Usually, I need to time reflect and to digest a new place before I can write about it. That may take a day, a week, sometimes too long and I have moved on, literally and figuratively. But today is different. Today seems like the beginning of a great new love affair and without having any proof or insurance that it will be just that, I want to throw caution overboard and shout it into the world. Today I met Malaysia.
It starts on the plane, back in coach when I am sitting next to a Malaysian couple and their three-year-old son. The son is only sort of well-behaved, but cute enough to get away with quite a bit and the mother is attentive, even apologetic when it becomes too much. Both parents are fasting and I don't envy them, munching cookies and anything edible the flight attendant puts in front of me. Iftar is announced with congratulations by the captain and a special meal is given to the Muslim passengers. My neighbor explains her meal to me and wishes me, the infidel who has been drinking like a camel for the past five hours, happy Iftar. With that, I already think Malaysians to be wonderful.
When our captain tells us just before landing that smuggling any illegal substances into the country would be severely prosecuted and punished I don't think it so wonderful anymore. Not that there is anything stronger than Ibuprofen in my luggage, but who knows what Malaysia considered illegal or not. With this announcement I expect to be strip-searched or at least severely questions, but immigration is a blast: a line of three minutes, a procedure of one and welcome to Malaysia!
Then it is time for my biggest travel pet peeve: taxis. While I always loved taxis in NYC, taxis in most other parts of the world are a whole different ball game. If you want to remind me now of the awesome public transport in Kuala Lumpur, I will simply call scuba gear. So I am faced with the somewhat daunting prospect to get a taxi in the middle of the night in a foreign city to get me and my extra 30 kilos to my hotel. The usual questions in my head include: Will I get ripped off? Will the driver know where to take me? Are the headlights actually on? Will I end up in some cousin's shop instead of my hotel? Will I end up in a ditch on the roadside? While I have so far survived a fair amount of taxi rides, I still wish I could afford a private chauffeur named Walter to travel with me instead.
I shouldn't have worried one bit, because getting a taxi at KL airport is a breeze and my taxi driver, Hamid – we are now Facebook friends – not only doesn't rip me off, knows how to use headlights, but also speaks English incredibly well and thus becomes my one hour guide to everything Malaysian while we drive through the sleeping city.
First off, everything in Malaysia is pretty great he tells me. The food is great and I must eat everything and especially Nasi Lemak for breakfast. Here I will spell it for you: N-A-S-I... The weather is always good, but I have apparently come at the best time of the year and oh yes, the diving, he has heard great things about the diving and Sipadan. How do divers speak under water he asks me and I ask him if he has ever gone snorkeling. No, he doesn't have time for that. Being a taxi driver is a hard life, he usually works 16 hours a day. His only son is disabled and takes care of his mother at home, but he is in catering and an excellent cook.
He is not asking for pity, but just telling me matter-of-factly before he continues to rave about the Malaysian cuisine. Then he makes my itinerary for my one day in Kuala Lumpur. I should see the National Mosque and from there I can go to the old railway station. Next to it is the Islamic Museum and the Police Museum and close by the Bird Park. I need to pay a cover charge and take my time, it is big. Of course, the Petrona Twin Towers are always worth a visit, good to know my hotel is right in the middle of the city and yes, I can walk, it is not dangerous he assures me. At 3 pm I should find a taxi to take me to the Ramadan market, but, he says with a smirk, I should leave my luggage at the hotel and fetch it before going to the bus station.
When I come back next time I should go to this place an hour and a half away where one can take a boat to see the firefly trees. Do I know what a firefly is? I sure do and now I am so enchanted, I am about to change my itinerary just so I can see the firefly trees (and if you think I'm crazy for even considering that, google firefly trees Malaysia and you will want to book a flight immediately!). But I am off to Tioman Island and there he reckons I must immediately make friends with some locals so I will be invited into someone's home for Eid celebrations. Every family will have a feast and as Malaysians are very hospitable it shouldn't be a problem for me, the poor foreigner, to score an invite. After all, nobody should eat at a hotel during that time. The festivities bring us to the topic of religions and how they peacefully co-exist here in his eyes. There are Muslims, Hindus, and Chinese, who according to Hamid, peacefully worship the god of money. He chuckles, he doesn't seem to mind their beliefs.
When we get lost, he quickly calls for directions and has me at Villa Samadhi, which is tucked away in a residential area, in no time. He gives me his card with his contact details. Find me on Facebook, he says. I don't have a picture of myself, but the one on the card. It is a traditional Malaysian box for betelnut, he explains, usually given as wedding presents. I am ushered in by the bell boy and don't have time to ask the meaning or why he chose it as a picture, but at least I have another reason to come back and I add my questions to the itinerary for next time.