Day one – ‘Iron Maiden and Jesse James’
I’ve lived in Canberra for one and a half years, but in that time it’s never really felt like home. I think of this as I’m looking over the bare tarmac of CanberraAirport on a Saturday morning. My flight to Sydney’s been delayed by an hour due to bad weather and every minute it’s getting closer and closer to pushing back my connecting flight. This is the first leg of my trip to Malaysia. Work not play. The company I work for is expanding internationally and they are flying me to the Kuala Lumpur office to train new recruits on our systems. What’s worse is, I’m meeting two guys from the Sydney office at SydneyAirport for our Malaysia flight. And as the rain gets heavier, I’m getting more edgy, knowing they are waiting for me, ordering another round of coffees.
The plane finally takes off and rises into the rain. One drop dribbles across my window and I think of how scary that one drop would look if it were the pink colour of fuel. The plane skids as it wavers down onto the runway, cutting through the thin layer of water across the concrete. I rush from the plane to the international transfer lounge to catch a bus across the airport. Then wait some more. We drive through the parked planes along the runways, past the Iron Maiden tour jet (complete with Eddy the Ed art on the tail and Iron Maiden emblazoned in blue and yellow across the side) and through to the international lounge. Luke and Leo are waiting for me, and I apologise on behalf of the airline as we quickly jump into the check-in line. I’d met Luke once before, but only in the handshake nod of heads sense. Luke looks like a guy who was into heavy metal before he grew out of it and cut his hair off. Long sideburns along his cheeks. Leo has a strong Brazilian accent and immediately seems full of South American charm. Both guys are laid back, but clearly happy we are finally on our way.
‘I’ve heard the Iron Maiden tour jets here at the moment.’ Luke says. ‘I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.’
My first point of order is to address the in-flight movie situation. Mostly close to DVD movies, and given the drought of good films recently, not much of great interest. I watch an episode of The Office, the 30 Rock, then Luke recommends ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Forward’. Despite the ending dragging slightly, this is a great film. Leo watches a film starring The Rock, gives it the thumbs down. Who’d have thought? Airplane food is airplane food – tastes like it’s been freeze dried them microwaved two minutes too long. Luke reads from a Malaysia guide we’ve all been given to help use understand and work in the Malaysian culture. There are several contradicting and confusing points in the Malaysian guide, things like ‘Malaysians will often laugh at the most serious point of a business meeting’ or ‘Malaysians will often smile when they are upset to hide their frustration and avoid losing face in front of other’ or ‘Malaysians will sometimes say yes which means no.’ After reading through sections of this, I decided to not increase my paranoia by reading the rest. The guide, in summary, says ‘Western people coming into Malaysia will have no idea what’s going on. We’ve got no answers for this.’
Five hours into the trip, with various sections of the time erased by my trying to sleep and failing, we hit turbulence. This is just as the hostesses are serving drinks and dinner, and turbulence happens all the time, all good, but this is pretty strong. You know it’s not normal when the flight steward clutches onto the nearest seat and ducks down, looking to the roof. For a moment, I recall the opening scene from Lost, try to picture which of the passengers is going to get clocked with a metal suitcase from the overhead compartment. One of the passengers actually bares a striking resemblance to John Locke.
Peter meets us at the airport. Peter is one of the managers of the project, has been over in KL for some time already, so he knows the best ways to get around and such. We catch the KL Sentral train, then a cab from the station to the Traders’ Hotel – our home for the next fortnight. After the ten hours in transit, I’m ready to sleep. Open my curtains to my thirtieth floor view of the city. Red lights flashing on top of the shining PetronasTowers. Smaller buildings littered across the distance in all directions. A huge, yellow neon sign which reads ‘Prince’ faces towards my window. I leave the curtains open with the lights off.
Day two – ‘I Smell Durian’
Breakfast is a huge buffet, included in the room rate. There’s a huge selection of foods presented in bowls and plates. Problem is, I have no idea what most of it is. The majority are Asian foods which I have no visual taste from, no idea what they taste like. Part of me has always been disappointed that I’m not more adventurous when eating out. I like to eat what I know, as I eat when I’m hungry, so I want to fill that hunger quickly. If I get something I don’t like, I won’t eat it, then I’ll have to come back and get something else. I play it safe and grab three chicken sausages, bacon, boiled eggs, and toast. Simple. It’s only after closer investigation do I realize the eggs are duck eggs (much saltier) and the bacon is an unusual produce called ‘beef bacon’. As Malaysia is a Muslim state, pork products are not commonplace, so they have replaced the normal bacon with beef bacon. Beef bacon does not taste like bacon. Nor, for that matter, does turkey bacon. The name makes no sense to me, as they may as well have beef ham and turkey pork. In summary, I won’t be eating beef bacon again.
Luke says he couldn’t sleep, woke up at 4am. Malaysia is basically three hours behind Australia, so 4am is our 7am, hence, Luke woke up. Luke says he couldn’t sleep so he want for a walk in the park next to the hotel and after reading the Malaysia guide we’re all a bit unsure what will and won’t happen, so Luke says he was walking counter clockwise in the park. Everyone else was walking clockwise. ‘Do you think I might have broken some major social convention or offended them?’ Despite how unusual this sounds, Leo and I quite seriously have no answer, unsure if, maybe, this Luke has just done something terrible. This is what reading the guide does to you.
