth lining a border for men and women to pray in the same hall but women at the back, the women can also pray in the gallery upstairs if they want. Our friendly and enthusiastic volunteer host then goes on to explain to us the positions of prayer, running over to a flipchart with a big wall poster in English clipped to it, giving illustrated instructions on how to do the scholat (?) (probably usually meant for children) and he says, “Imagine a woman is doing this [bending over during prayer]! It would be difficult to concentrate!” I couldn't help it but he seemed jovial enough not to be offended and so I remarked jokingly, “But that is not my fault!” He is silent for a minute, wondering if perhaps he is offending me and when I smile, he catches himself again and says, “So this is why you need to help me! This is why women pray at the back and not at the front, otherwise my mind cannot focus on God, you see!”

What an enlightening day! I hope I have given some non-SOAS and/or non-Muslim friends of mine some new insight into Islam from my limited knowledge and wish to write some more features to bring it closer to you. Comments, suggestions, complaints highly welcome!

29 June 2009

Living like a Queen!

Welcome to my house!

Have a look at my housewarming video:

Pantai Hill Park, as the name suggests, is a cluster of five to six maybe 15-storey high condos near the University of Malaya campus and to the South-West of KL, near hip (and expensive!) Bangsar.

What is the difference between a condo and a flat? So I have always wondered whenever I heard my Filipino aunt talking admiringly about friends who live in condos. The difference is, you've got 24hr security, parking space, a swimming pool, a small restaurant (sometimes though not in my case, with WiFi), a small grocery shop, a prayer room, gym, badminton court, tennis court, launderette and even beauty parlour. Actually, for most Europeans, this might more resemble a holiday resort than a place where you actually live!

In the UK, there's no such thing that comes to mind - then again, the British are not known for life quality and community living nor weather to swim in. For people from Vienna, Wohnpark Alterlaa could be classified as a condo.

The best part is that I get all this for RM 520 (around 104€) per MONTH!!! In the UK, you're lucky if you get a place for that amount per week that is anywhere within zones 1-4 and not falling apart yet.

So far, I've been staying alone for about three weeks and actually had the whole place to myself for the same rent. A few days ago, a shy Malay guy moved in and ever since he came viewing the flat, I haven't seen him. Hadn't he locked his door, I wouldn't even have known he's moved in (my landlady told me the date), he took the master bedroom with the en-suite bathroom. I'll be sharing the "common" bathroom (the one you see in the video) with a Chinese woman about to move into the middle room. My landlady is a young Chinese (?) woman who is a business consultant and just loves to make friends from all over the world and most of her prior tenants have been interns like me working for the same organisation. Actually, another (male) intern from the US is staying with her in her flat, just five minutes away in another building - and gets the full benefit of her three year collection of beauty magazines!

LRT is a short taxi-ride away, RM 3.50 (or 70 €-cents) and there's also two night markets nearby that I know of (great places for cheap food!) but haven't been to yet. Unfortunately, the only thing that is still missing is an easily accesible nearby internet cafe. I saw a promotion by celcom (one of Malaysia's biggest internet providers) the other day: internet without contract, you can also add more months. They make money by you paying upfront. It's not that cheap I find, I'm sure contract is much cheaper but then again, I don't want the hassle of sorting out transfer of contract, possible cancellation fees. The technical specs are very good though and it is supposed to have good coverage. Promo might have ended already but I got the guy's business card, so maybe there is sth else he can sell me! ;)

22 June 2009

A dream has come true! Heidi sees turtles!

Let's roll it up from the beginning! A spontaneous trip to the seaside FAR far away from KL, beach and sun guaranteed, how can anyone resist?

Malaysia is unsurprisingly quite beautiful once you get out of the capital. Deciding to join the trip last minute gave me the privilege to take a coach during daytime (as the nightbus with the others was already full) and appreciate the lush vegetation of typical humid Southeast Asian climate: Quite differently from Europe, hardly any two trees next to each other look the same or are of same height or species. In other places, you cannot see the ground for acres of wild palm tree tops up to the horizon (probably a great place to hide in an air strike if you happen to live close by). Sometimes though, you can see palm tree plantations, as the harvested palm oil is one of the country's biggest exports and probably the most used cooking oil for your nasi goreng. Probably not very good for the soil though (monoculture)... Just a few hours later, the bus hikes up the Genting Highlands. The evergreen hills disappear into the misty clouds and if you were to hop off, you would find it to be quite cool outside. I'd love to come here sometime. It seems a good way to go hiking in Asia without having to endure the heat. Shortly before the provincial capital of [state], Kuantan wherefrom I have to take local transport to Cherating, we pass a big military airbase, armed helicopters and cargo planes included (about Malaysia's cordial relations with Singapore another time).

