When I arrived in Malaysia I was determined to meet people, but knew it would be difficult fitting social activities around the long hours of the Rock Your Eco Business event. But as I found myself in bed tossing and turning each night (probably because my body refused to sleep knowing it was residing in lively downtown Kuala Lumpur) I decided to venture out. On Friday night, after walking a couple hundred meters and having cars blasting their horns and flashing their lights at me every other step and being grabbed by an old, scruffy looking man, I decided that maybe KL wasn’t a good place for a foreign girl to be wondering around alone at night. Annoying on multiple unjust levels.
I stood outside my hostel for a number of minutes, contemplating my options. A queasy stench lingered in the air from the accumulated trash, exhaust fumes and smog. Every now and then I would see a large, well fed rat shimmy by, skirting three foot potholes. The hostel was located outside China town, a busy market place with vendors and lanterns on every corner.
I remained there until a man approached to ask about the bus system. We spoke of his life in Malaysia as an African expat and his interest in sports and fitness until I found myself agreeing to grab something to eat, at his expense, because I had ran out of local currency. I was mildly aware my family members would be panicked if they knew I was befriending strangers in an unfamiliar city, but I feel I know intuitively when someone is dangerous or ulterior. Perhaps one day my optimism will work to my detriment, but so far it’s served me well. So I went, ate pork fat (the result of ordering something in another language) and spoke about public perception of Africans and his love for his family. A pretty random way to spend an evening. Then I went back to the hostel, to my room without windows.
The following evening after day two Rock Your Business, I sat in the hostel’s bamboo lounge to check my emails. I found myself watching a young man from behind; his form caught my attention. It seemed graceful, almost Japanese-like; he was bent over the wooden breakfast bar, his leg out-stretched in a slide split against an adjacent desk. A bandana was tied around his head in a karate kid fashion.
Later this same boy (who turned out to be an American from Minnesota), bounced excitedly into the lounge to announce he found a kickass heavy metal band and would anyone like to go. How could I turn that down? I followed him out. We followed a road that opened suddenly into an artist corner with portraits and paintings flanking the dirty concrete street. And there, echoing through the narrow pathway, was a thrashing death metal band with youthful figures leaping and pouncing on each other in a chaotic circle, yelling undecipherable lyrics in a lethal mosh pit. Above their heads was a chalk board sign with the words ‘Doppler Bar’ with black marker pen drawings along the walls. Full of local Malay teenagers, angsty about something… or maybe nothing. Water bottles and soda cans were interspersed through the venue; there wasn’t a beer insight. It’s decidedly more hardcore to get punched in the face whilst sober than drunk.
After the spectacle my new companion and I headed to the Reggae bar. We ordered some drinks and people watched. Foreigners and women with short, tight dresses were dotted around. We puffed on shisha for a number of hours, talking about anthropology, nature and philosophy. We had a good laugh speculating about the state of things, then when the DJ queued Gangnum Style, we hit the dance floor. I continued to dance with locals and foreigners alike until 1.30am arrived and I remembered I had a business pitch to do in the morning.
Sunday was the final day of RYB event, and we all went out for drinks. After working so hard for the last three days it was nice to get to know each other over a few apple ciders.
I had initially planned to leave on the Monday, but as I had a new travel buddy, a meeting lined up with my new business partners, and drinks planned with the Green Man, I decided to remain in Malaysia for a couple more days.
Peter from Minnesota (who incidentally lived in Japan and speaks Japanese, which may explain the resemblance of his disposition) and I decided to go to an artist commune. It was an hour’s walk. Again, hung-over and dehydrated, I hiked the urban terrain. The sun was up high in the sky, draining me with every step; mocking me. Along the way we crossed Little India; colours, arches and (because it would be Deepwali the next day) flowers and fireworks were on display. It was another world and totally unexpected. I stood admiring the bright and confident Indian attire. I love the way it’s not afraid to be bold and beautiful, with intricate patterns, shimmering saris, ornate jewellery and henna decorated skin. Stumbling upon the scene Peter and I practically broke out in glee and resolved to spend day there because after hiking an hour in the sun, we found the artist retreat closed.
People in Malaysia are so splendidly friendly and open. Twice Peter and I were invited to visit people’s houses to eat for Deepwali within moments of meeting them. Men walked the streets holding hands, ironically as they checked out women. Everything felt communal and slow paced. When we stopped to ask a man on a motor scooter for directions at a traffic light, he remained at a complete halt, even when the lights were green, to patiently answer our question as if he had nowhere to go and he wasn’t in the middle of traffic. It’s as if there’s no stress or rush in Malaysia; a bit of a shock after living in London. I’m up-tight and impatient in comparison; I will make a point to learn from the Malay.
After an afternoon of wandering around and eating delicious food, we opted to check out Ayurvedic treatment. We quickly befriended the shop owners and decided on the sinus cleanse because we both had lingering colds, most likely induced by the smog. Peter disappeared into a room for 25 minutes while I read about chakras. When he reemerged it was as if he returned from a relaxing week in the Bahamas. His cheeks were flushed a healthy pink, his skin had a clear glow; he was floating cloud-like. “I feel amazing” was all he managed, and he sketched in the testimonial book to illustrate just how amazing he felt. By this point I was super excited and headed into the dark treatment room. I laid under a steamer to open my pores and nasal glands. Then my head was tilted back and a few tiny drops of oil were poured into my nose and the therapist begin to massage the sinus areas around my eyes, and then performed a number of odd movements – jerking my arm here, twisting my neck there. I became loosened. When the treatment was over, however, my eyes were streaming and my throat was clogged with phlegm. I was encouraged to cough it up. I repeatedly hacked – deep from the back of my throat – bringing up mucus and phlegm in the most unladylike fashion. I was assured this was a good thing, but when I exited to meet Peter, I could feel my eyes running and nose dripping with snot. Something in me dislodged. Where Peter was transcendent, I was a leaky mess. He just looked at me and laughed and I damned myself for getting the short end of the experience.
My time in Malaysia was a lively and immensely fulfilling trip which ended with my taking the train back to Singapore, through miles of rainforest. As I waited at the train station, a lady (who could easily have been a drag queen but for the sake of the retelling I’ll refer to her as a lady), struck up conversation in the food court. She developed a fascination, picking apart my features. “Your forehead”, she said, “is like Filipino; your cheekbones like Malay; your nose like Italiana, where you from?” She clapped when I told her and whenever someone she knew came over (which seemed like every other person) she would point at me and they would proceed to animatedly scrutinise my appearance. Part of travelling, I realised, is getting used to staring and pointing.
My new friend then said she would give me something very nice; something of value. Her eyes glazed over and she said “No one will hurt you, nothing will harm you. You have safe travels. See, I give you charm. You have safe travels.”