We go for a walk in KL and Leo and I are wearing shorts and Luke says maybe that’s offensive to the people of Malaysia, showing your legs in public. Again, we are all unsure if this is some major social faux pas. Not many of the locals are wearing shorts. We walk through the clockwise park and over to KLCC, a big shopping centre in the middle of the city. We avoid the monks offering us ‘lucky, lucky’ red flowers and make our way to the base of the PetronasTowers. The Skybridge, which connects the two, is apparently free to check out, but the line is a hundred deep and we quickly get back onto the up escalator and return to the top. Leo is looking for clothes and I want to buy some drinks and supermarket good for my hotel room so we split up and wander through the shopping centre. Despite the descriptions of this confusing land in the guide, central KL is very Western. All the major British stores are there and several major designers have outlets. The prices, after Australian dollar conversion, are very cheap (9.99RM for a six pack of Coke cans, equivalent to $AUS3.20 or so). There’s a large section dedicated to skin lightening products. There’s cooked food on sale, wrapped in tight cling wrap – whole cooked fish with chips. I grab a few things and head back to the hotel. We’ve arranged to head over and check out the new company office at 1pm.
One of the IT guys, Tim, meets us at the hotel and we make our way through the streets to the new office building. The footpaths in KL are all cracked and chipped. The roads are bumpy. There’s seems to be another thirty storey building going up every couple of blocks, glamorous picture of what the finished product will be pasted across the safety wall. It’s like the city is progressing at break-neck speed, but they’ve left little time to perfect the finer details of the work, no theme or logic to the planning of the city. This same attitude is reflected in the crowded streets – hundreds of motorbikes skimming between the tiny gaps left by the small cars. The cars are all small because you couldn’t drive a bigger car here. There’s just no room. The motorbikes are all small, post-office bike types, no Harley’s or replicas of racing bikes and they will literally find any gap they can, riding up footpaths, through gutters, between moving vehicles. The accident rate must be very high. But one thing that immediately stands out, as another group of cars pushes into a lane, missing the other cars by centimetres, is there is no road rage. They cut each other off an move in front of moving traffic and block lanes, yet everyone just accepts this and goes about their business. No anger or aggression.
The new office is on the fifteenth floor of a new building and it have large windows covering two floors along the staircase. All the new desks are waiting, clean and shining. New meeting rooms and kitchen. It all looks impressive and familiar, as it’s set out like our other offices. We check our e-mails, go over training plans, get everything together for Monday.
Peter, another IT guys Brad, and the three of us head to the Paradiso for drinks. Terry, the guy who has organized the new office, joins us later. The Paradiso is a normal looking, Hawaiian themed bar, all tiny umbrellas and candles in coloured glasses. The bar is next to a pool, but no-one’s swimming today. Terry joins us and we head to dinner in the city, a Chinese restaurant with tables spread across a busy footpath. And the air around us stinks. Like rotting fruit. ‘Durian’, Luke tells me, pointing towards a street vendor selling large, green fruits of some kind. ‘It’s the durian. They banned it in Thailand because it stinks so much.’ That one fruit is producing so much smell across the area. It seems strange, but as we get further away from it, them smell is gone. Terry tells us they are having Chinese New Year celebrations tonight in the city, says he’s going along to check it out and we join him, moving through the building crowd. The big event tonight is a Lion Dance being performed in the middle of KL, where Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will be attending. Badawi will walk through the streets, leading a parade towards the centre.
We stand alongside the road, watching the security personnel direct human traffic. The centre of town is all lit up with ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ in huge letters across the buildings. Hundreds of thousands of fairy lights are spilled along the front of the main building, red and blue coloured, flowing towards the ground. The crowd continues to grow as we wait. And wait.
Another thing I notice is that many words on the signs in Malaysia are spelled in phonetic English. I don’t know which of these words are supposed to be English and which are the local language, but as we stand in the crowd, facing the buildings, I notice one wall has ‘Academy’ spelled differently three times on three different signs – ‘Ackademy’, ‘Akademi’ and ‘Akadami’. These sorts of words are everywhere in Malaysia, words that look English but not quite.
The Prime Minister finally makes his appearance, after at least two people from our group saying” ‘ten more minutes, then we’re gone’. Badawi waves to the ground, surround by serious looking security guards, about five deep in all directions. There’s so many, in fact, you can hardly make out who Badawi is between the cloud of men hovering round him. Badawi walks through to the centre and we walk back through the crowd, back towards our hotel.
We walk past a durian stand and that smell filters through to the back of my throat again.
Day three – ‘Backwards Jackets’
Walking to work the next morning, I notice a motorbike rider wearing his jacket backwards. Then another. In fact, all of the motorbike riders are wearing backwards jackets or shirts.
We meet the new recruits in a ‘getting to know you’ type session, leaning each others’ names and such. I meet my team in the afternoon, all quiet, pens ready. My biggest concern in coming over to Malaysia is the language barrier. I speak fast, and this can sometimes be a problem in Australia. And now I have to speak to a group to whom English is not their first language. My concern has been how much will that gap between what I’m saying and what they are able to understand. By the end of the first day, I feel so ignorant, as the guys speak and understand English very well – even when it’s me who’s speaking it. I ask the only guy in my group (he’s carrying a motorbike helmet) about the backwards jackets thing and he tells me that it’s to protect your clothes as you ride, from the dirty air and bugs and such, so you come to work clean. Actually makes perfect sense.
