From Souk To Zouk

As you expand your travels, you're just bound to meet some incredible people. This is my encounter with two such folk.

PM naturally drew people to her with her flamboyant, audacious style and magnetic personality. Her expressive voice and intonations seemed to fit all the three languages she was fluent in. Her natural beauty and her facial makeup gave her a look that could fit in any fashion magazine, but it was never garishly so; in fact, it was just simply part of the whole appealing package.

She had a smile that seemed to belie a devil-may-care attitude, which I personally got to experience with her driving. It didn't matter if there was rebar underneath that could piece the underbelly of her upscale car, or the ancient walls lining the narrow streets of Old Town Damascus that would easily mangle the exterior - PM just went for it without second thought, probably figuring she'd be able to handle whatever might befall her.

She would get me to do a completely clumsy rendition of some celebratory dance during the work day, and I really didn't feel embarrassed about it, but rather invigorated. Her circle of friends included those at a local Damascus hot spot for dancing - even long after she had left, those that had joined her were still enjoying the groovy beats, dry ice smoke, and incredible light show on the dance floor along with other Syrians of the mostly youthful variety.

Yes, TAIT (Thank Allah It's Thursday) indeed...

Speaking of dance floors, that's where DT comes in. I never met DT until after my first full week in Malaysia; she was there to visit one of my fellow cohorts here. She is something of PM's opposite, and similar to me in demeanor - more down to earth and easy-going, and not really the type of person who goes out and parties much on purpose.

But then we as a group got word of Zouk, the bestest, super-happening spot in Malaysia from what we were told, and having nothing better to do, we all decided what the hey and grabbed a couple taxis to make the trip over during a clear, warm Malaysian Friday night.

The outside of the club, with the beautifully lit Petronas Towers hovering just off in the distance, was abuzz with activity. After a few false starts and misdirections, we made it into a dance area that suited our tastes, the Velvet Underground. A fine mesh of dance favorites both old and new got people dancing up a storm, urged on by the in-house Mambo Jambo dancers, who were decked out fancifully a la the musical play/movie "Hairspray."

For the next few hours, our group as a whole simply had a blast together, and I think collectively we were just simply feeling that there was nothing else we would rather be doing.

But specifically, DT and I especially found we had a certain chemistry together. We danced and didn't care how silly we might've looked, we talked about this and that, had a few drinks, and smiled and laughed and just felt good about the way things were going and just enjoying the company of each other.

With the help of a few other heartier members of our initial group, we helped closed the place down that night.

Funny thing is that in real life, we don't really live too far each other all things considered - ironic how it took us thousands of miles of flying between us to facilitate this chance encounter.

Some might read this and infer a sexual connotation. There was none here - DT is already spoken for, and I'd say that person is quite a lucky one. Eh, maybe I'm a little envious deep down, but in reality, I'm just happy that fate allowed me to cross paths with one of the happy couple anyway.

Funny these great chance encounters so rarely happen considering there are so many people on this planet of ours. Maybe circumstance and chance are much more discerning than we tend to think.


Pass The Teksi To The Left Hand Side

Aside from the fairly chaotic KL traffic behavior, the basic driving setup itself here in Malaysia has had me adjusting my mental window of perception.

Here in this country, cars have right-side driver setups...and they drive on the left-hand side of the road.

This has been taking some getting used to as a pedestrian. Cars seem to come from nowhere, partly due to bad drivers, but mostly due to my lack of experience. Essentially, I have to focus more on the second half of a pedestrian intersection rather than the first half, like I do back home, because that is where cars who might be crossing my path by turning will be headed.

For the first few days, cars coming in from seemingly nowhere have come into my sphere of awareness in last-minute fashion; thankfully, I have avoided a trip to the hospital up to this point.

I found this behavior extends to escalators and sidewalks. Most people here stand and walk on the left, respectively. I definitely show my western bent when I find myself wading like a salmon upstream against the masses before my brain double-checks things.

My awareness has been getting better, though, and the "right" way of doing things by going left is slowly but surely being assimilated into my psyche.


Bagaimana Saya Pergi Ke Midvalley Megamall?

Someone once said to me that there's not much better way to get a sense of every day life in an unfamiliar city than to ride the public bus.

