I don’t think you can tango in hiking boots anyway (18 hours in Kuala Lumpur)

At 6 am the Sentral railway station is unexpectedly sleepy. I wander around with compass to get my bearings as the station will be a hub for the day’s adventures. The air is muggy with occasional blasts of air conditioning wisping through the cavern.People look a bit Peruvian. And they feel ok about smiling. Men stare a bit. I think my hair is messy.
The hajib-covered women wear delightful pastel monochromes, with jewels dangling from the gather point at their chins. The train has -an especially vibrant and cheerful- women’s car.There’s no cheating on the headdress, not a wisp of hair. And they have a little inbuilt visor. But they are very decorated, with jewels and edging.
Like most places, It’s illegal to eat or drink on the train but here nobody is doing it anyway. It’s also illegal to display romantic affections. In this trip I’ll go to two Muslim counties and two very lawful ones. Malaysia is both.
The train to Batu caves lets me see tropical abundance and residential areas. The peripheral urban areas seem identical to BsAs and Beirut. Highrises, greyness, buildings that are new and already look old.I am at the top of Batu cave temple, just looking up at that open bit of sky. After 10 minutes a guy walks to edge of his temple platform and commands me “come here”, “shoes off.” I follow him to the curtain at the back of the shrine. Inside are three androgynous black figures, the smaller flanking ones wear dresses. He proceeds to wash them for me, warm then with a candle, play music for them with bells, bathe them in milk and then rinse and warm them again. Then he lavishes them with a whole bottle of something I guessed was rose water. He did all this without getting a drop of liquid on his silky gold sari. Then he rubs ashes on my forehead.Throughout the caves other temples are doing similar rituals for groups, with live music. One ritual involves clothing and bejeweling a lamp. The temples seem to be a robust industry.  There are lots of workers and enough business to make a mess to clean up first thing on Tuesday morning.
Back in the city, fearing the Sri Lankan lunch place not yet open, I jumped off the train at Dang Wangi for breakfast at Yut Kee. When I ordered the Roti Babi, the waiter rolled his eyes as if to say “of course, she’s a gringo so she orders the thing some gringo wrote about in some food blog.  I liked the place more than the food (the promised crab was not in evidence in the babi). But unfortunately for the decor they’ll be moving in August. The marble tables with ornate wooden legs were to die for. This is a “Chinese coffeeshop.” No chopsticks. I didn’t like my tea so ordered “what that guy is having”, which turned out to be barley juice with lime. A popular dish here is a brownish spread which you put on toast. I should have ordered it, but I didn’t.
IMAG0070Malaysia: British colonists brought white bread and Indian servants. Islam was already here. Chinese came too. This mix is indigenous Malay+Islam+Indian+Chinese…  Singapore and Malaysia were originally a similar culture. Muslims and Hindus are now minorities in Singapore, while Malaysia is “a muslim country” with peaceful diversity. This is what I got without doing any research, partly by talking with a Singaporean Muslim with a Malay mother who I met at the Caves. He tagged along for part of my tour.

IMAG0078Walking toward the park through the streets the markets are slowly setting up and I buy the sparkliest hijab I see. So now I’ve become a Hindu and a Muslim in one day.

On to birds, butterflies, and Islamic art…

The best deal in the city at  2 ringgit per person is the tiny open air government bus that ferries tourists from place to place inside the huge park. It’s a huge park and this is a great way to get a taste of the whole thing, with a breeze.

After a lot of walking followed by a cooling circuit in the bus, I skipped the pricey bird park and went for the lovely Islamic arts museum, which has a beautiful collection, well presented. There was a special exhibit on zakat, which is one of the most important principles of Islam. Basically if you find yourself wealthy, you are morally required to give money to the poor. This is called “returning it to the rightful recipients.” These days it’s done through a sort of development association which does outreach to the poor, provides support and educational programming as well.

The museum also included a wonderful collection of architectural models and cultural artifacts.

I observed that Malaysian architecture – and Islamic – is an architecture unafraid of circles or geometry in general. And this really showed in the architecture of the city. Many new buildings have circular aspects.