Eventually, I make it to Kuantan which seems like a laid-back provincial ex-industrial town. While I walk up to Maybank to use the ATM foyer, the security guard is talking to somebody. When I come out again, he takes a seat at the eatery opposite with some friends. In KL, you would never see that plus the security guard would likely be armed (but only during opening hours). Such is the difference between the city and the country-side!

Similar thing at the taxi-stand behind the coach station, I ask how much it is to Cherating, a one-hour ride away, expecting to spend quite a while arguing. The manager from the taxi stall says it's RM 55. I ask if they use a meter. He laughs bemused and shakes his head. I say, “Shouldn't it be 40?” (remembering the figure from my Rough Guide). It's a relief when he shows me the pricelist taped to the counter. It's indeed RM 55 (which is what it really should cost). I take into consideration that my Guide is three years and say, “OK-lah, whatever, let's go.”, accompanied by an affirmative side-ways flick of the head and an outwards flick of the hand that means “Ok, whatever”, my bag of ice tea dangling from my other wrist. When I walk over to the car, I notice the group of local taxi drivers sitting in the shade; they are smiling at me with respect, bemused at my subconscious use of Malay (body) language and my guard with taxi drivers. There was no doubt I had just arrived from KL! Maybe, they were even grinning at the thought of (taxi) crime in their “idyllic” city.

There's things you can only try out in Malaysia. One of them is driving at 100 km/h on a highway and no seatbelt (broken!) with two meters safety distance between cars, cars frequently changing lanes like on a F1 track home, some undecisive drivers who prefer to stay ON THE WHITE STRIP (who cares about them in Malaysia anyway) and Orang Asli (indigenous people) on motorcycles driving on the (surprisingly deserted) emergency lane against the direction! I decide to take a video. The driver's seatbelt seems to be working, he doesn't care though and gesticulates with both hands while offering me "What? You no have license? If you want, I sit there and you drive lah!". The Muslim credo stickered on the back of his steering wheel is sufficient protection.
Cherating is quite a nice little kampung. You can cross the whole village in 10min easily. The others have already made themselves at home in our adorable traditional-style bungalow on the beachside. There don't seem to be many tourists around and the chatty lady from reception later confirms that it's a very bad year this year for the town.

We have fantastic dinner at a roadside restaurant, great spices, fresh apple juice (my favourite juice!) for me, limette juice and watermelon juice for some others.

Then we venture out to see fireflies! The presenter and local expert on fireflies is very professional, is very confident in explaining the traiditional and scientific explanation for fireflies in English. It's amazing how he uses a big styrofoam board with really good illustrations pinned on it. The audience is expectant, most are Malaysian families, we are the only foreigners.
Finally, we get our orange life-vests and step on the boat. That's another thing I've never tried before: Floating on a low boat at night on a pitch-dark river! The river is surrounded by Mangrove trees which is the only place the fireflies like to be (because of the sap). Also, they can only survive near sweet water. A short while later, we can see them! Swarms of tiny lights on the side of the river. Some of us believe they look like fairies. Some people we don't know get so excited in the attempt to catch one of the fireflies to look at that they completely forget we're all on a boat and nearly make us all kiss the river... Luckily, our fire-fly guard keeps attracting them (by short flashes of orange light in circular motion). The fireflies, although I did not particularly want to see them, being more obsessed by turtles, are in fact magical and actually magical. In the darkness, they look like stars moving at you in 3D in the quiet breeze over the river.

