There’s a lot that goes into adapting to a new environment. When I arrived off the plane at Kuala Lumpur Airport last week one of the first things I had to adapt to hit me full force in the face. A wave of humid heat—nothing like I’d ever experienced back home in my native Vancouver, Canada—had me sweating immediately, and it was a relief to enter the cab, which transported me to my hotel.
People talk a lot about jet lag, but the jet lag is never the most difficult factor of travel to adjust to. Waking up early here is refreshing, as the sun has yet to cast it’s sweltering shots of fire across this half-jungle city. I spent the first few days before work began traveling around the city, seeing the sights and learning as much as the history as I possibly could, so that I wouldn’t seem to be quite so much of an ignorant foreigner.
It’s impossible to provide a properly holistic impression of the experience I encountered on arrival here. The streets smell different, spices and something thick and heavy I can’t put my finger on. Smoke snaking from neglected cigarettes left in the ashtrays of sidewalk cafes where nasi lemak and teh tarik are consumed by groups of middle aged men who talk as their eyes follow me. The cultures here mix and swirl like the colours of Hindu temples combining to form a Malaysian mosaic that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Where I’m from the cities are cold and grey. The trees are a dark foreboding green that speak silence as soft rain soaks you to the skin and doesn’t stop for weeks. The rain here is fast and frantic; there are no spaces between the drops. Thunder and lightning strike their melody for mere minutes before the storms abate and the cicadas start shouting once more. No wonder the jungle here seems to spring up everywhere. So much heat, so much water, restraining nature seems impossible here.
I can’t walk these streets easily. Not only do I sweat harder than a monsoon downpour in a La Nina year, but sidewalks here are civil afterthoughts, and when they are present motorcyclists speed on them. Highways are the major modes of transportation and have taken precedent over the lowly pedestrian paths. I don’t like to dodge through six lanes of fast traffic, but I do so when I must.
When I do walk I’m surprised to see not many sleeping rough. Occasionally someone on an overhead walkway will softly slumber on a bench, presumably wrapped in a narcotic blanket but not bothering me as they do back home. Back home they’re insistent, demanding. Here if the poor person’s awake they keep their eyes to the ground in supplication.
While the Malaysian culture is deeply beautiful, I can see ugly stains where Western civilization has reared its subjugating head. The markets sell cheap knock off purses and wallets, jackets and watches, toys and trinkets. All with brands splayed as loudly across them as possible. These items scream look at me, I’m a symbol of wealth. The malls are prolific and massive labyrinthine structures designed like Las Vegas casinos, no windows or clocks. Here Western brands are on repeat. People with stars in their eyes gaze longingly at photos of David Beckham and Lindsay Lohan then consume and consume endless items to fill the void of soft poverty.
As I wander through food markets people push themselves towards me like sharks smelling my white blood. It’s obvious I’m not local. Their vocal tones take on the form of desperation as they try to sell plastic toys and I wonder why we allow this to continue. Here’s a man who could be an astrophysicist or biochemical engineer trying to sell me garbage. What a waste.
The food is delicious. An orchestral cacophony of flavours which jar me and throw me through a loop of discovery. I think of how to incorporate the culinary lessons into my own kitchen. I’ve never felt threatened when sitting out past midnight drinking tea watching musicians strum guitars and sing til their voices break. The taxi driver taking me home tells me how he quit working as a cop because of corruption in the force, he’d rather make less than be unhappy with how he hurts the society around him. His child is only twelve, but speaks five languages already, because the driver knows that to succeed, he must learn.
Written by Marcomms Intern, Jack Seaberry.