The Mask of Malaysia
What follows are a set of five e-mail messages sent to friends and family during a trip that I, and my then-girlfriend, now wife, Deb, made to Malaysia and Maui in the Summer of 1998. It was a business trip for Deb, one in which she was checking on the installation of a couple of audio systems.
We arrived, with little difficulty, at the brand new Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia - a gleaming structure similar to the new Denver airport, but with a fantastical curved, wood-slat ceiling, instead of DIA's tent fabric, and some other exotic architectural details. (Los Angeles International Airport, at which we had a layover, is in disrepair and appears third world in comparison.) However, being pre-dawn, it took the airport personnel some time to figure out how to turn on the lights so that the plane could park and free us from our "seats", and after that, the baggage only dribbled out, taking well over an hour. Luckily, we were not attacked by the giant rats of the surrounding palm-oil forest, about which I had learned from a recent National Public Radio report. We were reasonably rested after 28 hours of travel, thanks to my adjustable ThermaRest™ back pillow, our inflatable neck pillows and the NoiseBuster™ headphones.
After a 40 minute taxi ride, traveling from palm forest to large city, we checked into the sumptuous Shangri-La, where I (John), in an attempt to fight off a lingering stomach flu, had a breakfast of Chinese porridge with roast duck, jellied egg, deep-fried bean curd skin, and other bits of stuff. We hurried away from the sight of the breakfast remains, and struck off into the bustling, humid city, on foot.
First, to Deb's job-site - the twin Petronas towers, tallest in the world. They look like a pair of gigantic, shiny, metal, art Deco, hypodermic syringes. Then, on to the Crafts Cultural Complex, where in the artists colony (mostly deserted), we met Tan, a little, old, shirtless, Chinese-Japanese-Malay batik artist who told us many things. Among them: political secrets (you go to a special jail for 2 years if you criticize government), Deb is of Polish descent (how did he know?), I look like Michael Douglas (okay, okay, we'll buy those two pieces of art), and, by the way, his more "erotic" works can be found on an Internet site managed by a Belgian friend (Malaysia "frowns harshly" upon such art). A small group of people making a documentary passed by, and after taunting them a little, Tan told us he'd seen their work and that it was "stupid". Never quite getting lost, dodging the traffic and the open sewers, we sweated our way back to the Hotel and collapsed for a couple of hours before dinner, with only enough energy for room-service and an episode of Malay sub-titled X-Files.
On Day 2 Deb worked day and evening at the Towers whilst I poked around in the vicinity of the hotel. There is an odd smell that pervades the city, even in the hotel room. What is it? Pollution? The infamous durian fruit? It is not entirely, or even partially, pleasant. I had a fine view of the city from the belly of a globular structure, built to resemble a traditional Malay spinning top, perched on top a 260 meter tower - over 400 meters high total. I lucked out on the view, since no other day was so free from cloud and haze. I walked and walked, and experienced first-hand the breakdown of an automobile-based transportation system. Some intersections seem impossible to cross, exhaust fumes choke, and schools of scooters dart around and among the cars like angry, buzzing piranha. It's taxis for me from now on! They may move glacially in the gridlock, but you sit in air-conditioned comfort and can laugh at the foolish pedestrians jumping smartly to avoid injury.
On Day 3 we went to the Hindu temple to Subramaniam in the Batu Caves on outer edge of the city. There, pigeons, chickens and monkeys beg for peanut snacks, and coat all surfaces with the end result. I like monkeys - a troop of these frisky fellows would be amusing back in the offices of my workplace. We toiled up the Five Hundred Steep Steps of Tourist Torture leading into the giant hillside caverns, which are decorated with colorful (and monkey-anointed) statues of the various gods. Later, at the base, we sipped milk from fresh coconuts, and Deb bought a nice sarong and blouse from the souvenir shop. She is an XS in America, but an XL in Malaysia (due to her relative height, no doubt).
On to Chinatown, where we were determined to have lunch at the hawker stalls I had read so much about. Up and down the narrow streets we searched for, and found, the ultimate Very Long Muddy Alley of Pungent Smells and Exotic Unidentifiable Foodstuffs. This was not for tourists! Very crowded, a-babble who knows how many different languages, there were giant woks and vats of boiling and frying things, boxes and baskets of both familiar and unfamiliar produce, and butcher tables piled with chopped land and sea critters, some cooked, some not. All very interesting, but not wanting to embarrass ourselves with public regurgitation, we elected (quickly!) to return to a nearby indoor and air-conditioned market. There we dined at Deenang's Famous Fish Head Curry Restaurant and washed down our various curries with frothy mugs of watermelon juice over ice. Then, back to the hotel to allow Deb to prepare for another evening shift at the concert hall.
A bit about Malaysia. There are Malay, Chinese and Indian people (among others) here, and they practice Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and various animistic religions. There seem to be plenty of Asian tourists, as well as British and American businessmen. Many people, but certainly not all, can speak some English.
