Friday, August 28, 2009

Slices, The Sequel... "And Dim Sum More"

Lots of things are happening around here lately...

First, it's Ramadan again. What's kind of interesting to me is that pretty much no one here calls it that, though. It's always just referred to as the "fasting month." Ramadan follows a lunar calendar so it's at a different time each year. This year, the Malaysian Independence Day (August 31) falls during Ramadan. I don't think it makes either one any more special, but it's a somewhat unusual occurrence. (Click on this picture I took from my car at the intersection of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan P. Ramlee near the center of KL. There are a few things that stand out to me: The Malaysian flag all over the place, the women wearing headscarves on the left, the almost surreal amount of trees and foliage at a fairly major intersection, and—of course—the ever-present traffic.) Ramadan itself throws the whole city into a very different rhythm because Muslims can't eat or drink during the day. So the food courts and stalls are not at all crowded during lunch, but after the evening call to prayer (usually around 7:30, but it varies a bit), there's a palpable buzz in the city as nearly half the population prepares to eat, then all at once, hundreds of thousands of Malays (mostly) descend ravenously on restaurants and food stalls throughout the city. Try getting a seat at virtually any place at 8 p.m. and you'll be out of luck. A lot of the hotels and nicer places have nightly "buka puasa" (breaking the fast) buffets. I've read studies that suggest that many followers actually gain weight during Ramadan since they fast all day then basically gorge themselves in that one evening meal. In any case, even though it's only the Malays (and a minority of Indians and other non-Malays) who observe it, Ramadan affects the entire rhythm of KL for a month. For me, only experiencing it for the second time, it's pretty interesting.

In my neighborhood, there's some construction going on (as always) -- Since my car was in the shop, I took my camera and walked down to the village. It's not at all uncommon to see cars like this with a sheaf of parking tickets stuck under the wiper. It always makes me kind of chuckle for some reason. So here in Damansara Perdana, the big PJ Trade Center is nearing completion and three new condo blocks are going up. Each of them is an offshoot of an existing development, but only one is being built on the same site as its predecessor (Metropolitan Square). One, which I've mentioned here before, is Armanee Terrace II, and its site is adjacent to the existing development, which is just mammoth. The other is something called Ritze Perdana II, which is on a different site completely from the original. I looked at an apartment at the Ritze. (Note the extra "e" on the end... that tells you it's really fancy) It was barely over 400 square feet and they wanted RM1800 a month, so it was a very short visit. My days of living in micro-studio apartments are solidly behind me. In any event, here are some shots from around the neighborhood. The sky was threatening that day, so I took my umbrella with me, and sure enough, as I was walking back home, it started pouring. It was a wind-driven rain, though, so the umbrella didn't do much good. By the time I got back home, my shirt was only somewhat damp, but my jeans (from about mid-thigh down), socks, and shoes were totally soaked. Rainstorms are becoming noticeably more frequent in the last couple of weeks, so it would seem we're making the transition back to the rainy season. The picture is from my condo, but it doesn't nearly do justice to how hard it had been raining five minutes earlier.

The project I'm most excited about, though, is one that's sorely overdue. A proper intersection is going in at the junction of two perpendicular streets. Damansara Perdana is quite small, as KL suburbs go, and there's only one main road into the village and it's not a through street. It dead-ends by my condo, actually. But as you go to leave the area, there's a road to the right that leads to Ikea, The Curve, Tesco, and all sorts of other eating and shopping places. But you can't turn! They've halfheartedly barricaded the junction with poles and such (see the photo), and so everyone has to drive clear down to the main interchange and do a U-turn, then drive up the hill and turn left. Again, words—and even photos—are really insufficient to truly convey the stupidity of this system. But now, with the construction of some new office blocks, it seems they finally saw the need for building an actual, proper intersection. They've cut in what will be some turn lanes, added new curbs as necessary, widened the roadway itself in a couple of places, and presumably will put in a traffic light or four. Better late than never, I guess, and as I think about it, this will be Damansara Perdana's first traffic light. (Others nearby are actually in Mutiara Damansara.)

