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!


barbmerchant said...

love the part about flat sheets..and the traffic. That seems to be an ongoing problem in Malaysia...but the traffic that scared me the most was in Kuta with the Australians on holiday!! Too crowded, too fast and motorbikes on the sidewalks..oh, wait, no sidewalks! Good post!

synical said...


Stumbled across your blog.

When I was in the States way back when as a student, us Malaysians were also wondering why bolsters weren't the norm - and body pillows were crazy expensive, so some got a second pillow to compensate.

Midvalley IS the pits when it comes to both traffic AND parking - I also learned the hard way about looking for a parking spot at 2 in the afternoon, which is why I never go there before noon when necessary.