Day 4, Deb is working, so I return to the Fish Head Curry market where there is a certain copper mask, studded with turquoise beads, pearl-toothed and three-eyed (I have yet to see any South Park merchandise here). I lust after the mask, and have haggled the shopkeeper down to 700 ringgits, but still cannot decide. Outside, a helpful, two-toothed, would-be tour guide offers to assist me in bargaining for the mask. I put him off from that gambit, and instead, we sit on a low wall in the shade and converse for a while, watching the crowds. He warns me about a particular confidence game, which involves, among other elements, an invitation to a Malaysian house, gambling with cards, an appeal for help with a medical procedure and a rich Bruneian. (This exact scenario was played out with one of Deb's co-workers the year before, but he escaped with no losses.) Then to politics. He says Malaysia, which is very strict, knows how to take care of people like O.J. Simpson and Kenneth Starr (he hates Kenneth Starr). On the other hand, a friend of his was incarcerated for six days and beat with a rubber hose, in such a way as to leave no marks, until he confessed to a crime he did not commit. I think they can hold you for fourteen days without charges. That reminds me of a funny story. On the plane ride, a Malaysian exchange student told me that the penalty for smuggling used to be hanging by the neck. But then someone lived through a hanging, and had to be released, still alive. So, the penalty has been upgraded to hanging by the neck until dead. Ha ha! Luckily, we are not smuggling drugs.
Leaving the market, and the "tour-guide", I spied a set of clean, more orderly (than Chinatown) hawker stalls, selling what looked like lunch. My chance to eat with the people! With some pointing, nodding and smiling, I managed to secure a plate of rice, mussels in hot sauce, grilled potatoes, what I think was cooked cucumber, and a glass of squozen-on-the-spot orange juice. Being wise John, I removed the red peppers from the mussel stuff, only to bite into a green bean that was not a green bean but was a green chili pepper. Eyes tearing and nose sniffling, I avoided embarrassment and loss of face through the use of sunglasses and my inscrutable Western countenance.
Tonight we attend a concert in the new hall at the Petronas Towers, a special performance for the Tower workmen and their families, and known as a "hardhat concert".
The concert was fine - a rehearsal concert with a little Brahms and a little Beethoven, conducted by Kees Bakels. The principal second violinist (from Los Angeles) attempted (to no avail) to teach the audience when and when not to clap for classical music. I, of course, know to wait until the conductor and players start to look nervous and disappointed before clapping. The hall is gorgeous, and seemed, to my untrained ear, to sound very good; as the brochure states, "architects Cesar Peli & Associates and acousticians Kirkegaard & Associates have created a concert hall of outstanding quality and versatility".
The next day, after a bit of arranging with the concierge, we traveled away from the city to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, or FRIM. "I have never heard of this. Why do you go there? Are you from Greenpeace?” We were able to secure a taxi with driver for about $6 per hour. Our driver? Batman. "Why are you called Batman?" "Because I like the night and the Batman movies." "Have you seen the old TV series?" "Yes, since I was four." So, out to FRIM in the Batmobile.
In the heat and humidity of FRIM, we climbed a trail winding through hillside jungle until we reached a wooden tower, where we met Sue (Soo?), who was to guide us into the treetops. From the hillside tower radiates a walkway, suspended some 100 feet high in the forest canopy. This walkway, and other wiggly walkways, interconnect the platforms in the trees. On each platform we paused to admire the views and the breeze. Very, very peaceful, compared to the city, which is visible through the trees in the distance. No bugs and no snakes, though Deb was "attacked" by a wooden cobra later in the darkened FRIM museum - brushing up against it, she leapt back, sunglasses clattering to the floor.
After the canopy walk, we, reunited with Batman, searched in vain for the Bambusetum section of FRIM, where I was hoping to conduct more research on the subject of bamboo that will not die if grown in Colorado (where we live). Next was a long drive, resulting in a short stop, for a small museum depicting the aboriginal Orang Asli way of life. The driving time was not wasted, since we got to hear the story of Batman's life, as well as many interesting tidbits of Malay and Muslim culture. Deb's comment later was, "If the religious police are chasing you down the street to fine, beat or kill you for one of these moral infractions, couldn't you just claim you no longer wish to be Muslim?" Since we hope to utilize the Batmobile for another trip this weekend, we may learn the answer to this.
After that long day out, Deb worked at the concert hall until 3 in the morning. She has returned to work today, so, in anticipation of the second stage of our journey, I started on my "base tan" for Hawaii. Poolside at the Shangri-La, I started reading Isabella Bird's "The Hawaiian Archipelago", which is a book of letters relating her travel experiences there. As a travel guide, it's a bit out of date (1875), so I won't rely on any of the steamship travel tables it may contain.
Please forgive us, dear readers, for the time gap between this and the previous missive; travel circumstances (as well as a nearby beach) have conflicted with our desire to communicate. We're now on Maui, but let me first finish with Malaysia...
Saturday we ventured a few hours South of Kuala Lumpur to Melaka, the original, and much older, center of Malaysia. With Batman as tour guide, we first stopped at a park displaying traditional houses, one from each region of the country. These houses are very pleasant, of timber-frame construction, with polished wooden floors, high, steeply sloped roofs of thatch or shingles, and walls of woven rattan set with carved wooden screens. They are raised above the ground (i.e., mud) on posts about a meter high. Batman grew up in such a house. In one, he pointed out the bamboo log upon which a young boy would sit (ahem, extended) for the circumcision ritual rite-of-passage. Threatening a young boy with a visit to "the log" was sometimes used as a disciplinary tactic.
