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.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Fascinating! I am really enjoying following your adventure through your blog entries. Thanks!