Monday, August 30, 2010

Retiring the Tiara and a Return to FRIM

Oh, crappy little gray Proton Tiara, with your tiny little wheels, your sad excuse for an engine, and your single windshield wiper... you served me well. Everyone who's kept up with this blog has read about your exploits, and while there were a couple of pretty major incidents, the reality is, for a 3,000-ringgit car (less than US$1,000) you performed pretty admirably for nearly two years... fun to drive, easy to park, and only marginally humiliating to be seen in. I can't even really gauge how much driving I did in the Tiara because the speedometer didn't work all the time, so when it wasn't functioning, the odometer wasn't accumulating kilometers either. And there was an engine swap last year, too... but the car itself has a lot of mileage. (Yes, even though it's kilometers, it's still referred to as mileage, proving yet again that the metric system sucks.) The fuel gauge never worked either, so I just had to wait until the low fuel light came on, then I'd go put RM50 worth of gas (I just can't call it "petrol") in the tank and that would hold me for 2-3 weeks. So really, the only thing on the whole dash that worked reliably was the clock, and it was very accurate.

For the better part of three months, I shopped around somewhat casually for a car. I even looked at a used BMW 523i, and although it was very nice, it had no amenities at all! No automatic climate control, no power seats, no steering wheel controls, no power mirrors, no cruise control... honestly! What's the point of buying a luxury car with no luxuries!? I also considered the 2002-2004 Nissan Sentra and even looked at some local-made cars. In the end, though, I kept going back to the most-recent generation of the Kia Spectra (roughly 2001-2005, I think). Now, I have to say here that the whole "secondhand" oeuvre is viewed very differently in Malaysia than in the United States. Most Americans not only don't mind buying things used, they will actually brag about it when they get a good deal. In Malaysia, though, there's a bit of a stigma about buying anything used... like you're buying someone's castoffs (you are) or unwanted items (also correct). But hey, it's a different culture, and I'm fine with that. For my part, I have no issue whatsoever buying things secondhand. And with the recent release of Kia's newest model, the Forte, the Spectra—as a non-current model—took a major hit in market value. Good timing for me.

I've found that one of the best approaches to car shopping is to not actually need the car. That way, you can be choosier, more methodical, really take your time. I have bought a car before in a semi-desperate state and it wasn't pretty. So since I already had the trusty, if somewhat crappy, Tiara, I wasn't in a ferocious, need-frenzied hurry to buy anything else. For me, it meant about three months of fine-tuning what I wanted and looking at several cars before finding the right one. I knew I wanted the Kia Spectra, but it had to have the factory bodykit and spoiler—just looks like a totally different car without them. I also wanted full leather seats, black was my preferred choice for the car color, I had a specific preference for the wheel style, and after looking at a few cars, I mentally noted a few other minor things, too, like, "It would be nice if the gasket around the rear window wasn't completely rotted away like it was on those last two cars."

So one fine day (except not really, more on that soon), I drove out to Klang, about 30 minutes west of KL, very near the west coast, to look at a 2002 Kia Spectra. And just as I was driving up to the car dealership, it started pouring. So much for the fine day part. Rainy weather for car shopping is not ideal, but is certainly part of the package deal for living here. Indeed, this was now three times out of four where rain had marked my car shopping ventures. The one remaining time, on a sojourn to Kajang, also 30 minutes away, it was so scorching hot, I would have welcomed the rain, truly. Anyway, so fortunately, this dealer in Klang had a massive covered parking area, so they just drove the car under there, and in the midst of the storm, I checked it all out. It not only ticked all of my "required" boxes, it hit the "preferred" ones, too. Low mileage. Single owner—an older Malay woman (this is key here, because young male drivers in Malaysia are complete lunatics behind the wheel more often than not). Extremely good condition, inside and out. New black metallic paint. New GoodYear Eagle tires. Even had the factory-original Kia-branded floormats. Everything worked except the remote fuel door release, which would only be an issue if I ever needed to put fuel in the car, so the dealer went on ahead and fixed that. So kind. I gave them a small deposit, then went back the following week to re-inspect the car and take it on a proper test drive. Marvelous, so we negotiated a final price, a mere RM17,500 (scandalously cheap in a land where a new Honda Civic costs over RM100K), and they said it would be ready by the next week. (Cars here have to be inspected upon ownership transfer, and they wanted to detail it, get the insurance policy written, etc.)