In Melaka, we wandered about in a medieval warren of streets that are lined with homes interspersed with small shops. Antiques, crafts, groceries, motorcycle repair, foot reflexology, restaurants, etc., are all represented. In one of these, a once-fine, now-decaying restaurant, filled with many electric fans of many styles futilely blowing the heat about, we had a very good lunch of sweet-and-sour seafood soup, coconut curry beef and chicken in a dark, pungent sauce. I love this food. Each time a nearby fan swiveled our way, the straws would jump out of our sarsis (root-beers).
The next day, the last before our departure, we quickly toured Little India in Kuala Lumpur, returned to the Central Market to actually purchase The Mask (hooray!), and then went to the concert hall to meet with Deb's boss, the boss's wife, and a coworker who had arrived the night before. At the hall, someone in the audio department asked me if I would come look at the MediaMatrix sound system (a computer-based audio system that my company invented). Warily, I asked if there was a problem. I hadn't intended to work a single minute on this trip, and was enjoying my role as bag-carrier and travel-researcher for Deb. No, no, he said, all is fine, could I just bless (figuratively speaking) the configuration file? No problem, looks good, I said. That's the kind of customer support I like to be faced with.
That evening, we all went out to Seri Melayu, a restaurant featuring gamelan music and traditional dancing (performed by professional dancers, not by the diners). The buffet had many, many exotic items, of which we could only sample a small subset. I have now officially missed my chance to eat fermented durian fruit.
Next morning, pre-dawn, Deb and I departed Malaysia. The Mask was of great interest to the airport baggage-check security guard. He made me unpack it from its many layers of protective newspaper and cardboard (no, not straw in a wooden crate), and said he'd never seen anything like it. It did look very striking, perhaps demonic, under the color x-ray. I begin to think there may consequences resulting from removing The Mask from its homeland.
Three flights later, we landed on Maui, very tired, our only real trouble being an inept check-in (by Malaysia Air) which required some fancy footwork on our part, at each stage of the journey, to ensure that our luggage arrived with us. There was a minor delay in Honolulu - we must have looked scruffy, because we excited extra scrutiny from U.S. customs. They referred to us as a "random backpack couple". "Mr. Britton, have you ever been to Canada?" and "Why did you visit Colombia?" I considered running for it, but being on an island, chose instead to answer their impertinent questions.
From the Maui airport, in a rented convertible, we went to the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, where Deb immediately worked for a few hours, while I snored on a couch in the theater dressing room. Then to our hotel on the ocean, frozen Lava Flows™ by the pool, a pepperoni pizza delivered to our room (to celebrate returning to the USA), all followed by twelve hours of sleep.
Next time, Deb's Wild Birthday on the Beach...
Please recall that you last left us in a deep sleep, digesting pizza and recovering from our long journey to Maui... We awoke on Deb's birthday (the big two eight), to a brilliant blue sky, the sound of the Pacific surf, a breeze rattling amongst the palm fronds, exotic bird tweetage from a manicured garden adjoining the patio outside our sliding glass door, and the sound of native drums signaling the nearby islands with detailed information about a special luau to be held to honor of the visit from Deb, the Very Light Skinned Goddess of Audio.
A thirty-yard walk from our room yields a very, very, nice beach, quite swimmable, with black cliffs for diving from and reefs for snorkeling to and fish for looking at. Across the water, to the West, is a mountain-island (Molokai? Lanai? I'm not sure which). Close, to the East, rise the steep, green mountains of West Maui, usually crowned in clouds and/or giant rainbows. Outside our door, flowers hang from vines and unobtrusively perfume the air.
We spent the day on the beach, doing very little, with an occasional cavort in the waves, sipping strawberry daiquiris, as our native friends roasted pig, mahi and dog wrapped in banana leaves, wove hula skirts from leaves of the ti plant, sliced pineapple, mango and passion fruit, and pounded poi, all in preparation for the great feast... Then we awoke for real, only to have all transpire on that day exactly as we had dreamed it, excepting for the parts concerning the native luau.
Today we must pack, and then execute a complicated dance with the luggage and the rental car. We have to check out by noon since the hotel is full, but wish to stay at the beach and pool until six, when it will be time to drive to the airport. So, quickly, I'll relate our other days here. We: swam, snorkeled, drove half the windy, rugged, paradisiacal road to Hana, bought a Hawaiian shirt and some Kona coffee beans, were offered drugs ("Primo bud, dude?" - I recognized the "bud" being held up as the unopened flower of the illicit marijuana plant due only to my experience as company Drug Awareness Officer (a requirement for government contractors)), and we had a very fine dining experience at Mama's Fish House. Unfortunately, we don't have time to insert Deb's new monograph entitled "Bites from Around the World" in which she compares the inflammation circumference of the mosquito bites of Colorado, Cyprus, Malaysia and Hawaii.