In food news, because you know there has to be some of that, one of my friends introduced me to this great restaurant in Petaling Jaya, not too far from where I live. Everytime he talks to me, he carries on about some restaurant he has to take me to. I tease him and tell him his whole life revolves around food... but that's as close a thing to a national passion as Malaysia has, and I'm rather fond of good food, too, so everybody's happy. Anyway, we go to this place called Imperial Garden for dim sum... not only is the food great, but as it's on the 7th floor of a building, the views are pretty decent, too. I'm a big fan of dim sum, especially the shrimp dumplings. Even as we're eating, my friend is talking about other food and other restaurants I have to try. It's almost comical how much Malaysians love to not only eat, but talk about eating!

I'm going back to America in two weeks' time for a short visit. I'm really excited about going back, and September is my favorite time of year in Colorado... that wonderful period of transition between summer and winter. The aspen leaves in the Rockies usually hit their peak of color in the third week of September, so I should be there just at the right time. I have been compiling a veritable laundry list of things to bring back with me, too... after nearly a year here in KL (September 5th is my one-year anniversary), I'm starting to miss some of the things I never gave much thought at all when I lived in Denver. Isn't that always the way? It's usually the ill-noticed, mundane things we miss the most.

I'm doing something I thought I'd never do, though, and that's taking a U.S. airline on a trans-Pacific flight. On my numerous trips to Asia and back, I've always stuck with airlines known for quality and service, namely Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and Malaysia Airlines, all five-star airlines. America does a lot of things really well, but air travel is not one of them, so I was loathe to fly with an American carrier for that long a flight. However, I found a really good deal on Northwest (US$850 round-trip to Denver... usually it's at least $950-1,100 even to the West Coast), and the price difference between that flight and one on a good airline was large enough to make me bite the bullet. If it's nearly as abysmal an experience as I think it might be, I won't do it again... I'll pony up the money. I do get to fly Malaysia Airlines down to Singapore, at least, but that's only an hour's flight. From there, it's Northwest Sucky Airlines up to Tokyo (7.5 hours), then across the Arctic to Minneapolis (11 hours), then a short two-hour hop from there to Denver. This picture pretty much sums up my opinion of Northwest.

Anyway, my mechanic (whose name is Sim) has informed me that, after about three weeks, my car is finally ready. It has a replacement engine and everything works again. I also had him do some other routine maintenance and also replace the clutch since everything was already disassembled. The total cost for the engine, its transport from another state, and all the labor was a measly RM1200 (less than US$340), which is positively amazing to me. I'll be happy to have my car back! I'm so grateful to Sim for letting me use his car in the meantime, but it's a 27-year-old Nissan Sunny, so it's over twice as old as my Proton and as much as I like to demean my little car, it's actually pretty decent, and it's in good condition overall.

I picked up my car a few hours ago and so far, so good... the new engine actually runs better than the old one did. I tried to give the mechanic some extra money for letting me use his car, but he wouldn't take it... he kept saying, "No no, too much! It's too much!" I did finally convince him to take the change from paying the bill, which was only RM35 ($10). What a nice guy. Here's a picture of all three of the guys who worked on my car. Sim's the one on the right.

So a couple of nights ago, around midnight, I smelled smoke so I went out on my balcony. There, literally in the middle of the road at the dead end was a massive, smoldering bonfire. (Well, really not much fire, just a lot of smoke, so I guess more of a "bonsmoke.") I didn't know what was going on, but there were a few Chinese people milling around. A couple of ladies were sitting on the curb, somberly burning things. I didn't know what they were burning, and I couldn't really see much at all properly because of the trees, but if it was a party, it was a pretty dull one... they weren't making much noise at all. They were wrapping up, but as they left, I saw all the litter, and the fire was left to burn itself out. I was not amused so I got my camera and went downstairs with the idea of photographing this mess and showing the pictures to the property management company later, asking them why they were paying our security company RM30,000 a month if they're just going to let people do these things right in front of the condo! When I got down to the street, I just got more confused... there were full containers of food left here and there, fruit, beers, sodas, and lots of candles, incense sticks, and little Chinese flags stuck in the ground. I saw that the fire had mostly died out by then, snapped my pictures, and headed back upstairs, quite baffled and still a little annoyed. (It was a huge mess... and what a waste of perfectly good beer!)