Not that it was my strict intention to test out KL's bus system, but it was convenient for my purposes, and my day after I arrived might be something that a local might venture to do - mail some letters and find me some swim goggles.

First off, it was over to KLCC Suria Mall. Through the helpful POS Malaysia website, I found out that their branch post office located there was open on Sundays until 6 PM. Being an avid runner, I had stumbled upon a couple of running events that I wanted to participate in, and I needed to have some postal orders made up for registration race fees and the entries put in the mail.

This was my first encounter with what seems to be opposite of what I found in Damascus - a lack of coinage. Clerks I've found here do not like giving out change if at all possible, and I'm not sure if its mere volume of business or actual coinage supply that causes this. You do end up with a lot of single ringgit bills pretty quickly with this methodology.

Contrast this to my stay in Damascus, where it was almost impossible to keep the smaller bills in your possession. Anything above a 500 SP note was looked at almost universally with disdain, even when your purchases were in the hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

Then I made my way to the bus stop for the bus trip across town to the Mid-Valley Mall. As I found out later, I could've shopped at the mall I was just leaving and found my coveted swim goggles, but there was a certain level of anticipation venturing into strange territory.

A young man loudly rambled on in Bahasa Melayu, seemingly either touting his ticket stack (I couldn't tell if they were legitimate for fare or not) or excitedly publicizing certain transit route buses as they pulled into our stop. Aside from what seemed to be a friend of his, no one waiting there seemed to pay him any mind.

After about 15 minutes sweating in the shade, my bus finally arrived. The fare was a bargain - 2 RM, or just under sixty cents, for an all-day access fare. The bus was pleasantly air conditioned and comfortable, similar to something you'd find in almost any city transit line in the western world.

I noticed that most people wanted to venture toward the back of the bus - I'm not sure if that's the cultural norm or not. A side benefit I didn't count on was the orientation factor - the route passed by some local landmarks I had intended on visiting during my stay here, such as the KL Sentral transit building, Chinatown, and the Central Market.

Finally, I arrived at the Mid-Valley Megamall, with my first stop was to the Dive Station, which, yes, had diving equipment as long as other swim-related gear. I think the staff looked at me a bit suspiciously as I broke open goggle boxes to sample the wares (no way was I buying a leaky pair), but thankfully to their relief, I found a pair that did the trick. I also picked up a couple of hats, not only to provide some shade but also to test out my thought that they might provide enough cover to make me visually pass as a local.

Then I just walked around to figure out what was there. I wasn't quite sure how it compared size-wise to other malls I had already passed on through, but this mall seemed to live up to its "Mega" designation. The Jusco Supermarket I wandered through was pretty much the largest supermarket I had encountered there in my brief time, with plenty of selections and staff members giving out samples a la Costco, but with a decidedly Japanese bent to the offerings.

If I had read prior to making this journey that this bus route was subject to some rather horrid traffic on its route right around the mall, I may not have come at all. As it was, I sweated in the shade again as I waited patiently for my return bus home. I'm guessing I didn't really stand out at all to the other locals beside me, as they waited with their goodies for their rides away.

In front of us, taxis awaiting an un-metered tout played their waiting game in their pickup lane; some drivers, frustrated by the slow pickings, decided to wade into the ever-building clump of traffic that clotted the flow in the area. This was probably mostly caused by the numerous patrons dropped off by passenger car and taxi alike near our stop. At one point, a luxurious-looking coach bus stopped in the designated bus stop lane, dropping off what looked to be Chinese tourists and their luggage for what looked to be a stay at one of the two hotels located within the mall premises.

Finally, the air-conditioned relief of the return bus arrived, but I seemed to be the only one at this stop who boarded. For the first time, I felt somewhat isolated, as what looked to be native Malays occupied the back, a male threesome of Indian descent chatted up the bus driver up front, and two tourists that seemed to sport British accents occupied the middle of the bus.

Probably to them, I was one of the locals. But I was really one of them, but with a fairly convincing disguise on the outside.


The Old vs. The New

With this being my second work-related detail (Damascus, Syria being my first), I guess some comparisons are only natural.

Damascus is of course steeped in ancient history that dates back thousands of years, and because of that, modern trappings like auto traffic just don't fit well there. Kuala Lumpur is relatively young, not becoming a city until the early 1970s, and has adjusted quite nicely.

