Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri! Viva la Mexico!

I promise, you'll only see those two phrases together here! Today is Hari Raya ("day of celebration"), the national holiday in Malaysia marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, so a big Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri to all my Muslim friends and blog readers!

Aidilfitri is the Malay term for Eid ul-Fitr, which is Arabic for "the festivity to break the fast" (loosely). It's one of about 17 Malaysian holidays and among its biggest. (Chinese New Year is also quite a big one.) Many Malays in KL have returned to their home villages (a tradition known as balik kampung) to celebrate with their families, so the city is much less crowded, although certainly not empty by any means. I made the huge mistake of going to the Tesco hypermarket two nights ago. If you can imagine only one massive Wal-Mart serving an entire city and being there two nights before Christmas, then you have an idea of what it was like. There were 26 cashiers open and the queue for each checkout still stretched back into the aisles. It was a nightmare! Similarly, trying to get a table at a restaurant -- almost any restaurant, really, but Western chains in major malls were particularly crowded -- was nearly impossible each night around 7 pm, because Muslims would break their daily fast around 7:20, so they were very hungry and ready to eat, and eating out with friends and family is quite common when breaking the fast.

It's been a really interesting experience living here during Ramadan... my first time experiencing it. It's a lot like Christmas in many ways, notably that it's a religious holiday that's been somewhat exploited by the commercial sector. Hotels and restaurants in particular host lavish Ramadan buffets each night, and some are wildly expensive by KL standards. Malls and shopping centers have all sorts of sales and promotions during the month and as the end of Ramadan draws closer, streets and apartment buildings are adorned with lights and decorations, the most prevalent colors of which seem to be green and gold. I'm not sure if these are traditional colors, but perhaps so -- sort of like red and green for Christmas, or purple, green, and gold for Mardi Gras in America. Anyway, I really enjoyed the experience, although I have to say, I'll be glad now that it's over so I can have lunch with my Malay friends -- or not have to wait until 7:20 for dinner with them!

The "viva la Mexico" part is because, happily, I have discovered a small little chain of Mexican restaraunts operating here in KL (http://www.lascarretas.com/). They have three outlets and I stumbled across the one in Ampang quite by accident. As usual, I was "lost" -- although that's not really the best word, because I'm not truly lost, I just get misdirected and the road system here is incredibly unforgiving. If you miss a turn or take a wrong fork in the road, you may well have to drive for a long time to correct the mistake. Many roads and highways are one-way, with the opposing direction separated by a concrete barrier and a place to do a U-turn may be a couple of miles away. So there I was, trying to get back to the main highway, and I drove down this small side street marked "jalan sehala," which I learned this morning means "one way." Nice. Naturally, I was going the wrong way, but there was nobody on the street, so no matter. Anyway, I drove by this little restaurant, very colorful and adorned with neon signage and all I saw was "Mexican restaurant," so I made a mental note of the location and continued my efforts to get back to the highway.

A couple of nights later, last night in fact, one of my friends and I went to dinner and decided to try our luck finding this place again. It took a couple of times wandering around the wrong areas ("Hmm, no, this doesn't look right at all!" but I eventually found the place, driving the wrong way down the street once again. (Like I said, I just did the translation this morning. Whoops.) So the place is called Las Carretos and their tagline is "House of Great Mexican Food, Margaritas, and Wine!" I was excited before we even walked in. The atmosphere was festive and very authentic. Well, maybe not the authentic Mexico, but certainly the authentic American version of Mexico. I had two Cuervo margaritas, which were quite good and definitely the first margaritas I'd ever had in Asia, and steak fajitas which were absolutely delicious. I was elated to have found good Mexican food after less than a month of living here. I figured it would be very hard to find it here.

In other news, I have found a condo to rent, but I'll write about that more in my next entry. I move in this weekend and am really excited to have my own place. Probably the best part is that it's only 900 meters from my job, so I can quite easily walk to work.

Last week was pretty frustrating and difficult at times. I don't want to paint a false picture of what it's like living abroad, so I need to talk about the hard times, too. I spent a couple of days wondering if I had made the right decision moving here and really just assessing my level of disappointment. It was temporary, of course, and times like that are probably to be expected, but it's surely not fun. I had a couple of difficult classes at work -- teaching beginning English to adults is substantially more challenging than teaching intermediate English to kids -- which increased my level of stress, the driving is still occasionally frustrating, my car died one night (just needed a new battery, but getting that taken care of when you know nothing about the city was very frustrating), negotiating with the condo owner and agents (who don't speak fluent English) was incredibly stressful, and I had obligations every day... it was always something. I just felt that I had been thrown into the deep end of a very unfamiliar pool and was just struggling to tread water.