Well, the next day, I found out that it was all part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. In Chinese tradition, the living pay respects to (and feed) their deceased ancestors during this time. The seventh lunar month is regarded as "Ghost Month," and the fifteenth day of that month is Ghost Day. So the full containers of food and beer and such were left to feed the ghosts of dead ancestors. Well, I'm just so glad I didn't go down there with a garbage bag in hand! The fire and a lot of the litter was owing to joss paper, a sort of "spirit money" that is burned to give the dead ancestors some money to spend in the afterlife. A good article on this fascinating tradition can be found here. For some reason, after learning about all this, that photo of the three cartons of food, all neatly lined up, spoons arranged in formation... opened and ready for the ghosts to enjoy... I don't know, it's all just a bit creepy, isn't it?

Okay, let me get some photos thrown into this mess of an entry and get it posted! More about the upcoming mooncake festival and my one-year anniversary in Malaysia to come soon!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Slices of Malaysia Living

And greetings once again from the tropical jungle we call Damansara Perdana. This photo was taken by me on a stroll around my neighborhood the other day. I love it.

Really not much to report, so I thought I'd just throw together a little compendium of life here as I approach the one-year mark of my time in Malaysia. Although it's predictably hard to believe a year has gone by so quickly (don't they all?), it's frankly disturbing how fast 2009 is zipping by. The last six months in particular have just been a blur.

Currently my little car is in the shop again with its second fairly major problem in a year's time. I noticed some coolant leaking from it and the temperature light came on, so my initial thought was that there was a leak somewhere in the coolant system. Well, there was, in a manner of speaking... but tragically, the leak was actually a small crack in the engine block (basically the bottom half of an engine for the non-mechanically inclined among us). Under the high pressure present in an internal combustion engine (seen here in happier and fully assembled times), the coolant that normally circulates through the engine was being forced out through this small crack in the fatigued metal. Now, a cracked block is a pretty serious matter, one that usually involves replacing the block. This crack is very small, however, so there is some faint hope that the crack can be arc-welded and sealed. They tried doing a straightforward flame weld but that only melted the alloy around the crack. Arc welding uses a strong electric current to coalesce the metals at the point desired. They'll use argon as a shielding gas, since oxygen obviously encourages combustion. This is all well and good, but unfortunately, it means longer down time for my car. They actually have to disassemble my engine and send the block to the welding shop so that it can be arc-welded from the inside. The only reason it's not cheaper to just find a dead Proton Tiara somewhere and scavenge its engine block is that labor here is very inexpensive. Something along these lines would be completely cost-prohibitive in America. Amazingly, though, my saintly mechanic has given me his car to use as long as mine is languishing at his shop. I couldn't believe it, but he insisted it was fine, he could ride a motorbike. I need hardly mention that this would never, ever happen in America unless you were a dear, personal friend of the mechanic already. And even then it would be questionable.

