A day in Chinatown from Sofia

Introduction

I have on my phone 782 pictures. Most of them are too mundane to post on the internet but too personal for me to delete. What follows is one of those snapshots. It is an example of a day in Kuala Lumpur where we didn’t leave Chinatown to seek national monuments, meet Jackie Chan, or get free drinks in a posh uptown skybar. It is simply a commonplace work day complete with a commute to and from work and while it may not be a day of great note in the grand scheme of travel adventure, it is very important to me.

Teague and I have written two post. Both cover more or less our daily lives dwelling in the Chinatown of Kuala Lumpur (or KL as any well learned local calls it). It is good to note when reading the two posts that Teague and I worked varying shifts during our month stay in the city. I generally worked 8 to 1 and Teague worked 10 to 3. The difference seems minute to the outside eye but the ever changing city of KL is in constant flux and we hope you will view each of the two posts from these varying perspective.

START

To be able to explain a day in KL to you, I have to properly explain our apartment and for that I will need your patience and imagination. In truth, calling it an apartment is generous but it was where we slept, showered, cooked breakfast and retreated after our shifts for almost a month. It is, at best, a large warehouse that shelters an apartment complex, complete with an open air courtyard. In that court yard there is a kitchen, 4 bathrooms, 3 sitting areas, 2 iguanas and one meditation space. Each room has a front door and a window that faces the warehouse hallway, where guests and backpackers tromp back and forth on the well worn hardwood floors.

 

The chances are good that your day begins much like it ended. Your Romanian neighbor, a sweet but hard woman, is yelling at someone on the phone. She told you once that she had her wallet stolen in Penang and later in the afternoon she will ask you if you have a paypal account. You say no, which is the truth, but are not entirely sure you would offer up your account even if you had one. She has been yelling at someone on the phone for hours at a time over the last week and you pity her but also are not sure what to make of it.

It is 7:15 and you make your way to the pallet board landing on the roof where you stretch, run through your favorite yoga flow and follow through with your daily meditation practice. There is a gong going off somewhere in the distance, as there is every morning, at the ancient Hindu temple down the street. The gong sounds for a half hour every morning starting at 7. Where it used to annoy you, foreign and nonsensical, you now appreciate it as a call to worship as you start your mediation.

At ten to 8 you brush your teeth at the sink that sits next to a large floor to ceiling cage in the courtyard. In the cage are two four foot long bright orange iguanas. You and they engage in your ritual morning staring contest. They don’t move. You wonder if they are plastic.

At 8 you make your way to the guesthouse that currently employs you. It is a two minute walk and you have learned to take the back alleys of Chinatown directly to work. The sky is cloudy and the streets are loud. The city woke up long before you did. As you pass out of your first alley you look down and notice a dead, bloated rat on the side of the road. He is soaked from last night’s rain and his eyes are already being devoured by ants swarming out of the sewer. You look up. There, across the street, is a brightly colored Hindu temple, still and beautiful and holy. You look down. Dead rat. Lookup. Beautiful temple. Your heart smiles because this is so perfectly Kuala Lumpur.

 

You get to work and relieve the night employee, Joe. He is a kind Malay-chinese man who works each night from 10 p.m to 8 a.m. He has mentioned to Teague that he also runs his own photography business during the day. A true hustler. He is always happy to see you. You take stock of the kitchen and then run to the adjacent wet market and 7/11 to purchase whatever breakfast necessities you are running low on. You know that this is technically a chore of your employment but you delight in it as you have now become a regular in these places and the grocers almost always have your items ready and waiting for you.

8:30 brings guest to the rooftop kitchen and dining area. These guest range from hung over backpackers who drink the terrible instant coffee that is free to whole Swedish family units who immediately pull out a map and start grilling you about how to get to the Batu Caves, the Botanical garden, or the Bukit Bintang mall. By this time you have been to all of these places and are happy go into too much detail about the trains, free buses and walking routes they can take.