Today, October 1, is my first day completely free of any obligations at all. No classes. No appointments. No tutoring my Korean student. Just a totally free day... and not a moment too soon! I was thinking of going to the American Embassy today to get my mail-in ballot to vote in the upcoming election, but on second thought, I think I'll do that tomorrow instead. (I'm off all week for Aidilfitri... told you it was a major holiday!)

Honestly, so far, the thing that's struck me the most about living in Kuala Lumpur is not the differences from living in an American city, but rather the things that are really just the same. People here have the exact same goals and dreams -- work, earn a living, raise a family, be happy, enjoy some success, etc. My daily routine was much the same as it would be in Denver. I wake up, take a shower, get dressed, sit in traffic on a long commute to the office, work all day, go home, eat dinner, read the news, watch some TV, whatever. That realization initially disappointed me pretty profoundly. But I think that as I get more settled and develop more a routine to handle the day-to-day necessities of life, there will be much more time for me to devote to learning the cultural differences, doing some real photography, meeting more people, and exploring the country. So for now, the storm has passed and, once again, I feel okay about being here.

One other thing I want to be sure to write about in an upcoming entry is the wedding I went to this past Sunday. It was a combined Chinese/Irish wedding, so it involved six hours of eating and drinking, and that was after the actual ceremony. Over three hundred people were there and we had an 11-course meal and far too much to drink... the Irish know how to pound down their booze, that stereotype is accurate. I met a lot of people from all over the world who are all living in KL now, had a great time, and woke up Monday morning with a stupendous headache. So I'll be sure to write about that and post some of the pictures, too.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cost of Living

Just as a point of interest, I thought I'd outline some of the general costs of living here in KL, as I've discovered in my first couple of weeks. I've listed the prices in US dollars at the current rate of exchange.

  • Loaf of bread $0.35 to 0.55

  • Jug of milk (2 liters) $3.15 (about $6.00 per gallon)

  • Processed cheese (12 slices) $1.85

  • Grade A eggs (30 count) $2.50 ($1.00 per dozen)

  • Fresh fruit juice (1 liter) $1.55

  • Fresh shrimp (1 pound, head-on, 31-40 ct.) $1.30

  • Fresh produce (potatoes, carrots, garlic, Asian greens, etc.) Impossibly cheap (under $0.25 per pound)

  • KFC meal (2 breasts, rice, drink) $2.55

  • 92-octane gasoline (gallon) $2.79

  • Unfurnished 1,100 sq. ft. 3 bdrm. apt. $150.00-175.00 (unfurnished means bare -- no kitchen cabinets, no light fixtures, no A/C, nothing)

  • Fully-furnished 1,100 sq. ft. 3 bdrm. apt. in nice area $375.00 per month (includes all furnishings, applicances, multiple A/C units, etc.)

  • Fully-furnished 800 sq. ft. 2 bdrm. serviced apartment, KLCC (prime location, similar to living on the Upper East Side in Manhattan) $1,200.00 per month

  • One-hour massage $11.50-15.00

  • 32" LCD high-def TV, good name brand (Samsung, LG, etc.) $539.00

  • Live mature potted orchid $1.95 medium, $4.30 large

  • Meal for two, local vendor stall $5.00-7.00

  • Meal for two, nice sit-down restaurant $8.00-18.00

  • Bottle of French red wine, grocery store $10.00-12.00

  • Philips 400w blender/juicer/food mill $27.00

  • Average toll (a few highways have them) $0.45

  • Maximum fare on light rail system $0.60

  • New car, locally-built (includes insurance and road tax) $11,000.00-17,000.00

  • One-year membership in auto club, free towing and roadside assist nationwide $22.00

  • Maid service, full-time $140.00 per month

  • Maid service, part-time $55.00 per month (four 4-hour visits)
So you can see that some things, dairy products for instance, are quite costly here, particularly by local standards. Some things are laughably cheap and some things are on par with what they'd cost in the States. As evidenced by the price of massage and maid service, labor tends to be quite inexpensive, so the "do it yourself" revolution hasn't really gained any traction here. We had some workers come over to the house last week to do some electrical and plumbing work. They installed two new AC outlets (did a great job, too) and replaced a section of pipe and faucet (called a "tap" here, as in England) in the laundry room, and did some repair work to the water heater in my bathroom. They were here for three hours and the total cost for all the parts and labor was RM190, which is about $55.

As I settle more into a routine life here, I'll update the cost of living in KL with more examples.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Uh-oh! Chad is mobile.