While I was surprised by the size of the Christian quarter and the number of Christian residents in Damascus, make no mistake - Islam rules the area. Malaysia has a majority Muslim population, but it's more of a melting pot of different cultures and religions, so it's not nearly as overt.

For example, one of the things that took getting used to was the call to prayer every few hours while I was in Damascus. There's no such phenomenon in KL; rather, prayer times are printed quite handily in the newspaper for various regions.

Taxis are in abundance in both places, with the yellow Sabas of Damascus and the red & white Protons of KL. Fares are relatively cheap for both areas, but finding a cabbie to use a meter is apparently tougher than finding an expensive meal in either city.

Damascus does its local Middle Eastern quite well almost anywhere you sample it. Here in KL, the quality of the local offerings will vary from place to place, but is overall very good. This quality level also translates to the numerous westernized offerings you'll find in KL - let's just say if you venture outside the local cuisine in Damascus, you're taking your chances.

Both cities love their coffee, albeit in different forms...well, except for Nescafe, which seems to be popular all around the world.

Unless you're a local and/or know Arabic, public transit is almost a no-go in Damascus. Despite some slight problems with connectivity, KL's transit system ranks up there in terms of ease of use.

Car drivers tend to be looney in both areas, but Damascus is far worse IMO. In either place, motorbike riders seem to have the right of way even when and where they shouldn't.

Walking around in Damascus, if you're not from the local area, you stick out pretty much like a sore thumb. KL is enough of a melting pot where you generally wouldn't stick out no matter what nationality or race you are.

And obviously, shopping is a whole different ballgame. Malls and supermarkets are pretty much a rarity in Damascus. Here in KL, they're just part of the landscape. Likewise, Syria's souks little resemble anything you'll find in Malaysia...or at least, nothing that I've found yet...


Shop 'Til You Drop

The central point for public transit here in Kuala Lumpur is known as KL Sentral.

You may as well call KL "Mall Sentral" for it's plethora of malls, especially in the Bukit Bintang area.

As someone who is used to having malls many miles apart, having several malls so close to each other is something that takes a little getting used to at first. Don't like what one mall offers? Don't worry - there's another one just down the block, or even next door. In one case (Sungei Wang and BB Plazas,) you can walk from one to the other and back again on multiple floors without having to cross a passenger bridge or special passageway.

Another thing I noticed was the plethora of 7-11 convenience stores around the area, which seemed to play the role of Starbucks in terms of having one on every block. Speaking of Starbucks, these were visible as well, though they had plenty of competition with other chain competitors like San Francisco Coffee and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, with prices that rivaled anything you can find in the states. These upscale cafes battle the street vendors and cafes that sell their iced coffee "take away" in plastic bags, but in good news for both extremes of the spectrum, there seemed to be ample customers for both in a society that seems to appreciate a hot (or cold) cuppa'.

Near the end of my somewhat random journey, I ended up at Berjaya Times Square, a mall seemed almost as tall as it was wide, if only to hold its indoor amusement park complete with roller coaster.

After staring down at what seemed to be a promotion based on the popular Monopoly game, I searched out for some food. I wasn't in too much of a mood to be adventurous, but didn't want to go for something that I could get back at home, so I made a compromise on the Malaysian version of KFC, Marrybrown.

There I ordered the Nasi Ayam MB, a chicken rice dish with marinated chicken fillet topped with sauce, fresh acar, crispy papadam, and a bowl of chicken soup. That plus a 7-UP set me back less than 10 RM, which equals not quite three dollars in US money.

After that meal, I started making my way back to my hotel; on the way, I spotted an ice cream vendor on the side ringing a bell, trying to entice some of the streaming masses, who didn't seem to pay him any mind, to try his wares. When I saw that they had purple yam ice cream, tasty childhood memories of my parents bringing home the Ube ice cream from a store, I couldn't help but try a couple scoops. It didn't match to the stuff I had back home, but it made for a nice cooling treat in the still quite swampy air during an early Malaysian Saturday evening.

I noticed they also had durian ice cream. I had heard much about the so-called king of fruits, but its reputation was something of a dubious one, as it is supposedly an acquired taste and its smell is pungent, to put it kindly.

Hey, I had settled on Malaysian fast food for my first meal. More adventurous dips into the fine cuisine here could wait for another day.