The turtles are even more amazing and I'm still not over the awe after watching these fascinating animals in action! We get picked up at the hotel by Pak Su who drives out on the beach in the middle of the night to watch a female turtle laying eggs. When we arrive there are quite a large number of other people already and we have to wait until the turtle is nearly finished with laying eggs lest she is disturbed. Malaysia is famous for sea turtles and they are under the protection of the government. The beach is one of the places where turtles still come and on this beach, only Green Turtles. While we wait, Pak Su opens the trunk of the car we came in and takes out two baskets straight from the hatchery of excited baby turtles to hold and closely look at before they are released into the sea. Their shield being maybe 5cm long, it is hard to believe that they will grow to more than a meter really fast. He explains that the rangers usually dig out all the eggs (70-140!) and will bring them to the hatchery to ensure the maximum number of eggs are bred and also to prevent the eggs being stolen and sold (to eat) for RM 2 (!) each. That's why a police car was accompanying us. Apparently it's even unhealthy to eat those eggs: High cholesterol. The temperature of the sand decides the sex and since there have been a lot of females lately, the rangers are trying to hatch more males now to balance it out.

Finally, the time is right and we get the signal to go. The turtle is finishing laying the eggs. What the turtles usually do is, they dig a big hole for themselves and then a small hole within it to lay the eggs into and only when she is satisfied will she start laying the eggs. If sth disturbs her, she will go back to the sea and come another time (imagine humans could tuck it in!). You can only approach her from the back and must not use any light. The ranger digs a rim below the trunk of the turtle (so she won't notice it) and puts a small torch there. What you then see is amazing, egg after egg pressed out in between goo! The eggs look exactly like ping pong balls. A few hundred meters' walk on the beach is a second turtle which in the end lays 74 eggs + 1 bad one. Pak Su says the turtles lay the eggs every year no matter if they are fertilized or not – similar to hens. What happens when they mate is that the male turtle (with the longer tail) will hop on the female turtle in the sea and insert his tail (?). The male turtles also never come to the shore, they just “relax in the sea while the females give labour”. (If you're a female firefly though, you get to eat your mate after he's done!) It's actually quite bizarre to see at the number of people ooohing and aaahing with their cameras and phones behind the turtle staring at her behind. What a freak show! Imagine a woman was giving birth and 30 people would be watching! Anyway, once the turtle finishes digging the hole back up, the rangers put a marker on the site to find the eggs again. Also, you can then notice the distance to a second hole, digged by her to make potential hostile animals think the eggs are somewhere else. At last we get to release the baby turtles. Pak Su makes everybody lign up and everybody gets one. At “Go!” we get to release them near the water and most eagerly crawl to the sea with the help of (torch) light which attracts them (some like mine took a few U-turns). Most of them will sadly not survive and will be eaten by fish, some will suffocate for mistaking plastic bags for squids (their main food) and others will get stuck in a net, hence the government regulation on max. net size allowed to be used by fishermen). The turtles have to get up every 45min to take a breath and sometimes fishermen don't take the net out on the same day or every few hours but actually leave them in for a few days!

I make a wish for my turtle and set it free!

18 June 2009

Teksi to the dark side 2/2

Top five excuses/scams:
  • "Jam": One word says it all; KLians smile knowingly at this popular excuse, you will here this especially at rush hours when not seldomly, taxi drivers serially refuse to go anywhere that involves being stuck in a jam. They might go but insist on a flat price to "compensate".
  • "Two people, double price" - Whatever!
  • "If you ORDER taxi, double price" (it's only + RM 2)
  • "Luggage extra" (yes and no, usually only for anything that goes in the trunk)
  • "Come back empty" - Duh! That's part of the job description, it's called risk. Especially ridiculous when you go from Chinatown to my office which is a five minute ride (!) but they prefer to stay in their lair for the chance of grabbing one of the many tourists there.
  • "Two people, double price"
Lessons learned:
  • Dress local, don't look to rich, disguise any shopping bags in your handbag.
  • Don't speak any other language than Malay before they put on the meter. Speaking Mandarin to a Chinese driver is a great plus, of course.
  • Find out where the start (and stop!) button on the meter is - just in case!
  • If you fly to KL, pick a flight that arrives well before midnight, ideally during the day to avoid paying the (legal?) + 50% at night and being stranded with limited choice of drivers.
  • It's ok to bully first, be polite later to show you're not "soft".