View Larger Map

Feel free to click and drag the map to see the horror that will befall anyone driving in KL. Malaysians have yet to find a patch of land in the Klang Valley that they don't think could be improved by a building a road, a series of roads, a stack of roads, or a highrise building. I can't properly describe the roadway scenario here without offending the more delicate readers, but it rhymes with "thruster duck."

So what I've learned -- rapidly -- is that when it comes to transportation, KL is roughly the Malaysian equivalent of San Francisco. Good public transit is available, but if you live, work, or play outside the specific areas served by those lines, you'd better have a car. So yesterday, I actually bought one.

It's a brand-new 2008 Proton Persona Special Edition. Gorgeous car... leather interior, integrated GPS, premium MP3/CD player, automatic transmission, power windows, dual airbags, and much more.

Except not really.

While that flowery description does in fact belong to the car in the picture, the piece of crap car that I actually bought is pretty much the complete opposite of all that, with the exception of still being a Proton car, which is one of Malaysia's two car manufacturers. Oh... and it does have power windows, too. Here's the little beast in all her glory:

It's a 1996 Proton Tiara, and I can only surmise it's called that because it's just about small enough to be worn as one. It has a 1.1-liter engine that, when all of the three gerbils powering it are well-fed and rested, cranks out a whopping 60 HP. Manual transmission, of course, and an actual carbureted engine. Usually the only time you see those nowadays in the States is when you mow your yard. I'm not sure I've ever had a car that wasn't fuel-injected. My first car, a truly craptacular 1980 Chevrolet Monza, may have been carbureted, but I'm not sure. To give you an idea of how small a 1.1-liter engine is, consider this: The average-size bottle of water is 600 mL. I'm currently drinking out of a large bottle of water here, 1.5 liters. We all know the size of a 2-liter bottle. The engine in my car has HALF that displacement. And yet, it still accelerates reasonably well, drives fine at highway speeds, and is really easy on gas. Plus, it was very cheap, just a bit over US$900.

Like I said, it does have power windows, along with power locks, an alarm system with keyless entry, a stereo, new tires, and really cold air conditioning. So far, the only potentially serious flaw is a non-functional gas gauge, so I'm working on the formula for that so I'll know what my range is with each fill-up. Oh, and the steering wheel seems to be on the wrong side, too. :)

... time passes ...

So now it's about 11:30 pm here on Wednesday and I've been driving for two days, essentially. I've managed to not get hopelessly lost yet, but I do manage to get very misdirected on almost every outing of any actual distance. The worst drive was a sad attempt to get from Damansara Perdana to Damansara Heights -- the latter is about 10-15 minutes from the former, almost due east. It was a complete failure. I wound up clear down south in Subang Jaya, way off course. So I thought I'd just skip my 3:30 appointment and head into the city, so I found my way to one of the main perimeter roads, but didn't get there until nearly 5:00 and it was near gridlock. So I crept and crawled along for nearly another an hour, thinking all the while, "This is why I moved to the other side of the world? To sit in this intolerable tsunami of cars and motorbikes?" At least my little car has cold air conditioning. The picture, taken through the windshield of my car, doesn't begin to do justice to the parking lot I was stuck in.

So I veered off to park at one of the dozens of malls here called Starhill Gallery which is, I must say, very posh and impressive. Whereas many of the newer, swanky malls are bright and open and airy, Starhill Gallery has a more subdued feel... very chic and muted, with loads of water features and plants throughout. I definitely got more of a feng shui feel there than at Pavilion KL or Suria KLCC. (In case I haven't mentioned it, there is no shortage of malls in KL... one source counts over 60 in the greater KL area.) So anyway, I parked there, then walked to Low Yat Plaza.

Low Yat is a tech geek's fantasy come to life. It's a massive six-floor mall, haphazardly jam-packed with kiosks, shops, and larger stores, the vast majority of them dedicated to tech goodies, electronics, computers, mobile phones, and assorted gadgetry. I frankly hate the place, not to put too fine a point on it. It's crowded, noisy, and not well laid-out at all. And woe betide you should you choose to visit on a weekend, because the crowds double. However, I needed three things, and Low Yat was supposedly the place to go for them. I managed to find none of them, mostly because I was in a hurry, but also because of my lack of proficiency in Malay or Mandarin.

I escaped Low Yat and emerged onto the steamy streets of Bukit Bintang, an area in the heart of KL which is virtually always humming with activity. It was nearly 6:30 and the street food vendors were all grilling and cooking their foods. Unfortunately, I couldn't linger, because I had to be at KLCC at 7:00 for my tutoring gig. So I took the KL Monorail to the main hub in the city, called KL Sentral. (In Malay, "c" is pronounced "ch," so they spell English words according to their own phonetics, hence "teksi" and "seksyen.") From there, I caught the light rail train to KLCC and hoofed it to meet my student.