We walk back in the afternoon and everything feels very closed in. The humidity here is much worse than in Australia, the temperature much higher. Walk fifteen minutes and there’s sweat bubbling to the surface of your skin, no matter who you are. Slightly home sick, I walk back to my hotel room and flick through the TV channels. Nothing’s on, and by 8:30pm I’m asleep.
Day four – ‘Dinosaurs’
By the third day of breakfast I’ve already developed a routine. I can sift through the various foods and find normal, hard boiled eggs, toasted white bread, sausages, packets of margarine, strawberry jam and pikelets. Add an orange juice and this is the most Western breakfast I can make in an Asian nation. Put the sausage into the bread, the eggs on top, and it’s a good meal.
I walk to work earlier than the other guys, wanting to check my e-mails and get the day planned. The guys are all progressing well, understanding the concepts, getting it down. More importantly, the guys here are so keen to learn. They want to do the best job they can, and they happily take my advice and suggestions and adapt to them quickly. It gives me a lot of confidence in them as a team.
I stop at a Seven Eleven on the way home, find aisles filled with products I cannot recognize, mixed in with well-known brand names on unusual products. I take a risk on a raspberry soda of some kind. It’s not so bad.
I get back to my hotel room and stare across the city as the daylight fades. And with so much construction work going on, the many cranes in all directions, they remind me of dinosaurs, craning into the sky at feeding time. Some of the cranes keep moving into the night, lifting and carrying up into the frameworks.
Day five – ‘Hula Night at the Aloha’
Wednesday night is Hula night at the Aloha Nightclub, which we pass on the way to work each morning. As I come by in the morning they’re setting it up, putting balloons across the entrance. It’s one of several bars along a strip of road which all look more aimed at tourists than the locals.
Wednesday night is a company gathering to farewell one of the IT guys who’s headed back to Australia. We meet at the Paradiso for drinks and Luke and Leo ask me where I’ve been at the last couple of nights, tell me I should come up to the lounge at the hotel, as they have free drinks between 5:30pm and 7:30pm. I decide I have to start getting away from my room more often.
After several drinks and discussions about work we all head towards the strip of bars, towards hula night. But we walk past hula night at the Aloha. We walk to The Rum Jungle, an untidy place with tables that spill outside and towards the footpath. They have a live band playing and, above the bar, they have a huge fish tank with three sharks circling around inside. And I can’t help but feel sorry for these animals, the belting bass sounds and the lights flashing into the water. Surely this is no good for them. We walk through the bar quickly and sit down for drinks at an outdoor table. Apparently, Brad had bought a bottle of Absolut last time he was at The Rum Jungle and, apparently, they keep the unfinished bottle for you, behind the bar, waiting for your return. The guys drink and I decide I don’t really want to write myself off and walk back to the hotel.
Day six – ‘Art Garfunkel versus John Denver’
By Thursday I’m getting along well with all the guys I’m training and they give me advice on Malaysian society. I tell them about the guide. They laugh. A couple of them have tracked me down on Facebook and MySpace and they ask about my book and given the censorship situation in Malaysia, I tell them I doubt it will ever come out over here. ‘So what’s it about?’ Asks Ayuni, who wears Muslim head scarf every day. I tell she really doesn’t want to know. ‘It’s about young guys doing terrible things. It’s a reflection of modern society in Australia.’ Elise, one of my other students, asks what we are doing on the weekend, says they would like to take us out and show us around KL if we have nothing on. I tell her that would be great.
I meet up with Luke and Leo at lunchtime and Luke tells me he’s been given directions towards a dodgy DVD trader nearby. The weirdest part here is the dodgy DVD guy is trading from a permanent stall in the middle of a shopping centre. This is totally illegal, yet here he is, and there’s no hiding the fact that these are not legit. We scan through the various titles and the guy behind the counter wanders off. We write down the titles of the films we want, from his list, and I grab a couple of TV shows too – Entourage season 4, Dexter. Prices: movies 8RM, shows 10RM per disc (about $2.50 and $3). The guy re-appears, grabs our lists, gives us a quote, then disappears again. Only later did I work out that he does this disappearing act to avoid being caught. If they raided his stall he would have nothing there, just empty covers of films, so he keeps all the actual DVDs off-site someplace, and he disappears from his stall so there’s no one around to charge, even if they did raid him. If he was walking back and saw something he didn’t like at his stall, he could just stay away for a little longer.
As we wait for the DVD guy to return, I flick through his CD section, covers of CDs that have never been made – Franz Ferdinand’s greatest hits, Justin Timberlake Live 2008. Luke holds up a cover to me – ‘Art Garfunkel versus John Denver’. ‘Now that’s a fight I’d like to see’ He says. The DVD guy finally returns, closing in on the end of our lunch break, and we rush back to make sure we don’t set a bad example for the new guys.
The three of us meet in the lounge of the hotel after work, called the Traders’ Lounge, grab some free food and drinks. Theoretically, I tell the guys, we could avoid ever paying for food while we are here, as we get breakfast paid for in the room price and there’s enough food here to have dinner. Just drop lunch and you spend nothing. But then again, the average price you pay for lunch is 10RM – equal to around $3. It’s not really that big a deal. Leo nods his head towards a fully covered Muslim woman, wearing all black, gloves includes, with only a slit for her eyes to see through. Leo says she has beautiful eyes, says he’s convinced there’s a hot chick under there.