Also interesting is the racialisation of some drivers: "I'm from Pakistan, I am honest person, I don't rip people off, ok!!! Indian drivers, if they say 'use meter', you be careful, they push button behind wheel or on side of door and meter go UP! Malay driver - ok, Chinese driver - always use meter. One time, woman from Saudi, I was driving her home. She say, 'I make police report, you charge too much!' - but I use meter lah! She from Saudi, live in condo - 'no money'?! Cannot (meaning "impossible" in Minglish)! And she make police report!", one driver exclaimed offended in his honour in an explaining way. After a misunderstanding between him and us. "I know a lot of bad taxi driver in KL. I teach you, ok, so you not ripped off!" And he taught us. "See, we talk and talk and now meter go UP!" LOL But at least he did explain how the system works, how much is charged when and why and made sure he counted change visibly and that I understood how night rate is calulated before I paid.

Also common is the type who does not know his own city. OK, there are so many highways so badly planned that even locals sometimes take the wrong exit or get lost - or are so relieved they finally found the right way that they actually drive against a one-way street (yes, I've experienced that on a lift home)! :P Usually you can remedy it by an absolutely dangerous U-turn which involves driving backwards on a street or even against the direction on a highway so as not to have to drive in long circles and intricate knots again. Also road planning is so bad that legal options are just plain inconvenient, in fact it is an open invitation for offending traffic regulations.

*sigh* Oh KL... you never know what you get when you step out in the morning. You might get lost or do some sightseeing - all that before work!

One day, Julie and I were on our way from Chinatown to work and ended up somewhere entirely else (somewhere near Bangsar, I think). It's like getting into a cab in Picadilly to go to Holborn and suddenly finding yourself en route to Waterloo Bridge. I start doing my usual rant about taxi drivers (I just love to make them uncomfortable) in the back to make sure I won't pay a penny for this ride and that we're already late for work and talk loudly about the police. We decide to tell the poor guy to stop and we will take another taxi back (other road direction shockingly jammed of course...). Luckily, we are approaching a red light and by coincidence a police car overtakes us and stops at the crossing. The driver lets us out and desperately says "I won't charge you, I won't charge you, I won't charge you!", clearly afraid of getting involved with the police. I wonder if he ever found the way back (my theory is that he's not from KL and new and that the taxi belongs to his friend)... By another stroke of luck, another cab driver is right behind us and he perfectly knew where the office was, in fact it turned out he had a friend who was applying at our office and so actually knew a lot about the organisation. Before we knew it, he asked, "Do you think he has a chance?", "How long do you think until he gets a decision?" and so on. He really wanted to help his friend and clearly had great respect for the organisation. Luckily, he had understanding that every case is different and he probably also guessed that we cannot give out any kind of information. This did not stop him however, of trying to leave the best impression he possibly could on behalf of his friend and I assume, countryman. He took a secret shortcut and gave us an enthusiastic free insider tour of the less-known sights along the way, such as the WWII cemetery with the unnamed graves of soldiers who parachuted (?!) in the Asian-Pacific war (honouringly given an inconspicious small patch of polluted grass at the back of a highway bridge), the Japanese cemetery right opposite (neat!) and the huge Chinese cemetery nearby, offering bits of cultural and historical information here and there. The difference to the first driver was just bizarre! :D

Yet another failed trip to work involved a meeting with the royal family!
Ian, a colleague and condo-complex neighbour of mine who was sharing a ride with me to work and I suddenly found ourselves in front of the gate of the Royal Palace, mute horse-guard included. I was thinking, "Wow, that reminds me of Buckingham Palace" except the latter is not directly placed on a highway - what a random place for a palace - or a highway, depending on how you look at it. Of course if you get out of the palace driveway, you'd have to drive 90 degrees (!) across a busy highway because leaving the palace, you are actually already on the highway exit - the one that leads out of town (to PJ!). We take a cross-country hike up the hill. I can't believe we're actually walking ON THE SIDE OF A HIGHWAY. Unmistakeably KL! On the way to the office, we are sharply piped to a halt by a guard - and the royal motorcade rushes by! The black polished car has shaded windows of course and instead of a number plate has a completely yellow plate with the royal crest on it.

Another happy ending in the morning!

08 June 2009

Taxi to the dark side 1/2

There are two kinds of taxi drivers: Corrupt ones and frustrated ones. While the former are as rampant as the plague, skilfully pulling all kinds of tricks and excuses for high fares, the latter are annoyed at the bad reputation honest taxi drivers have to deal with.