So driving will doubtlessly be a huge adventure here, but having a car gives me a freedom that would be otherwise missing, so I'll forgive the traffic jams and lack of a working gas gauge.

More later -- sorry for the epic length.

Friday, September 12, 2008

First week observations...

I've completed my first full week in KL now -- it seems to have flown by, but at the same time, so much has happened, so it feels like a longer period of time.

I accepted the job offer with Emphasis Education Academy. It's not the greatest compensation package in the world, but the pay is good, and it's a convenient location and a very laid-back school. I have classes in the morning and afternoon -- each is three hours. The kids are grouped according to their English proficiency level, not by their age. Most of the students are elementary school-age... typically 6 to 10.

The tutoring is going well, too. I've had two sessions with my student, a Korean boy who turns 16 next month. He's only been studying English for five months, but he's enrolled in an intensive study course at a language school here, and he's a good student, so he's done quite well. We'll be meeting three times a week, each session 90 minutes in length, so it's an easy second job, and the pay is outstanding.

Today, I'm going to to look at some condos in the area near my job. The suburb is called Damansara Perdana, which was the first large-scale development in Malaysia with complete IT-ready infrastructure. It's aimed at middle- to upper-middle class residents and has a lot of major shopping and good restaurants in the immediate area. I'm told it's a nice area, and the housing costs are very, very reasonable there.

Also on the agenda for the upcoming week is finding a car, either to rent or buy.

Everything is happening much faster than I anticipated, for sure! I feel very lucky so far.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tidak halal: The other white meat

I constantly tell my Muslim friends that they just don’t know what they’re missing by not eating pork. Bacon, ham, sausage, pepperoni, pork tenderloin… some of my favorite foods involve pork, and I can barely imagine a pizza or a sub sandwich without pork on it in some form or fashion. Here, they have this abominable beef-based pepperoni and it’s like, “Really, why did you even bother? Can I just get a cheese pizza, please?” Some things just shouldn’t be altered from what the food gods intended them to be. Tofu meatless balls and beef pepperoni are on that list.

So a couple of days ago, my housemate ("roommate" here would indicate that you're sharing a room) Jamie and I were wandering around the local Tesco hypermarket, which has become by far my first choice for grocery and household shopping. It’s huge, clean, not massively crowded, and they have a great selection of foods and other goodies. Indonesian-style shrimp chips? Check. Daun pandan and daun salam? (These are herbal leaves that are all but impossible to find in the States and completely impossible to find fresh). Check. Smoked garlic cloves? Check. (And they’re amazing.) Wine shop? Check. An approximation of Javanese palm sugar? They had that, too, and just when I thought I’d have to settle for plain brown sugar in my recipes. So I was like a kid in a candy store as I was going through their huge produce section, but the best surprise was saved for the end. We emerged from an aisle and there, isolated in the corner of the store, was a small shop, set apart behind glass and doors with a massive sign overhead that read “Tidak Halal.” Jamie saw my transfixed gaze and said, “Tidak halal means…” but I cut him off. “I know exactly what it means!” I said in a happy stupor and pushed my trolley hypnotically to the entrance. “Halal” is the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish word “kosher.” It simply means food that’s 100% permissible to eat under Muslim law. “Tidak” is the negative, meaning “no” or “not.” You can put it together. To me, it meant one thing: PORK. I wandered in.

It was a pig’s worst nightmare. Fresh sausage links hanging in the finest German tradition. Bacon. Pork chops. Tenderloins. A deli counter with six kinds of ham, along with mortadella and sopressata. I had already resigned myself after three failed attempts elsewhere to find anything resembling lunch meat that sandwiches were more or less a Western convention and I’d just have to live without them, a sad prospect seeing as how a loaf of fresh bread here costs about 35 cents. So I happily ordered up 300 grams of smoked ham (adapting to metrics will take some time – it’s about 2/3rds of a pound), got a package of sukiyaki (very thin-sliced pork loin that I pan-fry and stir into rice and veggie dishes), and left happy.

No pork and no alcohol. What kind of a religion is this? Ha ha. (Actually, many of the Muslims I know happily ignore the “no alcohol” part.) Cheese is almost prohibitively expensive here (the cheapest I've found is a basic white cheddar at about $9/lb.), but at least now I know I can still have bacon and eggs or a nice ham sandwich when I want them. All is well.

