“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are making our final descent. As per Malaysian government regulation, your flight attendants will be fumigating the cabin with a non-toxic insecticide. Please cover your nose and mouth. Thank you.”
I look up in disbelief from the Duty Free catalog. Rick and I make “significant” eye contact and look around. No one seems alarmed as the flight attendants walk through the cabin spraying the “non-toxic” insecticide. How the hell is it non-toxic if it’s meant to kill? Damn Zika. So, what do you do? You cover your nose and mouth and hope to hell that you don’t grow an extra ear any time soon. Where in the world are we heading?
Kuala Lumpur. Or as the locals call it, KL. It’s kind of a California thing, I guess. Ultra modern city with skyscrapers and lots of shiny stuff. Drivers stay in their lanes. People wear helmets. There are rules here. Plus, as a former British colony, English is spoken. Jackpot. So, we got fumigated? No problem. This is going to be a great long weekend. And it is. Just not as predictable as one might imagine.
Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of sorts. The state religion is Islam but there is a huge Indian and Chinese population as well. So, throw in a little Hinduism and a little Buddhism and a history of British colonialism and, well, that’s interesting.
When our driver pulled up to our hotel, The Majestic, my jaw hit the floor. This is one of the original colonial hotels of the region from the 1930’s. Our valet was wearing one of those old jungle safari get-ups with the hat, short pants and side arm. All in white. The lounge (where we spent a million ringgits on drinks) included a quartet in white tuxedos playing old standards from the era. Who knew that Hotels.com could pull that out of a hat? Fabulous.
Even the thunderstorm that night was amazing. I had chatted with a guy on the plane about Southeast Asian thunderstorms and compared the sound of thunder in Bangkok to a “bomb.” He told me not to say “bomb” on a plane and buried his head in his book. But right when we landed (after the fumigation), in the pouring rain, he turned to me, smiled and said, “you think thunder in Bangkok is like a bomb? Well, thunder in KL is like a nuclear explosion!” He was right. Now what? We hunkered down in our hotel and enjoyed watching mother nature in a full-on rage.
Moving around the city, the Muslim influence was everywhere. Pink “ladies only” cars on the subway trains; little prayer rooms right next to the washrooms. More than half the woman wore a Hijab (head covering) and a good percentage wore a full Burka. I had never seen uniforms (e.g. airport security) designed for Muslim woman. We were able to visit the National Islamic Art Center which housed some incredible artifacts and artwork. And, the call to prayer each morning and night. My normal attire, beer logo t-shirt and shorts, was not going to work. But everything I brought was somehow offensive. I felt like a total hussy. Running around with my sleeveless dress, bare feet in sandals and knees out for the world to see. Solution? I wrapped my beach sari around my waist and hoped for the best. What’a ya do?
The Hindu temple site, Batu Caves was a different experience entirely. Hindu temples have been built into ancient caves located about 5kms out of the city. Standing guard outside the caves is Lord Moruga. At 140 feet high, his golden self is pretty impressive. And everything is bright. Blue, red, yellow, gold. Not just the temples and the gods and the art – but the people! Amazing colorful sari’s on Indian woman. Beautiful bright tunics on the men. Henna designs on faces and arms and legs. As I stood and observed – what first appeared to be almost a carnival atmosphere – began to shape-shift right in front of my eyes. Look a little closer. A young child with shaved head and some sort of paint on her skull. An old woman in worn sari shuffling barefoot up 272 steps toward a temple. Smiling family portrait in front of a god that is tearing open his chest. And finally, two adults dressed in yellow, carrying a small body, wrapped in a yellow shroud, up those 272 steps. A death rite. This was a sacred place. So what did I do? I put my camera away and quietly observed. Beautifully disquieting.
That night, the best curry ever followed by beers at a bar that played “authentic” Western Rock music (Bon Jovi? Are you kidding?). Prada store two blocks from a seedy hookah bar and a walk through the best Chinese antique junk store ever. “My husband he no like my junk. I buy and then I sell it and then I buy some more.” I liked that woman. So, I spent way too much on my 1970’s Chairman Mao alarm clock. Oh well. Best money spent in a junk shop yet.
Too quickly, we are driving back to the airport and Rick mentions how great the traffic is in KL and how nice it is to not feel worried about getting somewhere late. As soon as those words left his mouth – blowout. Left rear tire. We swerve and pull over to the very narrow shoulder. The driver apologizes and goes to get the jack. Broken. Rick and I actually started laughing. What do you do? So we laughed and chatted with the driver and his son until another car got there. We made it. Barely.
So what are ya gonna do? Mai Pen Rai. I think I’m starting to get it.