KL is a city that has been made by car owners for car owners. Not having a car "is like having no feet", one taxi driver veteran (30 years of service) fittingly remarked - that did not stop him from charging me the triple fare (RM 25 instead of RM 8!) anyway for when I moved house last Saturday (at least he helped me with bags, drove me right in front of the door and waited for loading/unloading).

And how true it is. My office, on a hill, can only be safely reached by motorised vehicles. The 15min walk to the next train is recommended in groups only (risk of robbery). Every morning, the same damn fight at the taxi stand in Chinatown: I, still drunk with sleep walk up to the first taxi, open door, give name of street in my best Malay pronouncation (the less foreign, the better the chances of gettting a not-too-expensive taxi) and name of building. Next, they think for five seconds where it is. Then there are three options:

Option A:
They say yes and give you a flat price (RM 10-15!) in which case I shake my head and insist "Bermeter saja." which means "Metered only." or remind them that it is illegal not to use a meter. They rug their shoulder and usually take advantage of their Miranda Rights. Sometimes, they show an attitude and say, "Your choice. You wanna go or not."

No matter which version of option A I get, I just love to slam the door in their face, especially when they get annoyed for your assumed greediness and ignorance towards the plights of taxi drivers. Bla bla bla.

Option B:
Theys say yes and will use a meter. In that case: Rejoice! You're finally on the move but you still can't let your guard down:

# Watch them put the meter on. Only then open your mouth (as you'll give yourself away as "rich foreigner" else and they might change their mind about the flat rate).
# Be curt in your conversation, concentrate on the road. Occasionally, you will have to point out that there's a shorter way to do that, too (people only go there if they have business with our office or the cemetery nearby, so taxi drivers don't often go there).
# If they ask you where you are from (a usual question), and they seem nice, I say I'm from Austria but my mother is from the Philippines (for people sometimes wonder about my looks, if I'm half-Malay or sth which I use to my advantage). That sometimes breaks the ice. If they are too curious, I just say, "I'm prom dee Pilippines" in my best Pinoy accent. Julie actually invented a whole country. :D
# Observe the meter. It should be RM 4-5 to work. If not, there must be something wrong with the meter...!

Option C:
They tell you they won't go there. Most because "Come back empty" and I suspect that some have more xenophobic reasons for not wanting to go there and others don't want to get stuck in the morning rush hour on the way back to the city centre.

Having to roll up your sleeves walking up to a taxi stand is an annoying routine for everyone. Even locals get served with corrupt taxi drivers sometimes. A female work colleague of mine once shot back, "I am local like you, I am Indian, you are Indian, why you charge me high price!"

It is with nostalgia I look back to the weeks when a stationery police van was parked 24/7 next to the taxi stand! Getting a metered taxi was so much easier! One time though, the following happened:

First taxi driver: "RM 15."
Me: "Bermeter saja."
First taxi driver: "10"
Me: "IT IS ONLY 4!!!"
First taxi driver: "You wanna go or not?", believing I just arrived yesterday and don't know the law. I point to the police van in front of him and scream:
Me: "IT IS ILLEGAL NOT TO USE A METER!" He shrugs and turns his attention away from me. That shut him up. I slam the door.

Second taxi driver: Before I even fully opened the door and completed the street name, he shakes his head, "I don't know, I don't know." OK, that is weird. I shut the door and walk back towards the first one, prepared to make a scene that will get the police involved. Before I'm there, it drives away empty! The second follows suit. Somebody just grabbed the third.

Suddenly, I find myself at an empty taxi stand. Gone are they. Five minutes. I wave one from the street. The young guy grudgingly accepts a meter. He's an honest lad. He is pissed off the government hasn't changed the meter in years but everything else gets more expensive. I tell him I understand his problem but diplomatically add that he also needs to understand that as a foreigner, I need some kind of security too. He continues and blames corrupt taxi drivers who charge too much for bringing bad business and being immoral. He sounds genuinely frustrated. When I get off and pay my RM 4, I thank him for using a meter and encourage him to continue using it: It's good karma.

Another one complained that the government does not give out licenses to individuals, only to taxi companies. Therefore, you either have to rent or own a taxi. Renting is very expensive, hence the blanket policy of drivers to charge a flat rate.