I had a job interview Tuesday afternoon. It was in Damansara Perdana, which is a fair distance from where I am in Bukit Antarabangsa… about 30 minutes by car. Jamie ordered a cab for me, and they picked me up here and delivered me to the IKEA store which is near the school. Apparently, IKEA is a huge landmark here because everyone knows it. It’s a trendy European furniture store – we have them in the States, but I think it’s more prevalent in Europe and Asia. So I wandered around there until it was time for my interview. I just wanted to make sure I got there plenty early. Interestingly, unlike the US, free WiFi is available nearly everywhere you go here -- restaurants, all coffee shops, McDonald's, etc. -- it's been very uncommon for me to open up my laptop and not be able to find a free WiFi signal. So I took my laptop and sat at a Starbucks (yes, they're everywhere) and surfed the web while I waited.

The interview went really well. The center is run by an Irish expatriate and his wife, who is a Chinese Malaysian. One thing I've learned rapidly is the difference between ethnicity and nationality. Malaysian here means nationality only: a citizen of Malaysia. Chinese, on the other hand, can mean a citizen of China, or a person of Chinese descent, so the terms used here are either ethnic Chinese or Chinese Malaysian. The word Malay is used to indicate ethnicity.

So anyway, the three of us talked for awhile, I got a tour of the facility, and they offered me a full-time post teaching there. The pay is not fantastic, but more than enough to live on here. I wouldn't go in until 10 a.m., which is nice because I can avoid the early morning traffic here. There are no benefits, but healthcare here isn't the nightmare that it is in the States. The wife told me she was recently sick and went to the doctor and the entire visit -- office visit, transport, and her prescription -- was under US$20. She said something about a ride or transport, so I guess they fetched her and then took her back home, but I'll need to clarify that. Or maybe she meant it was a house call, which is probably more likely. Malaysia is a developed nation, and healthcare here, although not as advanced as it is in Singapore (which sets the standard for all of SE Asia), is still quite good. So I'm not too fussed about having "no insurance." It's just not the same mentality as back home... you get sick, you go to the doctor. If you get really sick, or injured, you go to the hospital and they'll treat you. There is plenty of time off -- about seven weeks a year built into the schedule, including a nice three-week block in mid-December through early January, and personal/vacation time off as well.

Interestingly, the work visa choice is up to me. I've talked to expat teachers here who have lived and worked here for years without ever getting a work permit. A social visa here in Malaysia is granted on entry for 90 days and, unlike the visas of many countries, work is not specifically prohibited by its terms of issue. So they just work and get paid "under the table," and make "visa runs" every 90 days, typically scooting down to Singapore or up to Thailand and then reentering Malaysia. So you're not breaking any rules, not violating the terms of the social visa, and you're free from paying income tax. The downside for me would be that, although I'd be paid in tax-free cash, I'd still have to figure out a way to get some of it back to my stateside bank account. One option would be to just squirrel money away and then go to a local bank periodically (say, every two months) and give them the cash and do an ACH wire transfer to my US bank account. The charge is fairly minimal -- about US$5 or so. I told the directors at the center that I'd let them know (about accepting their employment offer or not) by the end of the week.

I have also taken advantage of an opportunity to do some tutoring for a Korean student who is trying to get into an international school here. Students have to be at a certain proficiency level in English before they are accepted into these prestigious schools (which have exorbitant tuitions and also happen to be the best paymasters for English teachers), so wealthy Asian families tend to pay quite well to have their kids tutored privately. (Tutoring about five hours a week will pay me more than enough to meet my housing expense here.)

I am going to meet with the student and his father early this evening, and start the lessons. After the kid begins at his new school, I will still stay on as his tutor, meeting with him three times a week. They live in a condo with his dad in KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre, where the Petronas Towers are), which is about 15-20 minutes from me. It seems increasingly apparent that I’m either going to need to move to a place convenient to public transit lines or get a car. KL, unlike most Asian cities, is exceptionally car-dependent. They have a very good public transit system – light rail, a monorail, buses, etc. – but it’s not comprehensive beyond a certain area.

I've also been given a contact at one of the local colleges here in the suburb of Subang Jaya. They're looking for an EFL teacher and since I have a personal contact, it makes it that much easier to get in the door. I'll be calling them today.

Finally, I have a chance to get on board with a “grass-roots” style English learning center headed up by an American woman who has lived here in KL for six years. She has more students than she has teachers to handle them, so I’ll be meeting with her next Monday, but her background is in special education, and I think her students are special-needs kids, which isn't really my strong suit at all, so I seriously doubt I'll pursue that. All the same, though doors continue to open here, and nearly everything is done on a personal basis, it seems. People know someone who knows someone else who is acquainted with a person looking for an English teacher, or something like that. I’ve looked at job sites, but all of these opportunities, as well as the one offer I got from a university here (and didn’t accept), have come from personal contacts.

