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First Thoughts: Kuala Lumpur

posted at 7:57 am
on Sep. 17, 2005

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The Journey: Japan and Singapore

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Anyone who believes that “all Asians look alike” should be sent to Kuala Lumpur immediately for corrective conditioning.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a disparate, jarringly diverse group of people in my life.  It’s like a game of “Memory”—every passerby is a new card being flipped over, and you’re left to wonder, “Have I ever seen someone like you before?”

Start with the men who have skin as dark as the phone in your cubicle.  Skinny-headed.  Hairy-necked.  Bulbous.  Dwarvish.  Leather-skinned.  Straight or curly or buzz-cut-y or bald or long and wavy hair.  Faces the color of lemonade, of caramel toffee, of roasted coffee-beans, of fresh baby potatoes.

To the body type, drape clothing—shirts that button, that pull over, that wrap, that split.  Add sashes, sandals, belts, hats (or caps or scarves or veils), all made of fabrics soft and hard and itchy and smooth and silky, woven by hand and machine, with metallic and colorful and natural fibers.  Some traditional garb, some Gucci and Coach.  Some clothing needs washing, or patching.  Others are so new they still have the fold lines from the shelf.

It’s overwhelming.  Hundreds of thousands of people, each completely different, with different religions, ancestries, foods and spices.  Yet they all live together, cheek to cheek, car-door to car-door.  And how do they all communicate? It’s a reverse Towel of Babel: every single person here thinks they speak English, and through a collective act of belief, it somehow works.

Like one of our cab drivers today.  He was a courteous and attentive driver (to us, not to others on the road).  He pointed out new construction projects, road hazards, weather conditions and other topics of interest.  Through it all, though, he sounded like a dying Marlon Brando attempting to speak Vietnamese.  I understood only intermittent phrases, usually the ones that he punctuated with two-handed gestures, and since I didn’t want to encourage too much of that behavior, I think it was ultimately a little unsatisfying for both of us.

Driving here is nothing like the terror I’ve experienced in some other countries.  Here, driving is a like a gentle waltz to unheard music down major freeways.  No street goes longer than 8 steps without some sort of curve or rise or merging lane change.  Driving from our hotel to the Central Market, a distance of about 1.5 kilometers, involves no fewer than 4 complete 360 degree turns, spiraling closer to the goal and further from the origin in a curvy swirl of tires and concrete ribbons.

While a few (dare I say foreign?) crazy drivers do speed by in the fast lane, our drivers have been more like skilled canoeists, pushing the car gently and quite slowly down the street, bumping from edge to edge as the unseen current guides the car, here up against a bus, then away from it and into a turning lane, across an intersection, through an arch, down a side street, past some stopped cars, and back onto another freeway.

There’s an unrelenting flow here.  Nothing stands still.  We walked down Jalan Petaling, the pedestrian street in the center of KL’s Chinatown, and felt driven from one stand to the next—not hurried, just unable to spend too long in one stall before the draw of the next and the arrival of new browsers from the previous made staying uncomfortable.



Previous entry:
The Journey: Japan and Singapore

Next entry:
Batu Caves


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