I am on cultural overload. Each and every time I sit down to write, I think of my day and it is so hard to capture every thought, every view, sound, taste, interaction. I want to get it all out, so it doesn’t slip away from my mind. There is so much to take in, so much to observe. So much beauty and so much corruption, all wrapped up in the amazingness of the human race.
When I woke up yesterday morning and looked out the window of my 12th floor hotel room, I was totally intimidated. I am staying in an area of Kuala Lumpur called Chinatown. All around me are buildings standing higher than I could have ever imagined. There are complexes of half a dozen buildings, each at least 50 stories tall, full of residential units. And there are dozens, more than dozens, of them. They are making up the city skyline. Intermingled with those buildings are fabulously created office buildings with architecture like I’ve never seen before. This was most definitely the largest metropolis I’ve been in on this trip, so yes, I was intimidated.
I had gotten in right as the sun was setting the night before. When I arrived at the airport, I messaged the private driver I had arranged to pick me up. No response. I waited, and waited, and waited. It took about an hour before I realized I was on my own. I wasn’t ready to venture onto the train system in the nighttime, so I tried Grab (the Uber equivalent). They were all booked; no one available. Finally, I realized a taxi would be my best option. In this airport, I didn’t have a ‘helper.’ I was on my own. I can do this. I can do this, just stay calm and think through every move. You’ve done this before!
I thought I might need some Malaysian dollars to pay the taxi driver that I was hoping to find, so I stopped by an ATM. Declined. Ok, foreign ATMs are finicky. Just try another. Declined. Hmm. Declined. Declined. Declined. It took me six tries and six different ATMs – I was relentless – until I was finally able to get some money. For what it’s worth, I do have some US dollars and Euros on me as a backup plan; most of the time service people in other countries will accept those.
I wandered around slowly in this massively large airport following the taxi signs. It took quite some time and many questions before I was finally able to get to a pre-paid taxi booth. For those that don’t know what that is, it is essentially a booth that you pay for your taxi ahead of time and then get a ticket to give the driver. It prevents the driver from scamming you or asking for more money at drop-off. I felt much better about this and ended up with a fantastic driver. It took over an hour plus one stop for petrol until we made it to the hotel.
As I was checking in, the host asked if I was there for the language conference. I was, of course, not there for this event but it sounded interesting so I started probing. He finally told me that it was for Southeast Asia languages. I got the point…totally not invited to that event! But it did bring a ton of people into the area, which added to the diversity I was seeing.
Unless I am familiar with an area and know that I am safe at night, I don’t venture out alone after the sun is set. So, on this night, I settled into my room and slept for a good 10 hours.
I had a few things to do on my computer the next morning while I had coffee. I think a part of me was stalling from venturing out into the city on my own. And when I did, so many thoughts and feelings came to me.
For the first time on my trip, I felt uneasy as I walked through the market in Chinatown. I moved slowly and wondered to myself, “Why am I suddenly feeling so uneasy?” And it hit me – for the first time in a really long time, I look different. I am dressed different. I am the minority. Wow, I’m out of my comfort zone and I can’t believe I allowed my mind to trick me. And immediately, my guard was back down. These were just other people, and in fact, when I smiled at them, they smiled back. When I needed help crossing the street, they helped. People. Deep down, we are all so much the same. How lucky I am to experience everything our world’s people have to offer.
I walked through the city slowly, taking it all in, not wanting to miss any of the experience. This was such a different culture for me on this trip, and I needed to soak it up. Here, everyone wore COVID masks – inside and outside. This was a first for me, and something I realized is another cultural component that we will have to adapt to each time we travel.
I didn’t notice many women on the street. It was unsettling at first but again, another cultural dynamic that I learned to embrace. I could tell that I was deep into Chinatown. The signs started to wean themselves of English, the smells of food filled the streets, and chatter amongst the street goers lacked any semblance of English. Now this was culture – right here on the street, surrounding my every sense and filling them to the brim. I was in heaven.
