Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Home may be where the heart is...

...but it's sure not where the Malaysians are. My goodness, these people just refuse to go home and stay there. It doesn't matter what time of day or what day of the week, there is a veritable hornets' nest of traffic almost everywhere. "Hey honey, let's get in the car and go sit in traffic. I know we don't have anywhere to actually go, but hey, we've got a perfectly good car, so we might as well use it and drive around!"

You expect it at rush hour, or at the mall on a Saturday, but I've been in gridlock at 9:30 p.m. on a Monday, in heavy traffic on the highway at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and even surrounded by cars at 3 in the morning. It just doesn't matter. When it comes to traffic in KL, there's really no "good," only varying degrees of "bad." I know I've carried on about it in past posts, but I can't overstate how maddening the traffic here can be at times. I tried to go to a new supermarket near my condo at 8 p.m. on a Monday. It was a 40-minute odyssey and this place is quite literally less than two miles away. This picture, taken from a monorail station, shows a fairly normal traffic jam. (Note the opposite side, going towards the top of the photo; the nearer side is clear because of a red light a hundred meters back.) Malaysians just don't like to stay home. Eating out is a national pastime here, and it's often easier (and cheaper) to eat out than to cook at home, and about the only thing more popular than eating is shopping, so I figure most of them are either going to shop or eat, or maybe just to enjoy the wondrous experience of creeping along at 5 mph in a blizzard of 5,000 other cars on the highway. I'm told that oftentimes, on weekends especially, Malaysians will go to the malls here not so much to shop or buy things, but just to enjoy the free air conditioning. I'm not sure if that's actually the case, but I suppose it makes sense. Running the A/C units in one's home for hours on end can add quite a bit to the month's energy bill, but it only costs ten ringgits to pile the kids in the car and go spend a few hours at the mall.

Parking is a problem of near-epic proportions in KL. The general idea seems to be "park wherever you can fit your car." It's such a major issue here that double-parked cars are all in a normal day's business, and companies here actually make pre-printed signs that you can buy for your dashboard: "Sorry to inconvenience you. Kindly call (write your handphone number here) to have car moved." So if you double park, you just throw that on your dash and go about your business. If you're the one barricaded in your spot by a double-parked car and wish to leave, and there is no phone number provided (or if you call the number and get no answer), the accepted practice is to simply get in your car and lay on the horn until the person comes out to move the car. Presumably, when you hear honking, if you’ve double parked, you are expected to scurry out and see if your car happens to be the one causing the problem. I'm at work now, on my break, and this is actually happening as I type. Someone is trying to leave, so they're just honking until they get satisfaction.

The vast majority of illegal parking goes unnoticed and unpunished. However, it’s not always so tidy. There are two entities that can ticket you for parking infractions here. One is the local council of the area where you park. These tickets are usually shrugged off with complete impunity. There is no penalty for not paying these tickets, and from what I’m told, no real expectation that anyone will pay them. If you actually take it to pay the fine, you're greeted with surprise and skepticism. "You're here to pay your ticket? Really? Hmmm. Okay, well thanks, I guess." Curiously, however, if you do show up to pay, you get a discount to go along with their thanks. The other entity who can ticket your car is the actual police, and supposedly you have to pay those, but it seems very random as to whether the tickets actually get entered or not. I’ve talked to people who have gotten tickets, tried to look up their summonses online or go to pay them, only to be told, “No, there’s no ticket issued, no problem here.” So you can see why there’s little to dissuade people from just parking anywhere and any way they damn well please. :)

And how about this picture?? Look carefully. Did I ever in my wildest dreams think I'd see a "University of Denver" decal on a car in Malaysia? No, I did not. --->

Despite the perpetual 88-degree days, the calendar assures me it's December, so that must mean Christmas is coming soon. I've been asked a lot whether or not people here celebrate Christmas, and while the answer is somewhat ambiguous (it's recognized and observed, and is in fact a national holiday, but not truly celebrated like it is in the U.S.), there can be no doubt that the malls celebrate it with every bit as much fervor as those in the States. I've asked my students, and the answer is usually more of a shrug than anything, which to me means, "Not really." Some of them have trees up in their houses, but not many. This picture is one of the displays at a massive mall called Berjaya Times Square. There are eleven floors of retail therapy to be found in this behemoth edifice, along with a roller coaster, a movie theater, and all sorts of other craziness, and if that isn't enough to pop your eyes right out of their sockets, get this: A Papa John's pizza is about to open there. Seriously. I believe it's the first in Malaysia and will almost certainly be as tragically pork-free as the pies served at Pizza Hut and Domino's. (Yep, both of those are here, too.) At some point while I'm here, I plan to make a list of all the American companies who have pitched their tents in KL. The list is really amazing. You expect McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks... but Borders bookstore? Chili's? TGI Fridays?? Ace Hardware? Yup... they're all here, as are many, many more. I'll write a whole entry about it at some point, I'm sure, but the simple truth is that that America has exported so much of itself to KL (television series, radio programs, restaurants, shops, etc.), there are many days where I really don't feel that I've moved to a foreign country at all, but rather just changed cities.