At some point your employer has arisen and come to the roof to check on you. His name is Willi and he is wonderful. As you cut fruit and make eggs he does his morning stretches in the kitchen and, if it is raining outside as it almost always is at this time in the morning, sings “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” to you . Sometimes Willi talks to you about politics and you love this. You have learned he has a fascination with the Illuminati in America and, as you make cheese toasties and cut papaya for well traveled guests, the two of you exchange information and insight. Eventually he will disappear back downstairs and, even though he is a just a staircase away, you will miss him and his singing in your kitchen.

By 1 p.m it has stopped raining, everyone is well fed, rooms have fresh sheets and clean floors, guests are checked in,  bookings are updated, kitchen has been thoroughly cleaned, dishes put away  and you are shockingly tired. You hang the last bits of clean white laundry over the rooftop clothes lines (drying machines are largely non-existent in South East Asia where even the winter feels like summer). Your shift is done.

You start your walk back to your apartment around 2 p.m.

The sun is high and whatever evidence there was of rain is now mostly gone. Make no mistake, Kuala Lumpur is hot.

You turn down your first ally and walk by a Chinese record shop (this is Chinatown after all), blasting the most jingle-encrusted pop music in a language you can’t understand. It is the kind of kitschy, easily digestible music that puts Justin Bieber to shame. The store has a large, wood paneled speaker that it sets up on the street that blares so loudly you can’t hear your thoughts as you walk by. Like most things, this used to exasperate you but now you adore this ridiculous smorgasbord of sounds and voices. You bop your head in approval as you pass out of the ally.

Once you are home you strip down for a shower. Now I have to describe to you bathrooms in South East Asia and, again, I will need your imagination. Unless you are staying at a place that caters to western comfort, shower stalls do not exist in SEA. What you have is a room with a toilet, a trashcan and a shower hose. The bathroom floor is always wet. Occasionally, at really budget accommodations, we have seen the shower hoses placed directly above the toilet but in our bathroom the hose is positioned in front of the shower. If you wanted to look at this with a silver-lining mindset, you now have a seat in your shower. There is rarely hot water but you’re okay with that because all you want at this point in the day is to cool down.

After you shower, nap, read (currently No Country For Old Men) or catch up on US headlines for a few hours, you go back to the guesthouse roof where you work because the sun may be setting and you don’t want to miss the light.

 

As you sit on the roof, at your usual table, you look out over the city. Kuala Lumpur is an incredibly modern jungle: there is an area outside of Chinatown called Bukit Bintang where there is a mall complex that is literally called “The Rise Of Opulence” and it is filled with high end movie theaters and Prada retailers. The juxtaposition between the crumbling colonial buildings that house the dirty alleys of Chinatown and the ultra modern air conditioned luxury of high rise malls is startling.The glittering skyline covered with ground to sky windows reflects the evening light in a way that fills your heart with an indescribable gratitude.

I am not a writer, but I wish I was so that I could find the perfect combination of words to allow you to feel how beautiful the evening sun is in Kuala Lumpur. The red and purple light reflects off the buildings just as the evening call to prayer starts at the national mosque. Reader, I highly suggest you google these songs and listen to their other worldly sounds. These prayer songs are so beautiful and foreign and the reason you came traveling.

The resplendent city dances with the unearthly melody as cars whiz by and somewhere down on the streets a rat is taking his final breath; off to join his friend in the great rat heaven in the sky.

Epilogue

After the sunset and some rooftop beers with you friends (Teague, who you all know by now, Kaite, a sassy Canadian with a fantastic laugh, Kim, a stunningly beautiful British traveler, and Willi) you walk back to your apartment to turn in for the night. You feel safe as you make your ways through the alleys and streets in a way you don’t at home.

You stand in the courtyard brushing your teeth. The iguanas have moved from the lower branch of their cage to the floor. They are not plastic.

As you spit for the last time into the sink you are approached by a rambunctious Australian kid, Adam, who is engaging in a drunken courtyard debate with a young american girl about world politics. You thought you were going to bed early but you don’t put your head on the pillow until 1 a.m

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