Next step: Get a car!!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

So good it Hertz

You know, on some things, America gets it right. Like driving, for instance. A solid majority of countries drive on the right side of the road, and so do we. The UK screwed it up for the rest of the world, though... nearly every country where they had any influence -- and that's a lot of places -- tends to drive on the left.

But on many, many things, like electricity, technology, conservation, and a couple of recent presidential elections, we just get it wrong, wrong, wrong.

The vast majority of countries use 220v electricity, but for whatever reason, we don't (except for things like stoves and dryers and such). We use 110v, and not only that, the cycles per second (Hertz) varies, too. We're at 60Hz, and most countries using 220v are at 50Hz, so for some things, simply regulating the voltage won't do. I'm no electrician, so most of this stuff sails over my head, but the end result is that just because you have a voltage converter to change the 220v to 110v, the frequency difference can still render some devices inoperable. Most of the things I brought over to Malaysia with me (which drives on the left and uses 220v/50Hz) are dual-voltage and modulate both the voltage and frequency automatically. Laptop computer power supply, iPod wall charger, shaver, etc. -- all dual-voltage. However, my little bookshelf stereo that I brought is 120v only, so I use the voltage converter with it, so I was happy that it worked properly despite the difference in cycles. I guess you can't call it a "stereo" though, since one of the speakers was in the doomed suitcase and summarily reduced to rubble in the Southwest baggage fiasco. So buying a new pair of speakers here is on my list of things to do.

Bored yet? All this talk of voltage and Hertz is pretty dry stuff.

What else do they get right here that we don't? Look at this:

Their money not only has a different color for each denomination, it's sized according to value as well. Same with their coins (5, 10, 20, and 50) -- the larger the coin, the higher the value.

Some things here I've found baffling. In a grocery store, for instance, you take all your produce to a checker in the produce department who weighs it and puts a UPC sticker on it. This is different, but probably wise, as it speeds up the checkout process when you leave the store. They do the same at the seafood and meat counters, too.

Probably my favorite thing in Asia is the mini-split air-conditioning systems. Why these are not mass-produced in America is beyond me. They're much more efficient and quiet than window A/C units, and less wasteful than central A/C. The concept is basically a smaller scale version of central A/C. The slim, remote-controlled air handling unit is mounted inside, typically over a window or door. A small (2-3") hole is bored through the wall for the ducting hose, and the small suitcase-sized compressor unit is mounted outside. It's brilliant. They're also quite inexpensive here -- a typical unit capable of cooling a medium-sized room, runs well under $200. Fancier units with more cooling capacity are between $300-400.

Finally, the toilets here have two buttons on the top of the tank for flushing. One for solid waste, one for liquid. Now, this just makes a lot of sense... and it begs the question, why don't we have these in the US? Again, they're available there, but have never been mass-produced so they're very expensive, of course. For years, all we churned out were toilets that used about six gallons of water per flush. Why? I can only surmise we take some sort of decadent, misguided pride in our ability to waste resources or something. Cars here have small fuel-efficient engines... sure, they can only go about 110 mph for their top speed, and they're not going to win any acceleration drag races, but the average commuter doesn't really need a 300 Hp three-liter V6 with a 170-mph top speed. I've been driven around here in perfectly fine cars that are nicely appointed, have airbags, etc., and tiny little gerbil-powered engines, and they get 40-50 mpg. We drive inefficient cars, flush inefficient toilets (or at least we did until the new crop of water-saving toilets hit the market), and use wildly inefficient air conditioners.

Not sure if there's a point to all this rambling... just observing some differences and wondering why America doesn't try to be less wasteful.

Hypermarkets. Yeah, aptly named.

"Water, sugar, peach juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, and vitamin C."

So reads the ingredient label on a cheap six-pack of juice boxes I bought here at the store yesterday. No additives, odd chemicals, preservative, and no freaking high-fructose corn syrup. I consciously tried to avoid HFCS in the States, but the stuff is insidious. In everything from crackers to soft drinks, you'll see it.

My "housemate" (the friend here with whom I'm staying) and I went to the Carrefour store nearby. It's a French-based company with locations all over the place, and it's called a hypermarket, a huge shopping edifice that shames any Super Wal-Mart in size. It's the same philosophy, though. I've been to the Carrefours in Bali and Jogjakarta, Indonesia, but hadn't yet visited one in Malaysia.