We jump onto the hotel PCs and look at things to do on the weekend. Luke wants to go to the Batu caves and to see the fireflies, which are outside of town. Apparently it’s the largest concentration of fireflies in the world. Luke looks up tour prices and Leo, standing by the desk, his hand on the scanner, he tells me he wants to scan his face. I switch it on, set it to scan, and print out an image of Leo doing a blowfish on the plastic. Comes out pretty good.
Day seven – ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’
The first week of training has gone well, but as we leave I remember I didn’t get a chance to thank the guys for the offer of taking us around the city. We’ll be out all Saturday at the fireflies anyway, and the NBA all star game is on in the morning. Since I don’t get ESPN at home, I’m looking forward to catching it in my room. But maybe I should investigate the city while I’m here. I get a message on my phone when I get back to me room, from Elise, saying the guys still want to show us around, if we’re free on Sunday. Which we are. I organize to meet them at our hotel at 11am.
The three of us head to Asian Heritage Row,
on the advice of several locals at work. Asian Heritage Row is a strip of bars and nightclubs, crowded by slow moving cars and guys with torches trying to wave people into car parks. We play pool upstairs at a place called The Loft and they have a worker dedicated to ensuring we have everything taken care of. He puts the tokens into the table, he racks up the balls to start the game and it really is too much. You feel like telling the guy to just relax and take a seat. We can set up the balls, brother. This is another thing that stands out in KL, that everywhere seems massively over-staffed. They have at least twenty guys on the street on Asian Heritage Row, whose sole occupation is to wave people into car parks. They have people at restaurants standing and watching you, waiting for you to need anything. There always seems to be people just standing around, waiting attentively. This is good, but as I say, too much at times. And, apparently, tipping is not looked upon nicely by the people of KL. I found this out when giving a dollar to one guy who just looked at it, then me, looked angry if anything, then scrunched the note into his shirt pocket and went back to work.
We head up the street to a nightclub called ‘Chynna’. We’d read about this club on the internet, saying how patrons would be ‘dazzled by our LED wall’. Sounds real impressive, right? Strangely enough, it’s actually pretty cool – a huge wall of tiny lights with graphic images playing across it. Luke comes back from the men’s room and says ‘You’ve gotta’ go check that out.’ Leo and I quickly rush to see what Luke was talking about. As soon as you walk in there’s a toilet attendant up in your face, guiding you through. He leads you to the toilet, cleans the seat and presents it for you and you’re thinking ‘is this guy gonna’ stay in here with me?’ I tell him that I only need the trough nearby and get away from him quickly. The guy them squeezes soap into your hands at the basin, turns the tap on and off for you and it’s really too much. I just wanted the guy to take it easy, for his sake.
We drink at Chynna for a while, sit out the outdoor platform and watch the traffic below. We head back inside for drinks and a girl is dancing on the bar. The bartender lights a row of flames at her feet. We walk through to another entrance, to a second club, and the security guard stops us, tells Leo, in broken English, that it’s an exclusive club, for celebrities only. Me being drunk, I tell the guy that I am a celebrity, say ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Then walk away, Luke laughing at my efforts. Leo, cleverly, continues talking to the door guy, tells him that I’m actually a cricket player. And the door guy buys it, lets us through. We do a circuit of the exclusive bar, a smaller place playing house music. We jump around on the dancefloor to cross-dressing DJs in massive, exotic headdress. We don’t stay for long and we wander back into the streets, try t hail a cab amongst the stagnant traffic clogging up the street. I must be in that annoying drunk stage because I tell the guys I’ll drive us home, go to jump into the drivers’ seat of a vacant cab and because I don’t drink very often, I have a relatively good level of self-awareness, and I realize its best to follow Luke and Leo’s advice for us to just walk back from here.
Day eight – ‘Monkeys and Fireflies’
I wake up early to catch the NBA but it’s not on. The All-Star game is aired tomorrow morning. Luke and Leo have already left for BatuCaves so I decide t make my way to the Chinatown markets, again on the advice of locals. Chinatown markets is full of the cheapest clothes, DVDs, watches, jewelry, shoes, leathergoods, perfumes and souvenirs, all perfect knock-offs of big name brands. The annoying thing is it’s just the same stuff every five stalls – adidad shoes, Rolex watches, Polo shirts, Calvin Klein aftershaves, DVDs, then back to the start. It’s not a bad thing, as you can easily negotiate prices knowing that the next guy will probably do it cheaper, but there’s just not as much variety as I would have liked. I buy a pair of adidas sneakers for $18, a Polo shirt for $3, and some new socks – $3 for five pairs. The negotiation aspect is the funniest part, and even when you do get them don, you feel bad knowing how little this converts to Australian dollars. For instance, I check out a pair of sneakers I like. ‘Yes sir, adidas, you like?’ ‘What’s the best price on these?’ ‘Sell in store for 150RM, I give to you best price, 90RM’ ‘Ninety? I’ll give you sixty.’ ‘No no, not sixty.’ Shop guy picks up calculator, shows me the price he’s typed in. 80RM. ‘Eighty? Nope. Not interested’ ‘Okay, Seventy five, seventy five.’ Me walking away, shaking my head. ‘Okay sixty.’ The stall owner yells, runs back to get in front of me, stop me from walking away. And I know that 60Rm is only $18. $18, for a pair of shoes. Even if they aren’t the real deal, they certainly look it, and if they’re no good, I’ve lost $18 bucks. No big deal. But you can’t help but feel bad knowing how little this is and how little this guy has made off this sale. I guess I justified this by remembering this is a totally illegal operation.