Fast forward to the following week. I had planned on taking the train to Klang on Saturday to pick up the car and drive it home. The idea was that I would take cash to the bank here and get a cashier's check for the balance due on the car. However, due to my foreign-ness, the bank was unwilling to do this for me. (I've actually since learned that they're unwilling to do pretty much anything you would normally expect a bank to do, but that's a different rant. Curse you, CIMB bank!) So the dealer said that they could deliver the car to me on Friday instead, at my offices at Midvalley and we could just deposit the cash directly into the dealer's account (at a different bank). Cool. So that's how we worked it out, and on June 18th, I took delivery of my non-Tiara. My beloved neighborhood mechanics inspected it and couldn't believe it was a secondhand car at all.

So far, the Spectra has proven to be a good car, although I will say that I generally hate parking it when it involves backing up. Reversing is hard in the Spectra because it has poor rearward visibility and a fairly lame turn radius (i.e., you can't make super tight turns). Coupled with its larger size relative to the scrappy, crappy little Tiara, and it's made for some interesting parking moments. Nothing traumatic, though. I have to confess that, though the Spectra is unquestionably nicer to drive, the Tiara was more fun: it's small, nimble, stick-shift manual transmission, and since it was such a dismal piece of rubbish, I didn't really care about it being dirty or questionably parked. With the Kia, though—yikes. It's gorgeous, black, and shiny. Totally different kettle of fish with this one... now, it's no expensive, fancy car, but it definitely looks better when it's clean and shiny. With the Tiara, clean or dirty, it honestly didn't matter.

And that's the new car story. I now have four cars scattered across the world, which is a bit ridiculous, really. So I plan to sell the Tiara, and likely one of my vehicles back in the States, too, since it seems apparent that I'll be hanging out in Malaysia for a bit longer, at least. Feel free to enlarge that last pic of the car (or any of them). Not bad for an eight-year old used Kia, eh? I've since had the windows lightly tinted, which makes it all look even better. I also have a guy who comes to my condo's carpark and washes cars now taking care of mine. He does a great job, the car stays clean (always a challenge for a black car), and it's only RM40 per month for three car washes per week. Hard to complain about that price.

So right around the same time I was homing in on a car to buy, one of my friends came up from Singapore and visited, so we took a half day and spent it at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia ("FRIM") and did some jungle trekking and, naturally, the canopy walk. It was every bit as enjoyable as the last time, maybe even more so because we didn't get pathetically lost in the jungle afterwards like my friends and I did last time. I didn't get attacked by a rogue leech like the last time, either. Not getting lost or eaten by leeches are always signs that you're having a pretty good day, I think.

Not much to show here since the jungle still looks roughly the same, but it really is always so cool to be on that suspended rope bridge up so high, looking down on the canopy and several levels of rainforest. It's never that hot at FRIM because of the cover of the jungle, but it's absolutely humid. Even walking through the jungle, nothing terribly strenuous, takes a lot out of you with the weather the way it is. So we got most of our trekking done before 1 p.m., finished up with the canopy walk by around 2 p.m., then headed off for a late lunch. FRIM is definitely a great way to spend a day in KL... highly recommended.

Coming soon, a recap of a really unique work-related event in Singapore plus some reflections on two years of life in Malaysia (as of September 5th). Also on the radar, I really want to go over to the east coast since I've not been there yet. I am planning to do a weekend getaway to Cherating Beach, which is supposed to be quite nice, about a three-hour drive from KL. And there's another trip to Bali coming up in about a week and a half. I'll be meeting friends from two other countries there this time, so although it won't be a long holiday (four days only), it should still be a good time, truly my first real break from work since I started in January.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is a coffee license and why doesn't Malaysia have flat sheets?