No Tin-Horn Town Here

The flight went about as well as it probably could - I stayed up about four hours into the flight until I could no longer fight off the sleep, and got about four hours of good sleep. Unfortunately, six hours of flying still remained, and the remainder of the trip at best hit the light nap stage.

After a short layover at Kaohsuing Airport in Taiwan, I boarded the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Throughout the flight, I was reminded about the H1N1 pandemic that has many countries concerned as many people wore masks on the flight. A further reminder was given near landing time, when a health questionnaire was handed out along with the Malaysian arrival card form.

Passage through customs was a painless process (no visa was required for entry), so it was time to grab a taxi to get to my hotel. The first sense I got of the sauna that is Malaysian weather hit me as I walked out of the terminal to board my ride. This was a blanketing, almost overwhelming soup, but thankfully I only had to endure it for roughly a minute as we started the long (fifty mile) trip to around the Golden Triangle area of KL, whi

While the trip was somewhat leisurely, the time passed with rapid transitions. Almost immediately out of the terminal, the skies opened up with a passing thunderstorm, common for this time of year. Then, almost as quickly, the precipitation vanished, leaving me time to survey plant life which I had only seen on TV and movies prior. Then again, the vast suburbs and infrastructure of KL wended their way into my sights. The seeming sameness of what seemed to be vast housing developments made me even more anxious to catch sight of famous skyline of KL.

And sure enough, the city that started off as a tin prospecting camp in the Klang Valley peeked out from behind a hill crest, and it was not disappointing at all


The Erratic Travelogue

Well, I've got a lot of catching up to do. The last couple weeks since I have posted have been quite the adventure as well, as I have begun the recovery from the surgery. The surgery had delayed a trek of over 10K miles across an ocean for a work detail in Malaysia, or possibly derailed it altogether depending on what the doctor found. As it turned out, the doctor gave the all-clear signal, and a few days later, I was leaving on a jet plane in the wee hours of the morning.

I found I haven't had the time to keep up with as many things as I thought I would, but here's my attempt to log in some thoughts during this trek.

Red-eye flights normally are no fun, but in this case, it could work out to my advantage if I played it right.

With the time being roughly 4:30 PM at my destination, my personal game plan was to stay up for as long as humanly possible. One thing that worked against me, and something I'll have to keep in mind for next time, is that I decided to go to work the day before the flight. The realization struck me as I went through security that to make my plan work right, I'd have to literally stay up for more than 24-hours straight.

Not much is open after 10 PM at pretty much any airport, and finding ways to keep my mind from drifting into nighty-night land would be a challenge. As it turned out, my terminal had lots of interesting art work to ponder a bit, and these pieces as well as a few abandoned local newspapers managed to hold back Mr. Sandman.

So far so good...but a 14-hour flight into Taiwan awaited. Staying awake until exhausted was now doable, but would I be able to turn the trick and actually conk out? I had a bought a new travel pillow and some ear plugs to help me turn the trick, but deep down I knew it wasn't going to work out exactly to plan...


It's Been A Long Time, Been A Long Time...

Yeah, like I bet THAT hasn't been used in a blog title before...and two months can seem like but a drop in the bucket when comparing it to, say, whole geologic era's worth of events.

But nevertheless, it has been two months since I posted, and it's one of those oft-heard reasons - life just got in the way.

Most of it has been due to just plain being busy. Aside from the usual, various outside projects which have become familiar to me always hit around this time.

There were a couple trips thrown in that mix, both a combination of vacation and meeting up with friends who live way too far away physically but are always so close via the Internet.

Quite a lot of time has gone to train for my goal race for the spring, a triathlon in the middle of May. I was pretty pleased how things turned out there.

And some was due to the unexpected - that's what having a visit to the hospital to take care of a flare up of one of those so-called "useless" internal organs will do for you.

So, anyway, that's been my life for the last two month's in a nutshell.

You'd think you'd be able to keep up with everything, but sometimes it seems like it's a losing battle. To quote some more Zeppelin

"Now I've reached that age
I've tried to do all those things the best I can
No matter how I try
I find my way into the same old jam."

I'm just getting to be an old man I guess...well, not really, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Hopefully you all have been keeping up with your own personal worlds to your satisfaction.

Hopefully yours hasn't been too frenetic or crazy for your own personal liking