My conclusion? The weekend is not the optimal time to go to a hypermarket.

My god... there were hundreds of people there, a veritable tsunami of Malaysians jam-packed into the aisles and around the produce, seafood, meat market, etc. We were there for about two exhausting hours... it will take some time for the novelty of being in a different country to wear off, but for now, I still convert prices to dollars and occasionally marvel at the vast price differences. I bought a bag of medium-sized shrimp so I could make dinner (mind you, there are no headless shrimp sold here... that's an American luxury, so I spent ten minutes before dinner beheading a bowlful of shrimp). The cost was about RM9 per kilo, which works out to just a bit over a dollar a pound. For shrimp. I bought a basketful of stuff -- produce, seafood, spices, oils, some plastic containers, etc. -- and the total came to about RM55, barely $16. I also bought a Philips blender thing, this 3-in-1 device that has a blender, a food chopper, and a juicer. It was on "promosi" for RM99, which is just under $29. I need it to grind spices and make sauces.

So for now, the cost of living here is a bit of a novelty, and although not everything is cheaper here, most things are, and I'm constantly comparing in my mind. I suspect (and hope) that tendency will fade away in time. Sometimes, the comparison is unwarranted, too. I was getting a package of buffalo meat, and was surprised at the low price, as usual, since buffalo in the States is pretty spendy. However, what we call buffalo is actually bison, not buffalo at all. Here, it's real buffalo, as in Indian water buffalo. I'll be sure to report back later and let you know how the meatballs I'm making with it turn out.

Here's the view from where I'm living now, taken this morning a bit before sunrise:

Not bad, huh? I'm in the northeastern part of greater KL, in a large suburb called Ampang. The more specific area is called Bukit Antarabangsa, which, literally translated, means "international hill." Don't ask me why. I'm definitely on a big hill (and on the 7th floor, to boot, hence the great view), but I don't understand the "international" part. There's a Bukit Nanas preserve in the middle of KL, which means "pineapple hill," but I didn't see any pineapples there. I suppose it's not much different than Denver -- think about it: have you ever seen any hills or cherry trees in Cherry Hills?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

From somewhere over the Pacific...

I’m currently sitting in seat 63A on a Boeing 747-400 en route to Hong Kong. It’s about 3:10 a.m. Denver time, and we’ve been airborne now for about fifteen minutes. So far, to say it’s been an adventure would be a grand understatement… “fiasco” would be a better word.

I flew Southwest Airlines for the first time on the Denver to Los Angeles leg. With unassigned seating and an odd boarding process, they still manage to load a plane in short order, but our flight departed right at an hour late. I had a 3 1/2-hour layover in L.A., though, so I wasn’t worried at all. Frankly, the less time I spend in LAX, the better. I must say, though, Terminal 1 there, where Southwest’s gates are, is much nicer than the other domestic terminals.

One of the big reasons I chose Southwest for my domestic leg is their policy of allowing two checked bags free of charge, and $25 for the third. This is much better than any other U.S. airline, plus, Southwest allows ticket changes without a penalty charge. So I checked my three bags and slept on nearly the whole flight. When I got to LAX baggage claim, two of my three bags arrived intact. The third, however, was completely destroyed. In all the countless flights I’ve taken worldwide, I have never, ever seen a bag so maimed. Needless to say, many of the contents inside were destroyed as well . All my snorkeling gear was completely gone. The pictures I snapped barely do justice to the damage this suitcase suffered. It looks like it got caught in some serious machinery and just got ripped, torn, and apparently friction-burned (the zipper was actually fused together and some of the nylon and plastic pieces were deformed). The jeans I had inside were similarly mangled. It goes without saying that I filed a claim. I think I was too tired to be particularly upset; after all, they’re just things, none of which were irreplaceable, and I expect Southwest will compensate me well. They provided me with a brand-new suitcase to replace the dead one, and there’s no question the new bag is in an entirely different league from the one that was destroyed, which was cheap to begin with, and probably about fifteen years old. So I figure I’ll ultimately come out okay on this. I even got a trolley provided free of charge (they’re normally $3.00 to rent – free at every airport in Asia, I might add), so I loaded up my pile of luggage and made my way to the international terminal.

Now one of the reasons I despise LAX so much is that its many terminals are in this massive, horseshoe-shaped building. Anytime you transfer from a domestic flight to an international one (which is a substantial percentage of flights there, I would suspect), you have to actually leave the building and walk outside for a considerable distance. This time, it was about a ten-minute walk to the international terminal, which is undergoing a much-needed renovation, so the whole thing is a gigantic mess.