I catch a cab back to the hotel and the cab driver quotes me 20RM (I’d been advised to always negotiate my price before getting into a cab. I sit in the car and the cab driver talks to another cabbie and they laugh. I think he may have ripped me off. But again, I think to myself how little 20RM is in Australian dollars. Six bucks for a cab ride? You pay that as soon as you get into a taxi in Melbourne or Sydney.
The cab driver’s a cool looking guy, beads hanging round his neck. He toots his horn as we pass by a group of girls and he skims through the smallest gaps in the traffic. ‘So,’ I ask the driver, ‘Where’s a good place to go out at night in KL?’ ‘Oh, you want women, I can take you to place where they bring the women to you, you choose which ones you want, they have Jacuzzi, bedroom, you pick the ladies. 300RM. Clean ladies.’ ‘Right.’ ‘We can go there now, you want?’ ‘No, man, thanks.’ ‘Is just here, round this corner.’ ‘No, thanks man.’
I meet Luke and Leo downstairs at 3pm, where we’ll meet our tour guide for our trip to the fireflies. The guy, a big, heavy-set man, turns up late, apologizing, and we meet the driver and get into our tour van. Just the three of us with the driver and the guide. We drive further out of town, along freeways and out into the jungle areas, through tollgates and easing traffic. And further out, away from KL, the air is clearer. The suburbs look more familiar. The tour guide tells us about the history of Malaysia and how things have become what they have. I’m surprised to hear Malaysia has only been an independent nation for fifty years. He discusses the influence of the various other nations who’ve shaped Malaysia, British rulers and battles with bordering nations. And hearing all this, I feel so much more admiration and respect for the Malay people. For all they’ve gone through, it’s pretty amazing what they have been able to achieve in such a short time. I’m also fascinated by the level of religious and ethnic harmony in the region. With so many different religions and races all being squished together, the people of Malaysia seem very accepting and very friendly. They are not quick to judge and seem to want to make friends much faster than the people do in Australia. For instance, the new people at my work look like they have known each other for years, laughing and having lunch with each other and hanging out on weekends, and this is after only one week. After hearing the tour guide describe the history, this attitude makes more sense. There are, of course, levels of racism in the nation (I’d heard different things about various employment policies and restrictions on foreign workers) but they seem more able to get to know a person for who they are rather than their religion or race, as they have been raised in a nation of such mixed groups.
We drive to the base of a mountain and catch a train up to a look-out where you can feed the wild monkeys. The grey haired, black handed monkeys sit at your feet and put their hands up towards you, calling for any food you may have. Open your hands to them, and they go back to scratching themselves or looking for other options. Show them food and they jump at your legs and reach up for it. From the look-out, we can see across to the ocean. The tour guide shows us the old cannons up on the hill, used in age old wars. He tells us to feed to black handed monkeys, but avoid the all grey ones as they can be aggressive. I spot a sea eagle soaring and circling across the way.
We drive to a Chinese restaurant on the river, sitting on a platform which juts out over the water. The food served is all caught in the river, crabs and fish. The restaurant has a large fish in a tank, a big black thing that looks upset that it’s been caught. The guide tells us this is a predatory fish that can grow to five feet long. It’s currently about three feet. We sit to dinner and plates of food are brought out for us, fish and uncracked crab. This is the best meal I’ve had in Malaysia. Half way through dinner I hear a splash and Luke says the big fish just jumped up out of it’s tank. The big fish just stares out at us. And we kick back watching the sunset across the ripples of the river.
With darkness closing, we drive to the fireflies, put on life jackets and wait for our number to be called. We take a boat ride to see the fireflies, flickering like Christmas lights in the trees along he banks. In fact, they look exactly like Christmas lights, and at first, it’s a little underwhelming, till you see them move and fly, their lights flashing on and off between the leaves. We cruise quietly along the water in the darkness, pass other tour boats. We hit a branch and the boat heels towards the water slightly and I’m thinking ‘I don’t want to go into that water’. We cruise back into the dock and the tour guide pats me on the back as we walk towards he van.
We bump along the uneven roads at night, talking to the guide about tigers and elephants and other animals I imagined in the darkness of the jungles along the riverbanks. He tells us more about the history of Malaysia, how the larger tigers became extinct. How orang utans were around, but not common. We reach the hotel and Luke hands the guide an extra 50RM and we all thank him the driver.
We head up to the bar in the hotel, called the Sky Bar. During the day, level 33 is the pool deck, and the whole area is glassed in by walls that only go half way up, then there’s no roof. Open to the night air. You can feel the warm breeze from city, looking out to the PetronasTowers. And at night, they have a DJ playing and tonight it’s some short haired, bleach blonde, German electro guy, mixing common, up-beat house music with dirty, big bass electro tunes. German DJs are so predictable. We drink Kamikaze shots and some Brazilian drink on Leo’s recommendation, and it’s good. The bar is filled with hotel guests, old tourists trying to pretend they can still tap their feet to the new music. We meet a group of people out on the town and one of them is a martial arts champion, another is a synchronized swimming coach. We talk to them for a while and tell them we still haven’t eaten Malaysian food. They take us to a restaurant at 1am, order chicken and local foods and we sample parts and talk about the culture of the city. About the laws against girls and boys kissing or hugging in public. How bad it looks for Muslim girls to be out with boys. Not many people actually go out to nightclubs and such on weekends because of these regulations. We thank the guys for showing us around, say goodnight, and head back to the hotel, warn out from a day of running around.