Now, lest you think everything about Malaysians is sunshine and roses, permit me to gently disabuse you of that notion. Take littering, for example. The tendency of Malaysians to discard their rubbish with utter impunity is simply rampant. Obviously not everyone here does this, but anecdotal evidence has shown me that those who don't think twice about littering aren't exactly an endangered species here. Whether it's dropping cups and bags and wrappers and cartons wherever their usefulness to their owner has ended, or actually chucking entire bags of household garbage out of their car onto the side of the road (no exaggeration), littering is a real problem here. It's not even a matter of a lack of proper waste receptacles (although sometimes that's admittedly an issue), it's really just sheer laziness and disrespectfulness. I took this picture in the elevator lobby of my condo to really just drive the point home. I did not set this photo up in any way whatsoever. The damned garbage can is right there, yet someone couldn't be bothered to walk those four long steps to dispose of their trash properly. After snapping this picture and rolling my eyes, I threw the trash away. Unbelievable. But this is a real issue here and I don't know what people think happens to their bags of crap and styrofoam chicken rice containers and various other detritus when they just leave their rubbish on the sidewalk or in the landscaping. There are people whose job it is to sweep up and tidy the streets (at least in my neighborhood), so we're not awash in debris, but honestly, come on. Remember the big "Keep America Beautiful" campaign back in the late 70s or thereabouts? Apparently, Americans used to be litterbugs, too. Some doubtlessly still are, but if I saw a bag of trash being heaved out of a car on a highway in Colorado, I'd probably drive off the road in complete shock. I think it's safe to say that, at least in my home state, littering is very much the exception, not the rule.

The flip side of that coin is that, for all the thoughtlessness of littering that's on full display here in KL, graffiti is very uncommon. It's the exact opposite in Denver. No litter, tons of graffiti. I think I'd rather have KL's problem because you can teach people not to litter. It's a malleable social behavior. Although, to me, both littering and tagging show a callous disrespect for the greater society in which the offender lives, littering is usually borne of a degree of ignorance. The person simply doesn't know any better. They haven't been taught not to litter. Conversely, tagging is a conscious decision to vandalize something and is more of a crime that must be forcibly deterred. (Hello, Singapore caning!) Instances of tagging are seen around KL from time to time, but not on anywhere close to the same scale I've seen in American and European cities. In Denver, large fences actually have to be erected on overpasses to inhibit tagging (it doesn't always work), but here in KL, a city which has never met a patch of land on which it didn't build an elevated roadway, there are no anti-graffiti fences nor any graffiti on the overpasses.

On to funnier business... one of my friends and I were wandering around 1 Utama, one of the truly gargantuan shopping malls here, and went into a department stores. We were poking around in housewares (my favorite department... I love kitchen gadgets) and they inexplicably had a display of greeting cards amidst the spatulas and frying pans. Now, I don't even pretend to try to understand things like this any longer... I just roll with it. Anyway, this one greeting card just stood out. I don't think I need to set it up too much here... a picture truly is worth a thousand words. I whipped out my camera phone and snapped a picture of the front of the card. Of all the flowers they could have photographed to go along with the written sentiment, they chose the most phallic flower on Earth. Yup. "Thinking of you, baby... BOING!" I love finding unintentionally funny stuff like this.

Another thing happened here some weeks ago that I found particularly amusing. I was at an upscale pet store at the Ikano Power Center, yet another mall near my neighborhood and there was a bit of a ruckus around a large wire cage full of some sort of creature. Several people were clustered around it, all oohing and ahhing over whatever animals were in there. I peered in and saw the little critters and thought, "No... surely not..." So I asked one of the employees to confirm my suspicions, and sure enough: prairie dogs. I just died laughing. I told him that, where I come from, these things (although undeniably cute) are considered a pretty major pest. It gets better... not only do they sell prairie dogs as pets, they sell them for vast sums of money because it's an imported pet, so there's a certain status and prestige to it. (Pretty much anything in Malaysia that's been imported is a) considered superior to anything locally-made, and b) almost guaranteed to be expensive.) After converting the ringgits to dollars, one of these little tunnel-boring rats costs about $200. I told one of my friends back in Denver, where you can scarcely open your car door without hitting a prairie dog colony, and he said, "Two hundred bucks for ONE prairie dog? Are you joking?? I'll send you a whole box of them, we'll get rich!" I was so amused (and kind of mortified) at the whole prospect of pet prairie dogs, I actually went back a couple of days later with my camera. While I was there, I asked to hold one, but changed my mind when I saw how very unamused the little rat was at simply being extricated from his cage. These rodents are, in the wild, pretty much at the bottom of the open prairie food chain. Eagles, hawks, foxes, badgers... everybody loves to eat prairie dogs. So after being chased and stalked and devoured for thousands of years, they've understandably evolved into a rather nervous, skittish little animal. And after watching them in action in the pet store, I can assure everyone of this immutable truth: They're not remotely interested in being your housepet. They don't want to be held, they don't want to be cuddled, they don't want to be touched. When someone picks up a prairie dog, the poor animal likely just instinctively assumes the next line in that song is being eaten. I snapped a picture of the little rat desperately trying to get away from the pet store clerk and into the relative safety of the other dozen prairie dogs (most of which were huddled back the far corner of the cage). They were all squeaking and barking, clearly agitated and unhappy. I decided to pass on the great "prairie-dog-holding" experience, played with one of the parrots instead, and left, still astounded that this place was selling prairie dogs as pets!