I finally managed to make my way to the Cathay Pacific counters, where I was told by the two ladies at the counter that my third bag would cost a jaw-dropping $110 extra to fly to KL. I sweet-talked the agents a bit and told my sad tale of Southwest baggage-eating woe, and somehow, they said they’d waive the fee. So I got a very nice new suitcase and saved $110 out of the deal, and Southwest will doubtlessly wind up paying me a few hundred dollars for the ruined contents of my luggage. It’s made for a very interesting beginning to this adventure, to be sure. The counter agent also told me that my “hand carry” luggage was much too heavy. My bag weighed about 16 or 17 kg and they only allow a paltry 7 kg for economy class passengers, which is about 15 pounds. That’s insane… the carry-on bag itself probably weighs 5-6 pounds. So I rearranged a few things, put some things in my checked bags, and got it down to 11 kg and they continued to take pity on me and let me go.

When I boarded the plane, I was really happy to see that it’s one of the planes with Cathay Pacific’s newly refurbished interiors. The seats are in hard plastic “shells,” so when you recline, the shell stays fixed, but the seating part slides and reclines, so you never have the person in front of you crashing back into your lap. It’s brilliant. They also have these massive LCD personal displays in each seat and on-demand movies and such, so it’s like watching a DVD where you can pause, rewind, etc., rather than just watching what they play and when they play it. It’s really nice, and the seat even has a power outlet so I can use my laptop for longer than two hours – exceptionally rare to have an AC outlet in economy class!

They’re about to serve a light supper, then they’ll turn off the cabin lights and everyone will pass out. For my dinner, I’ll be having smoked salmon with potato salad, stir-fried beef with oyster sauce, steamed rice, and mixed vegetables, bread and butter, tea, and strawberry cheesecake for dessert (this is all from the menu). They also offer complimentary wine and spirits, so I’ll have some wine with the meal as well, a 2005 El Benteveo Malbec from Argentina. Our airlines in America could learn a lot from the Asian carriers!

Time to eat and then get some more sleep. More later!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Last minutes in Denver

DIA is easily one of the nicest airports in North America. That's where I am now, eating a snack and waiting for my flight to board.

Today was the expected flurry of activity, but it all went off really well. I even got to get on the roof of my house in a light rain and spread asphalt patching compound all over the place to stop a bit of leaking over the back porch, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds. Isn't that what everyone does a few hours before an international flight?

My flight to Los Angeles is delayed 45 minutes, so I'm able to sit in a little cubicle and eat and play on my laptop. DIA has free WiFi, one of not many airports in the U.S. to offer it, so it helps pass the time! The next stop will be a bit of a hassle, I'm sure... I have to claim my three checked bags (which weigh a combined 140-145 lbs.) and get a trolley, then leave the domestic terminal, go outside and take about a five-minute walk to the international terminal, and get my baggage checked with Cathay Pacific. After that, however, I won't have to deal with it again until I arrive in KL, which should be about 12:30 pm local time on Friday (10:30 pm on Thursday in Colorado). It's about a 26-hour journey, which -- considering it's nearly 10,000 miles -- really isn't too bad.

I'm told there are only 50 people on the Southwest flight to LAX, which is great (the plane seats about 130, I think). I'm exhausted so I expect to be drifting off before we even take off. See how tired I look??

All my bags are packed...

1:30 in the morning... is anyone surprised? I was delusional to think I could pack for a cross-global move with two checked bags, a carry-on, and a laptop case. I did manage to cull some of the things I figured I'd take and shoehorn it all into three checked bags that will test how strict the weight limit is on the two airlines I'll be flying to get to Kuala Lumpur.

So my house of ten years has been emptied, repaired as necessary, and cleaned (mostly by my longsuffering mother) and duly leased out for the next year. So as of now, I'm homeless, and in about 17 hours, I'll be boarding a Southwest flight to Los Angeles, where I'll pick up a very late-night flight on Cathay Pacific, fly about 15 hours to Hong Kong, then change planes and fly the final 3.5 hours or so down to Kuala Lumpur, hereafter called KL. As you read in this blog, feel free to add comments or ask questions using the link at the bottom of each entry.

For a quick and dirty primer on KL, read here.

In the photo: Malaysia's iconic Petronas Towers, at nearly 1,500 feet high, the tallest buildings in the world from the time of their construction in 1998 until eclipsed by Taipei 101 in 2004, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The towers are still the tallest twin towers in the world. I took this photo during my visit in March 2008.

I'll write more later, probably while I'm languishing in LAX, the crappiest major airport in this country. So begins the next great adventure!