Day nine – ‘There’s a ride at an indoor theme park called ‘The DNA Scrambler’. Do not go on ‘The DNA Scrambler’
I wake up early Sunday morning to check out the NBA all-star game and, in all honesty, Charles Barkley is the greatest sporting commentator in the world. If you have even the slightest clue about basketball, watch a game he’s commentating and tell me he’s not hilarious. Luke and I head downstairs at 11am to meet up with the girls from work and Leo calls and says he ain’t coming. Too sick and tired from the night before. The girls pick us up in a small, black car and we head out, guided by them. They take us to Central Markets, which is a lot more classy than the Chinatown bargain-fest. We wander through, then have a drink with the girls, discussing differences between Australia and Malaysia. Ayuni drives us through the busy Malaysian streets and I pull away from the door as we get up close to other cars in traffic. I tell the girls the only word I have learned so far is ‘lintas’. Lintas means ‘walk’ and it shows up on a screen every time you walk across a street. And as we drive, I’m overwhelmed by the kindness of the guys, doing this for us. Picking us up. Driving us around. Their kindness exceeds the normal.
We drive to a shopping centre called World Square and in World Square there is a large, indoor theme park. A roller coaster that stretches across the walls and Luke says we have to go on this. I’m not big on rides, but he’s right, this could be a once in a lifetime chance to do it. We go through the gates and jump on a ride which rises about twenty five feet into the air and spins, slowly round, looking down on the shopping centre below. The ride is pretty tame, and we let our legs hang out over the world. Like reaches his arms around the restraints to take photos. We come back down and walk over to the next ride, a row of seats on arms called ‘The DNA Scrambler.’ ‘DNA Scrambler.’ Elise says. ‘That doesn’t sound good.’ Luke and Salina lead the way, excitedly strapping themselves in. After the tameness of the first ride, I had convinced myself that maybe ride in Malaysia were not as bad as the ones I’ve seen in Australia. I was wrong. The DNA Scrambler rises up, then spins backwards, suspending you upside down before spinning back the opposite way. The ride then pauses, letting you get your breath for a moment, and you’re strapped in, preying for it to stop. But it doesn’t. It spins back the other way and all the alcohol and chicken and breakfast pikelets are churning and mixing inside my stomach. Then it spins back the other way and all the coins fall out of my pocket and Elise, next to me, she says ‘please stop now.’ The machine spins back again and I close my eyes, try to think of being elsewhere. Finally is comes to a rest and I quickly look for somewhere to sit down. The others seem okay, Ayuni looks a little unsteady, but not so bad. Luke is excited, laughing and we head on through the rides, looking for how we get onto the roller coaster.
The roller coaster is not so fast, but I keep ducking my head, thinking this thing is made for shorter Asian bodies, and that the top of my skull my get taken off by a low rail (Note: They do actually have minimum and maximum height restrictions on the rides). It clicks up the hill then releases at the top and we go over, upside down in a loop, then curve over along the wall, watching the kids playing video games below. The ride rushed through a twisting finale, then into the station. We get off, all a little unsteady, and Ayuni is sick. Real sick. She has her hand over her mouth and she tells us she has to find a bathroom, fast. Salina goes with her and we sit at a table, drinking water and trying to settle ourselves down. Luke, who was sick at the start of the day, is surprisingly the least affected. We decide that that’s enough, Luke and I feeling terrible for making Ayuni so sick, and we walk back through the shopping centre. Ayuni is still unsteady and she rushed off to find a bathroom again. I suggest we head outside for Ayuni to get some air before we leave, so she can drive without feeling sick. We get outside and the air is not as refreshing as Australian air. The humidity and heat makes me regret this decision – this is probably just making Ayuni’s illness worse. She rushes back in, again aided by Salina, looking for the bathroom one more time. We wait outside, me still trying to calm my own stomach, and Ayuni and Salina return. Ayuni apologizing to us, saying she’s feeling much better. We tell her there’s no way she should be apologizing.
The girls drive us further out of town and again the suburbs feel much more homely than KL, much more familiar. We walk through market stalls at The Curve, check out the shopping centre and the girls say they will take us for dinner at a traditional Malay restaurant. As we pull into the car park of the place, the rain starts to fall. Driving, heavy tropical rains. We sit inside, looking out at the weather and eating traditional chicken satay. We talk about the differences in beliefs and the structure of Malaysian society. The girls tell us how TV is edited to cut down the amount of kissing scenes, and cut out all sex scenes. They tell us how a couple was arrested recently in the middle of KL for holding hands. And maybe this kissing in public ban they have is not such a bad thing. How many times have you seen someone kissing in public and thought ‘seriously, get a room’. Maybe it’s not so bad to not allow children to be exposed to such things. Despite the internet being the leveler to all this, maybe putting some effort into restricting the depictions of violence and sex is a good idea. Our society standards are declining because of the concession that kids will see and hear what they want if they want to, so why try? But if you look at the rising rates of violence, sexual violence in particular, maybe there’s something to be said for trying.
Then Ayuni says something which saddens me, and I’m sure Luke as well. Ayuni mentions that she’d be wary of travelling to Australia because she has heard about the Cronulla riots – groups of locals singling out local Lebanese youth who had been causing problems on local beaches. At a protest against this small group of locals causing trouble, the mob turned rowdy and started attacking anyone of a non-obvious Australian background. Ayuni says she’d heard about this, and wouldn’t want to be attacked because of her religious beliefs. Luke and I do our best to assure her that was completely wrong and that things like this do not happen regularly, and that people are totally safe. But it kind of broke my heart, that people this generous and kind to us, foreigners in their country, would think this way of our home.