06 June 2009

Batu Caves

I prepared a succint quote from the Rough Guide but of course left it at home. At least I get to link some video clips from youtube (never had enough time to look through them as I had to catch up with staying out of cyberspace for so long). Apologies for the patchy report.

Anyway, in short, the Batu Caves are 13km north of KL and are famous for the Hindu temples inside the large limescale foundations (that also attract rock climbers with more than 160 climbing routes!). It is dedicated to Lord Murugan.

Although the geographical site is quite old, it was not until the 1920s that it became a holy site. An Indian trader saw the caves and found the caves to be an excellent place for worship (Rough Guide author muses, it might be because of the similarity to the Himalayas. I have never been to the Himalayas but that argument seems a bit far-fetched to me...).

Once you reach the inside of the cave, there are a couple of smaller shrines and temples and then of course the main temple. The Batu Caves are said to be one of the most popular Hindu places in the world (yeah...) and people also choose the site for weddings. In order to see the temples, you need to climb 272 steps (yes, I did see the inside of the caves! ;) ). Symbolism behind it: You cannot reach God without expending effort.

Once a year, the place becomes packed with people (more than a million!) at the annual Thaipusam festival in February when a certain star is the highest. It celebrates the birthday of Lord Murugan (the large golden statue), a son of Shiva and Parvati (or so Wikipedia says, I leave it to Aike to verify this info... ^-^) and the fact that he successfully fought against a demon.

It really is worth to take a peep at the wikipedia info!

03 June 2009

Shit that went wrong, go visit my blog anyway!

Actually wanted to start only emailing out half the posts because people get lazy lately; I haven't had any comments for my last SIX ones! But then I edited around for an hour, chatting simultaneously and forgot to disable the email function, that's why you have the whole Sodom and Gomorrha post in your inbox anyway. *grrr*

Enjoy reading and donate a thought or two!

Sodom and Gomorrha

Musha (having lived two years in MY): “Oh, you definitely have to go clubbing!”
Heidi: “Can you actually go clubbing in Malaysia?”
Musha: “OF COURSE you can!”

Right, as an anthropologist one believes oneself to be fairly immune to prejudices like the above. What I saw when I went out last weekend with a couple of friends in KL's entertainment district Bukit Bintang however was like being hit by a (very fast) train called “reverse culture shock”:

In short, we started out in a Swiss beer place, then nearly infiltrated a gay club and finally ended up crashing a posh MTV trance party. I was not the only one wondering, “Am I really in Malaysia?!?”

Let's roll things up from the beginning. The Swiss beer place Gypsy Bar is actually a semi-gay place. Cocktails go for RM 30 (!) ice tea for RM 20 and water for sth ridiculous like RM 15 (in 7/11 it usually costs RM 1.50 for the small bottle, ice-tea RM 2.80 and for RM 30 you can already eat out as a family of three). Cheap is the beer, too bad I don't drink any. The waitress is Filipina. The owner looks like a gay hippie. Half of us arrived later, we decide not to order anything as this was just the run up for the gay club Frangipani next door. A short while later the owner shows his true colours and rudely ushers us to squeeze together (maybe 10 people) to make space for a group of five fancy-dressed Asian people (girls mostly) who ordered two bottles of Whisky served with a silver pot of ice and half a dozen cans of soft drinks. I don't even want to know how much the Whisky costs. Among the crows, I see gay people hanging out there, a woman with a VERY LOW-CUT dress and big boobs, of the locals all are Chinese, the other half are expats. I am told by my gay friend to take the [fake engagement] ring off, open a button and hit the crowd while he already preps my “sirene hair” and ties it up from after-works style to Madonna 1990!

I, still in shock from all the alcohol and scantily-clad Asian girls tell him that I would have loved to pick a more hip if not too sexy outfit but if I left the house like that in Chinatown, it would be an invitation for trouble!

We eventually move on to famous Frangipani. Fancy polished cars parking outside choc-a-bloc on the ad-hoc parking lot (I love the word ad-hoc these days!). I, still in shock from all the alcohol and scantily-clad Asian girls see with my very own eyes that there in fact exists a gay club in KL. There is a YouTube clip that is called, “The non-existent huge gay community in KL”. I couldn't describe the situation better. While homosexuality is officially denied, the truth is that there seems to be a large underground scene and that as of now, "we only see the tip of the ice-berg" or so I read here.