So the other night, I was hanging out at home watching a rerun of "Glee" and there was this scene where everyone was attending a football game (that's American football) and arrived all bundled up in their fall apparel -- jackets, scarves, and such. And there was, for me, this wave of despair that departed as quickly as it arrived... I miss the changing seasons. Now, I can truly say I don't miss the cold. I don't miss being cold. I don't miss driving in snow. I certainly don't miss shoveling it. But having different seasons -- I think I do miss that.

The next day, I was relaying this, along with some other trifling thing about life in the US, to one of my friends, who responded, "Sounds like you're getting kind of tired of Malaysia." I took this to heart and really mulled it over. While it's true that, after 22 months here, the newness and novelty of life in KL has sort of worn off, I don't know that I'd honestly say that I'm tired of living here. When I was packing up all my stuff back in Denver, one of my primary stated reasons for moving abroad was to experience living life in a different country, out of my comfort zone... that means the good and the bad. And I do have to remind myself of that when I'm confronted with the different (and sometimes backwards) way that things are done here.

Perfect example was just this last week. My office towers are part of a massive mixed-use development here called Mid Valley City. There are two malls (one of them positively huge), two high-rise hotels, eleven high-rise residences and office towers, and no useful public transit to speak of. The LRT station is across a patch of land and a river. The station is literally in the middle of nowhere. Even though they have their very own flashy website complete with animation and funky theme music, there's no denying that Midvalley is really just a hot mess and, before getting a job with a company whose office was there, I actually made it a point to stay away from the whole area. You'll note that the website doesn't show any photos of the massive traffic jams that terrorize the place for half the day, every day, or the sad video feed of someone trying for an hour to find a parking place at 2:30 in the afternoon. (This happened to one of my colleagues, and we've had clients just give up and leave after spending 30-60 minutes fruitlessly searching for a place to park.) Mid Valley really is a victim of its own success.

So anyway, this place has about 11,000 parking spaces in the multiple parking garages, but for some demented reason, the management there decided to have a major fire drill at exactly 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Now this is the time that about 90% of everyone arrives at work, and with them closing the parking areas off for 45 minutes for their fire drill, you can imagine the effects. Why on earth have a fire drill at that time? It's deranged. Obviously you're not working on any evacuation procedures since the offices aren't filled and the malls aren't even open. If you want it like that, then do the drill at 7 a.m., not right when everyone is arriving. The traffic was backed up horribly -- all out onto the highways feeding into the ring road around the malls. This is just par for the course for Malaysia, though. With some things, I just attribute it to being different -- not necessarily better or worse. This, however, was just stupid. The ring road around Midvalley clearly, CLEARLY doesn't work in general -- it may have been a good plan in theory, but for whatever reason, it wasn't executed properly and the traffic there is awful at almost any time -- it can, at times, take me longer just to get clear of the ring road when I leave work than it does to actually drive home once I've cleared it. But I can assure everyone nothing will be done about this. There will be no traffic flow analysis, there will be no restructuring of the side roads and access paths, there will be no improvement in the mess that is Midvalley. I've been told that the philosophy here is "tolerate or avoid." And that definitely does seem to be true.

Other things are far less irritating and usually fall more under the "hmm, well that's odd" category. For example, motorbikes are everywhere here (thought not nearly as prolific as they are in Indonesia). That in itself is not very strange, but the riders here have a very strange habit of wearing their jackets backwards (back to front). I figure there's some reason for it, but it sure is bizarre.
Now take a look at these two photos. This is another strange thing here. This entire elevated roadway that you see is nothing but a giant, lame U-turn. That's it. Millions were spent constructing this thing -- it has full ramps, pillars, signage, light posts... everything but its own line of perfume. And it serves absolutely NO purpose except being a U-turn on a road. I've seen several of these throughout the city. This really highlights how poorly the road system is planned and executed.