And then I get my energy bill which doesn't have a single word of English on the entire thing, reminding me that, even though there's a Burger King down the street, this isn't America. The bill I got was my first full-month's bill, too. I got one last month, but it really didn't count so much since I moved in on October 5th, then was in Jakarta for five or six days, too... so it was for October, but not the full month. This one was for the entire month of November, and it came to a grand total of RM67.40, as you can see here. That's about $18.50 at the current exchange rate. Quite cheap, but I'm pretty judicious about the use of my air conditioners... there are four in my condo, but mostly, I just use the one in my bedroom when I sleep, setting it at 23°C (73.4°F), which keeps the room very pleasant. Otherwise, I'll typically turn on the air-con in whatever room I'm in, let it run for 30-40 minutes, then turn it off and let the room fan circulate the cool air, and that's plenty good enough. I had initially budgeted over twice that amount for the energy bill, so this was a really pleasant surprise! Don't even get me started bragging about the water and sewer bill, which was a whopping RM7.60 for the month. Seriously... it's like $2.00.

Take a look at this... another genuine Malaysian oddity (although it's rather common in Indonesia, too). This is a "to-go" beverage. "Hi, could I get an iced coffee in a bag to go, please? Thanks." It's really quite handy, and the red tie around it is looped and holds very tightly, so you can just carry it by the "handle." It's easy to get every last drop out, and this beverage isn't really coffee, but a popular NestlĂ©-made drink called "Milo" — a mocha-malt sort of beverage. It's quite good, and I've gotten rapidly accustomed to getting my drinks in a baggie. I'm not sure if it's better or worse than a waxed paper cup, from either a convenience or ecological standpoint... I think it's just different. And that was really the whole point of this move, wasn't it?

So I have to report here that I got my first Christmas card—indeed, my first piece of actual mail addressed specifically to me—from one of my family members. My mother's aunt, Patsy, sent me a card from Illinois. The envelope was postmarked November 22nd in St. Louis and it arrived in my mailbox here on December 2nd. Ten days to get here, literally the other side of the planet. I think that's pretty good! So thanks, Aunt Patsy, for being the first to send me anything here! :)


Kate said...

Your observations on heavy traffic remind me of living in NYC, where traffic is omnipresent. But due to its public transportation system, there seemed to be just as much or more foot as auto traffic in New York. I don't see heavy foot traffic in your KL photo's. Is that because fuel is cheaper in Malyasia, or is the city more spread out? Really enjoy your blog - Thanks! Kate

Chad M. said...

Actually, fuel is currently cheaper in the U.S. than here, which is baffling. At the current exchange rates, the equivalent here is about US$1.92 a gallon. Malaysia is an oil-producing country, so with oil going for about 30% of what it traded at six months ago, that naturally benefits oil-IMPORTING countries (like America) more so than it does oil exporters. Regardless of economic logic, however, people here are not amused, even though the price has dropped from RM2.55 a liter three months ago to RM1.85 a liter now.

KL is actually quite compact despite the vast beehive of roads. It's not nearly as sprawling as a city like Jakarta or Los Angeles or anything. Even though I actually live in a different city (Petaling Jaya), as the crow flies, I'm only 5 miles from the Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of KL.

The real reason people don't walk here is primarily the heat and humidity. After ten minutes, you're just a sweaty mess. The secondary reason is that KL isn't remotely a pedestrian-friendly city. Quite unlike most Asian cities, KL is very car-centric. Public transit is not as comprehensive as in places like Singapore or Seoul, and Malaysians just loooooove to drive. :)

Pkr said...

Yes, yes. Double-parking, or even the legendary triple-parking... The common scenes you will observe in cities like KL and PJ.

And exactly like you mentioned, people just park wherever will fit their cars. Oh come on, it is alright if you're driving a Smart For Two, but not when you're driving a SUV or truck.