Naturally, Malaysia does not have the market cornered on "stupid-yet-funny." Not even close. I found this gem on the Internet from a Wal-Mart store in the U.S. You know, because nothing says, "Happy Mother's Day" like a box of magnum-sized condoms. And the thing is, nowadays with the ubiquity of both the Internet and camera phones, any previously localized gaffe like this, whether in a small-town Wal-Mart, or on a local newscast, will be spread worldwide in short time, and preserved forever.

In other (non-condom-related) news, one of my biggest frustrations with living here in KL is unquestionably the driving. The crazy drivers? No. The quality of the roads? No, they're pretty good. Driving on the left? Nope, I manage that just fine. It's the actual "system" of roads in this city. It's almost impossible to convey in words or pictures how retarded the road system here is. Basically, it's a rat's nest of elevated roads, highways, toll plazas, slip roads, and ramps. And probably 80% of them are one-way. If I drive someplace, logic would suggest that I could just reverse course to come back home, but no... I have to take an entirely different route because of the prevalance of one-way roads. Many times in KL, quite literally, you "can't get there from here." There is no logical hierarchy of roads here (e.g. such as the progression: controlled-access interstate highways, divided highways, multilane roads, major arterials, minor roads, neighborhood roads, alleys, etc.). Everything is just cobbled together with little or no planning or traffic engineering and as a sad result, KL enjoys the traffic problems of a much larger city. Let me just say it clearly with no candy coating: The entire road system here is functionally, irreparably, and undeniably broken. The only real solution is to clear out the entire population, level the city, and start over again. And given that, relative to local income, cars in Malaysia are among the most expensive in the world, you'd think that this would act as a disincentive to buying and driving cars, but that is absolutely not the case at all. And people here drive everywhere! KL is the Los Angeles of Asia. I guess the logic is that if you're going to spend that much money on a car, you better well drive it every single day, whether you actually need to go anywhere or not.

I do enjoy living here overall, but in my year here, my top three gripes about living in KL are:

  1. The aforementioned road system, or miserable lack thereof.
  2. The painfully slow "broadband" Internet. They have no problem charging a mint for it, but it doesn't even come close to hitting the advertised speed, which in itself is nothing impressive (1 Mbps).
  3. The outrageously high price of not only alcohol, but anything alcohol-related (corkscrews, cocktail mixers, martini glasses, and so on).
Like I said, though, living here is still pretty okay... if you're not sitting in a traffic jam, it's a laid-back, easy place for an expat to live. Take a look at this photo... and click on it and enlarge it. This is another shot of the thick, lush jungle right by my condo. I'm in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city, minutes away from top-notch shopping and dining, yet this is what I have literally steps outside my condo... look at all those shades of green!

That's about all... I'll go ahead and publish this and start on the next post with details about my upcoming trip back home to Colorado... and the outcome of my car saga. I'm fairly certain it's going to involve buying a replacement engine block or a replacement car. Either one is acceptable, I suppose... I got my car for next to nothing (especially by Malaysian car price standards) and it's been a great little car for a year. So if the block can't be repaired, I'll find the most economical way to get mobile again. Life goes ever onward...