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:
- The aforementioned road system, or miserable lack thereof.
- 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).
- The outrageously high price of not only alcohol, but anything alcohol-related (corkscrews, cocktail mixers, martini glasses, and so on).
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...