The girls drop us off at the hotel, despite us saying we could catch a cab back and save them the trouble, and we head up to the Traders’ Lounge to meet up with Leo. Later, we have quiet drinks at the Sky Bar, slowly watching the levels in our glasses falling. And we discuss our experiences so far, the insights we have had into Malaysian culture and life. Discussing our own lives and relationships. And it feels good to be here with two guys whom I can relate to so well. We all have similar perspective on things, similar outlooks and experiences. There’s a great sense of unity, sitting around the small table. Like I’ve met real, genuine good friends in Luke and Leo.
Day ten – Marmalade pancakes
There’s no strawberry jam left at breakfast this morning. This throws everything out of whack. What do I do when my routine foods are not available. I reluctantly take the orange marmalade and have that on my pikelets instead. It’s not the same. It’s shit. Hopefully the day will improve from here.
I watch the NBA all star dunk comp on my computer at work and Dwight Howard’s Superman was pretty awesome, for the costume alone. That and the birthday cake jam by Gerald Green (look them up on YouTube). I buy lunch from a shop called Chicken and Rice. They serve chicken and rice. And they do it well.
We stop by a Laundromat on the way home so Luke and Leo can pick up their washing and I notice, at a pub near the Laundromat, that they have a room available for rent for travelers, above the hotel. 70RM a night. That’s like $A150 a week. Give them two grand and you could stay there for three months. We head back to the Traders’ Lounge then to our rooms, all tired from the weekend. I stay up and watch the rest of the NBA all-star game on repeat.
Day eleven – ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’
‘What do they discuss at religious summits?’ Luke asks at breakfast. There’s a big Muslim religious gathering at the hotel this week, and he raises a valid point. What is there to discuss? Nothing really changes in religion, it still seems out-dated on aspects like homosexuality and such. I tell the guys we have to go out tonight, even if just for a bit. We’re only in town a few more days.
I head back to the dodgy DVD guy at lunchtime, buy some more TV shows. I figure maybe some of the movies will be poor quality, but the TV shows should have been recorded straight from TV or copied off the actual DVDs, so they are a safer bet. The three of us head to the Chinatown markets after work, so Luke and Leo can check out the wares, and the market has a heap more stalls on a weekday than they did on Sunday, though again, all the same shit. I buy another pair of shoes ($20, you can’t go wrong) and another shirt because my clothes are running out and we head back to the hotel. The taxi driver again offers to take us to meet ladies around the corner. We figure they must get kick-backs from the brothels.
We head out to Asian Heritage Row again at night, go to a club called Sunshine, which is one of the most confusing places I have ever seen. Outside, it’s all pink neon lights and plastic flowers and inside it’s this dark, dark hall of nothing. A random stage set up with a drum kit in the middle of the room, lights flashing across the dance floor. The waiters all wear black shirts with frills sewn down the front, and there are far more staff than patrons. There’s a fountain at the back of the bar for no apparent reason or effect. Empty wire terraces over the doorways. And they’re playing a Rick Astley megamix. Rick Astley. We play one game of pool then get out as soon as possible. We head back to The Loft and have a few more games with our friend there, who racks up the balls and smiles. Luke eats a club sandwich, despite my warnings it would by beef bacon, and we talk trash over the pool tables. Then we head back.
Day twelve – Malaysia’s First Astronaut
The girls from work have invited us out for a farewell dinner tonight, at another Traditional Malaysian restaurant. Ayuni and Elise pick us up from the hotel and we get lost on the suburban roads as we try to find the place. We pass another huge shopping centre called The Gardens, then head past a McDonald’s and out to the restaurant. We get shown through to a private room and the staff all know Emma, another girl from work who organized the night, and Emma normally wears a head scarf but tonight she has her short hair out. Looks so much different. The food is buffet style and there is lots of it. Whole fish in sauce, chunks of chicken in vegetables, lots of rice, fried bananas, too much to choose from. I avoid the things I can’t recognize and fill my plate head back the table. The private room as a TV in it and despite the group being dominated by women, the waiter has strangely chosen to leave the TV on ESPN. The guys all seem to eat quickly and I pick all the bones from my fish and eat and it’s good food, really good, but so spicy and hot. The sort of hot that sneaks up too, like you can eat it for a while and not notice, then suddenly you need to drink lots of water. I’m filling and re-filling my glass over and over. The guys give me a bowl of a desert of some kind, like ice cream but more ice than cream, with raspberry coloured sauce. We sit around talking about work and how they are all going and the guys give me a present. It’s a T-shirt with photos of all of them, and me, and it says ‘Thanks for being our trainer. We’ll miss you’. I’m again overwhelmed by the efforts they’ve gone to for us and I don’t know how to show my gratitude, which makes it seem like maybe I don’t like it. But due to the regulations of society I can’t just give them all a hug and a kiss on the cheek, that shit’s illegal, so I don’t know what to do. I just thank them and tell them how much I like it.