Now, the roads themselves are bad enough, but I think after all the driving I've done here, I've landed on one of the key problems: Traffic control. For whatever reason, many traffic lights here just go on forever. The light will stay red for literally 3-4 minutes at many interchanges, then when it turns green, it's just as long. So during its long red cycle, a huge amount of traffic backs up (oftentimes spilling onto adjacent streets), and when it turns green and stays green for so long, this mechanism that's actually designed to control traffic flow just allows a torrent of vehicles onto a road that really isn't able to handle the capacity. So just timing the lights so there's a much shorter green/red cycle would be immensely helpful.

So for all the traffic problems, the one big x-factor is the drivers in KL. I was with a friend of mine some time ago and just ranting about the idiocy of people driving here -- I mean, it's awful. They don't use signals, they drift in and out of lanes, sometimes they'll just straddle a lane divider for awhile, then drift back into a proper lane, they jump the queues of cars at every opportunity, you see guys on motorbikes texting on their phones (on motorbikes!!)... it's just a mad free-for-all much of the time. And my comment was along the lines of, "Do these people just get their driver's licences out of gumball machines!?!" And the reply I got was something about coffee licenses... so I had to get more information. And after talking to no fewer than four people here, all of whom knew exactly what this referred to, here's what I came up with: In Malaysia, any license that would normally need to be acquired through a strict set of controlled processes, or passing a test, or demonstrating a degree of competency, can be otherwise obtained with an "under the table" payment. Apparently at one point, the going price was a nice cup of coffee, but nowadays the price for not having to bother with all the headache of an actual road test to get one's license is in the RM100-200 range. No wonder so many people here can't drive worth a flip!! They just pay off the examiner, get their "provisional license" sticker for their car, and off they go, thrown into the deep end where they learn by trial and error, duplicating the ways and means of the many other awful drivers here.

Now, for the Malaysians here who have actually learned to drive and done things properly and passed their written and road tests, I salute you. I would like to even believe that this is the case with a majority of drivers here. A whole lot of time spent on the roadways of Malaysia, however, suggests otherwise. (Honest disclosure: Road tests in the US aren't something you can bribe your way out of, but the test is laughably easy in most states. A ten-minute drive, maybe some parking maneuvers, and you're good to go. European countries are much more stringent with the issuance of driver's licenses.)

On a lighter note, one of the earliest things I noticed about living here was the lack of a flat, or top, sheet on the beds. The standard bed here is dressed with a fitted sheet, then a comforter. There's also a bolster pillow, which is not part of the normal bed in America. I really enjoy the bolster pillow part, and the lack of a flat sheet doesn't bother me, but it is confusing. In a hot climate such as Malaysia's, just sleeping under a thin, flat sheet would be great. I could just use the fan in my bedroom. As it is now, though, if I want to sleep under something, it has to be my comforter, so I wind up needing to set the air conditioner at 23°C. It's baffling. So the standard "bed in a bag" set here consists of one fitted sheet, one comforter, two pillow shams, occasionally (but not typically) two regular pillowcases, and one bolster pillowcase.

There's also the matter of the beds here being smaller than those in the US, but that's not surprising. Most people here are smaller. However, my particular bed here, which is supposedly a queen size bed, is exactly 75 inches long. I measured a friend's queen size bed, and it was 78 inches long, which is standard in the UK (in the US, standard queen beds are 80" long). So why is my bed only 75 inches? Where did my extra three inches go?? I'm 183cm/72 inches tall, so on the 75-inch bed, so my toes hang off the end a little (since my head isn't all the way up at the very edge of the bed). Losing those three inches makes a real difference. Weird.

Here's one difference I really like, and readers in America will wonder why it's not done there, too: You can select your seats at the movie theater when you buy your tickets, even a couple of days in advance. No more queuing up for three hours on opening night so you can even have a shot at getting a decent seat. Indonesian theaters have "assigned seat" cinemas , too. Not sure why the US doesn't adopt such a system.

Anyway, apologies for not only the epic lag time between this entry and the last one, but also for the general lack of photos here. I just wanted to get an entry posted because there's a lot more to write about and those entries WILL have photos, and will be a bit more positive in tone, I'm sure!