I was on my way to a landmark mosque that morning as I become satiated with culture. On my walk there, I passed a woman wearing a crucifix on her necklace, two Buddhist monks dressed in traditional orange shawls, several Hindus wearing sarongs, and of course a number of Muslims (Islam is the predominant religion in Malaysia). It was such a profound few minutes to cross paths with so many religions in such a short period of time, all living harmoniously. There is a sign standing proud and tall as you leave the Kuala Lumpur airport – Welcome to Malaysia. Land of Beauty and Diversity. Ironically, all safety warnings for Malaysia indicate that there is a potential for terrorist threats in Kuala Lumpur due to the various religions disagreeing on politics.
I made it to the mosque – The Masjid Jamek Mosque. It was a stunningly large, outdoor mosque. There were no more than a handful of visitors there and the quietness away from the rest of the city was incredibly calming. I walked around for an hour or so, just taking in the grounds and peacefulness that came with it.
My next stop was the Central Market. I found it quite seemingly well, but as I was walking in, I noticed a band and large crowd. I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t a scene for me and moved on. I figured it couldn’t have been that special. I’ve been to so, so many markets all over the world. They are all much the same, with different flavors of culture depending on the location.
From here, I was headed towards a Hindu temple. On my way, I happened to stumble on a restaurant that was advertising Baked Cheese Tarts. Um, yes please! I ended up only getting one, very small baked cheese tart, like a mini cheesecake. I did order an entire entrée of Curry Mee. Now I can’t really tell you exactly what is in Curry Mee, but I know the menu said something about a fish cake, and my Google research indicated something about tofu puffs and fried pig blood. Regardless, everything was cooked so I knew my stomach could take it. I dove right in, and committed to taking the time to appreciate the different flavors, taking each bite and really tasting it. My previous travels in Asia have been quite different. I’ve always ordered what looked safe and just ate to get through. This was different and I’m glad I’ve taken the time to appreciate the food culture.
I managed to find the Hindu temple on my map quite well also, and I was amazed! This temple stood so tall, was full of so many colors. The Hindu religion has many, many gods, and their representation throughout each temple I’ve visited has continued to blow me away. They are intricate, detailed, colorful, and awe inspiring. For this particular temple, I had to remove my shoes. A very nice man helped over the two large steps to get into the temple, and like the mosque, the peacefulness was incredible. There were a dozen or so individuals praying, and a few wanders like me. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That is how I felt about this temple. Absolutely incredible.
By this point, I was needing a break from the heat. While I don’t think it’s been as humid in Malaysia, it is still upwards of 90-degrees each day and manages to suck the energy out. I retreated back to my hotel for some writing time.
Around dinner time, I started thinking about whether I should go out or not. I had put jeans on that morning for the first time and they still fit, so I figured I may as well embrace the flavors here while I could. I found a lovely restaurant just across the street that served Chew Chew noodles with teriyaki chicken. The waiter asked if I was okay with chopsticks, and I nodded. No time like the present to refresh my skills. I did quite well, I must say.
I was up early the next day for a day trip to the Batu Caves. The Batu Caves are another famous Hindu temple built into the side of a mountain. The caves themselves are not accessible for me, and I didn’t argue, because quite frankly, I think the most stunning part is on the outside. There is a statue that is the largest Hindu statue outside of India. And there is a flight of over 200 stairs, all painted in the most intensely bright colors. It was breathtaking. Truly, the Hindu colors have me curious. I am loving the brightness!
I’ve talked a little bit about the scooters in Asia. The media will tell you that large percentages of the population in each country die due to scooter accidents. I’ve seen how they drive and I stay away from them for this reason. Today, on our drive to the Batu Caves, we passed by a motorbike accident. There were at least six scooters piled up and laying all over the street. A woman bleeding from many places was sitting up against someone else, sobbing profusely. Next to her, was a limp man who someone was trying to get a pulse from. As we moved further away from the scene, I became nauseous. There was a good chance that man wasn’t alive. I didn’t want to see that. But like all cultures, there is beauty and there is pain. This was the painful part of this culture. I truly hope he made it.
I had lunch at another new place. This time I ordered Nasi Lemak, a rice dish that is cooked in coconut milk and comes with a teriyaki chicken, fried egg, spices, cooked nuts, and two fish sausages. I ate almost every bite. Different and fabulous.
I am writing now as it pours down rain in Kuala Lumpur, a perfect time for me to reflect and lock tight away all of the sounds, tastes, smells, and feels I’ve experienced the last few days. I also need to plan the next part of my trip. In five days, I’ll be homeless in Asia! Yikes!
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