We head outside and there’s a girl and a guy on-stage and I’d mentioned karaoke to them earlier in the week so they tell me I have to get up and sing. I try to avoid it, tell them I will if someone else does. Emma sings ‘Killing me Softly’ and a Malaysian song. This means I have to go. Through the song book, there are only, maybe, six English songs, and of those six, it’s such a random mix. I choose ‘Unchained Melody’ and belt it out as best I can – which isn’t great, but the guys are all laughing. Luke follows me and sings ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You’, doing his best Elvis voice. He’s actually pretty good, all deep voice and swagger. Leo, despite many calls for him to get up, declines, saying there’s no Brazilian songs for him to sing. Behind the stage there are posters of an astronaut and the guys tell me that this restaurant is part-owned by Malasyia’s first astronaut, who went into space in 2005. The owner of the restaurant comes out and pats me on the back, says it was good to see us sing, then does a Malaysian jazz number. Ayuni asks if I’ll ever be coming back. I tell her there’s no plans, but maybe. She invites me to her wedding, sometime next year. I tell her I’d be glad to come. The girls, despite our protests, pay for dinner and we tell them we’ll catch a cab back to avoid Ayuni having to drive back into the city. It takes some negotiation for her to not feel bad about doing this. The cab has a blue light in the roof to identify fake notes and we drive past the bars and streets filled with drunken patrons. Lady boys with firm breast standing on street corners. We get back to the hotel, ready to collapse.
Day thirteen – ‘You gonna’ make it Dave?’
The strawberry jam is back for the second last breakfast at Traders’ Hotel. It’s gonna’ be a great day. I get to work just before the team and my rights manager at Random House has sent me an e-mail saying Rohypnol is going to be released in Germany. Awesome news. The guys are all getting better everyday and I talk to their managers, try to get them up to speed on what they’ll need to do to take care of my guys. I’m hoping they can hold this all together for the sake of these new employees, who have treated me so good in my time in Malaysia. I have lunch with Leo and he tells me that they’ve asked him to come back for another two weeks. Leo seems a little upset about it, as he’ll be away for his girlfriend’s birthday, and Luke and I won’t be there with him, but he also seems okay with it.
We have dinner at the apartment where two of the Australian girls are living, order in pizza and beer and watch Pimp My Ride. We sit and discuss work and the new office and how things are moving along, and the apartment is all cool, a good view of the city. We catch a cab back to the Traders’ and we get an old, old cab driver. David, the cab driver, he has white hair poking from the few follicles which still work across his skull. He coughs and wheezes into his steering wheel, but doesn’t slow down as he does this. He says he’s been driving cabs for twenty years. ‘I get you women. Good girls.’ He tells us. ‘All kinds, Thai, Chinese, Japan’, David coughs as he speaks. ‘Take you there now?’ He asks.
We head up to Sky Bar and sit around on the couches, drinking Brazilian drinks and beers. It’s pretty quiet, all relaxed for our last night in Malaysia. We chat with two girls who are carrying far too many shopping bags, Chinese girls from Holland. Seems like such a strange mix. I ask them about wooden shoes and windmills and they’ve heard these jokes a million times before and they tell us how they are on a shopping holiday. We finish our drinks and wave goodbye. To the girls. To Sky Bar. To Malaysia at night. I go to sleep to the light of the ‘Prince’ sign one last time. And maybe it’s because this is the last night, but I can’t sleep, wake up every half hour.
Day fourteen –
I pack my bags and head down for the final breakfast. The usual, eggs, sausage, jam on pikelets. We drag our bags up to the office and find a place to leave them for the day. Our flight is at 10:40pm Malaysian time, meaning we will arrive at 9am Australian time. I have McDonald’s for lunch and feel bad about it, like maybe I should have something more unusual on the last day. We have a meeting in the afternoon, talking to the new recruits, thanking them for their efforts. I wish I could come up with something to better express my gratitude for their efforts and kindness, but I just give a generic speech. The guys slowly head home after 5pm and I tell them they can e-mail or call me anytime, wish them all well. I shake their hands one by one, which again, feels unusual. But you can’t give them a hug in Malaysia. Or if you can, I don’t know about it. They all leave and I feel a sense of sadness that this team, my team, will now be in someone else’s hands.
We wait for Peter, who’s flying out with us, and we go out for a last beer before heading to the airport. We catch cabs, two in each, and Peter says we’ll meet at the Malaysian Airlines check-in point. Leo and I jump in a cab and the driver says it’s cheaper to drive straight to the airport. We take his word for it and he burns, at 120km/hr along the freeways, squeezing into lanes and sliding around traffic through emergency alleys. He cuts off traffic and takes turns away from the signs saying ‘KL InternationalAirport’ but we get there well ahead of the other guys.
Leo and I check the booking details and sit waiting for the guys. We call Luke and he says he and Peter have already checked in – apparently when Peter said we’ll meet at the Malaysia Airlines check-in counter, he meant the one at the train station, the one I didn’t know existed. We check in and head through to the duty free section and Leo buys his girl some perfume, buys himself some cheap alcohol. We meet up with Luke and grab a burger before the flight.
Then it’s eight hours in and out of consciousness, drifting into sleep but being unable to stay there. Airline food is crap. I twist and slide my legs under the seat as best I can but nothing really works. We land in Sydney and make our way through customs and Luke heads off to do some duty free shopping. Peter and Leo grab their bags and make their way towards home and I shuffle through the airport for my connecting flight back to Canberra.
And as I get on the Dash-8 plane, get comfortable enough to sleep, I feel relieved that I’m heading home after so long away. But disappointed at the same time. Now the adventure is over. Life goes back to normal. I head back into Canberra feeling no more at home than I did before, but grateful for the experience of Malaysia.