The entry is RM 30, some of us wait outside while people go find an ATM. I observe a lot of local girls (unlikely of the Muslim Malay community) with such skirts and pencil heels I wouldn't even let my teenage daughter out with them in London – and I consider myself a very liberal person! They basically look like sex workers.

One of these girls turns up at our group, introduces herself politely with a big smile to everyone, including an older European guy I don't know very well from our group. After she finished, he takes her around the waist and kisses her in a very naughty way in the middle of the street behind an electricity meter box but still quite visible. I blink. I later hear she is his girlfriend even though he does not like calling her that because he claims to be eccentric and does not like the term so he just calls her “friend” instead. From the first moment on I don't believe a word of it. The other guys finally come back and are finally ready to go in. Some of us don't want to pay that much so we had decided earlier to go to the new club diagonally opposite which is free. The said European guy suggests he brings his woman to her car and will dump his bag at the hotel nearby and is going to be back “in approximately 12 minutes”.

Meanwhile, two other girls and me venture to the new club which is yet another shock for me for I had been living in London for so long that I had totally forgotten that other countries haven't banned smoking indoors yet. Or maybe this one just doesn't care. So many people who smoke, men and women alike – and so quickly too. It's as if they have to use the opportunity to smoke as much as possible before they have to get back to everyday life and the public sphere (maybe they do smoke as much at work or at home). I was not the only one who was trying to blink the acid out of the eyes all the time. There's a percussion band on a dance floor that changes colours and a long white bar with all the spirits and toold of the well-equipped professional barista. The people are dressed a bit more posh and the first (and only) seats around the dance floor are designer lounge chairs occupied by huge men who look like pimps/bouncers and sitting in an aggressively male position, their two bottles of whisky next to them. Two girls stand on the elevated guest area behind the band and show off their navels while swinging their hips with their arms up while enthusiastically throwing their heads from side to side, smiling widely. Triangle-shaped standeeds suggest that it's a MTV party. Eventually, after an eternity (30min maybe), the guy from before has returned from his hotel, sans (girl)friend, a bit ruffled. He gets teased that it took him way longer than he said. People dance, nobody wants to dance on the colourfully lit dancefloor which stays empty for an hour or more until a DJ starts to move the crowd. The guy who had been ignoring me for the two hours and who I had been ignoring too, suddenly turns to me, openly bored with a lame line like, “Is this not the kind of music you like?” with a hand on my waist!!! I think he was mistaking me for a na├»ve Asian girl the kind of he probably just shagged and was testing how far he could go. I give him a menacing stare and utter under my breath, “Obviously NOT” and his next question just proves he's a jerk. He asks me if I prefer sth “more chilled-out” in a voice which suggested a) that he had expected me to be a bore or b) that he wanted to go back to his hotel. Well, screw him! I shuffle to the side and ignore him, he gets quickly distracted by a friend. I decide it's time to go home for I neither enjoy music, location nor company, so I ring my cab-mate Julie who lives around the corner and is over in the other place.

When I was about to say my good-byes to the people who I leave behind, another guy from work enters the club; while I wait opposite Frangipani, yet another guy from work walks down the street. I watch a woman waiting at the corner of a dark alley, also showing off a lot of skin, decollete and stomach, as well as legs. She has a red shawl around her and keeps ruffling through her long hair, drawing attention. After a while a guy appears, takes her hand and quickly walks away with her, wearing sunglasses at 2am in the morning. It looks as if they know each other but I believe they just both pretend quite well for prostitution is illegal in Malaysia.*

I see Julie on the balcony of Frangipani doing a pirouette at what must have been an incredibly hilarious remark and decide to give her some time to round off before we leave by walking to 7/11 down to the end of the block. Off the well-lit bars on one side of the road, the usual sexual harassment comments come from South Asian guys lurking in the shadows – Taxi drivers waiting for bait (customers to rip off or a woman to insult). I ignore them, as usual and am looking forward to the days when I can just dress like myself, perhaps after I move to my new area and insist on elderly Chinese or Malay drivers.

The evening was a definitely eye-opening experience – in more ways than one...!

*Prostitution is punishable with a fine or five years in prison (depending how often you get caught). There actually are very tough penalties on human trafficking (which seems to be an issue), especially for trafficking children. Read an interesting country report by the John Hopkins University here (original in MS Word format).