Now I was hungry and determined to eat curry Sri Lankan crab at a place called Yarl’s corner for which I only had an approximate address in Broomfield, the Indian district. It turned out to have been an informal restaurant and no longer findable. A tip from a Sri Lankan on the street did not turn it up in a new location.

So after a very long and colorful walk I gave up and headed to Vishal for a meal referred to as ‘banana leaf’. You don’t eat the leaf, you eat from the leaf, with your hands. Vishal and the staff were attentive, returning with canisters of options you let them know what you like and they ladle it out onto your leaf. So you can have seconds of the ones you like best! Vishal’s was fabulous! (22 Jalan Scott, off Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields 603 227 40995 vishalfood@hotmail.com).

The plan at this point was basically no more walking. Monorail to  Bukit Bintang to go shoppiing at “the teenage mall” Sungei Wang, then eat eat eat at Jalan Alor. That was the plan. Well the monorail suffered a “big hole” collapse recently and was not serving all stations. Which meant walking back to Sentral (crossing the street is never easy in Kuala Lumpur, you have to go down the stairs down the block up the stairs, over the street, down the stairs…), train to Dang Wangi, then back on the monorail (down, across, up, down, across, up…) a couple of stops to Bukit Bintang. Which was a mess of construction. The mall wasn’t that intersting, just cheap chinese imports. Didn’t buy anything, and desperate to sit down and have a cup of tea; the tarik was on my list and I hadn’t had one yet.

Walking from Sungei Wang to Jalan Alor there were a bunch of attractive street vendors (under the construction roofing) that looked good, but I didn’t stop (mistake). Jalan Alor itself at 5pm was dreadful. Very smelly with garbage runoff, and very dirty unappealing stalls. Surely once the barbecue got going it would mask the smell, but it was so unappealing. I was determined to try to enjoy it, though and promptly indulged in a coconut (which I had waited too long to do). It was spoiled and sour. With bad smell and bad taste, I looked for something to eat, but there wasn’t much (I’d read it opens at 4, but I think the truth is 6). I just wanted to get out of there.

Since the monorail is the only transport to this area, I had to choose a direction that went back to one of the train lines. The closest wasn’t close. Walked slowly down Jalan Ceylon toward station Masjid Jamek. Stopped for tea in an open-air Arab coffeehouse that somehow felt exactly like my first day in Beirut. Put a yerba mate teabag into the Arab tea for good measure and continued through a tranquil area of luxury condo towers. What was here before? The old Malay village. Between the condos were bits of jungle. It was sad. Then descending slightly, there was this wistful tree art…

A few blocks before arriving at Masjid Jamek, the ligament behind my right knee was finished. I had to try not to flex or extend the knee during a step. Slowly, slowly.

I was so thirsty. A fruit juice. How hard can that be. Nothing near the station. I passed a guy eating something like a samosa, it looked like a good one. I watched the next few blocks, looking to see where he got it. Outside the station a boy selling them out of a box. I hesitated. (Are they just rewarmed industrial food? Is any of the street food really homemade? My exhaustion turned to skepticism and here again I think I missed out on something good. I remembered the other time I recognized a good empanada by the look of it as it crumbled into someone’s mouth…) At the station: No juice. Now what? 6 pm is 2 hours before go-to-airport time, but my body is toast. Thirsty and in pain. I couldn’t even assess the status of my foot.

So the train line goes to the towers. I can just walk out of the station, have a look, get an expensive juice (this is supposed to be the fancy district), maybe sit in a cafe, get back on the train and return to Sentral where I must start my journey back to the airport at 8pm.

Stepped out of the station, no juice in sight and only one tower. A mall. All the food bloggers said they actually eat in the mall food courts, and since this is the fancy area, there should be a great fruit juice. Through the massive Suria mall and up to the food court, which was not appealing. Pushed myself not to be picky and went to the first juice place I saw. At least it wasn’t an international chain. I asked for banana, orange, and watermelon. They gave me watermelon, apple, and orange. I tried to drink it before the ice melted, which wasn’t hard. Didn’t really look at the rest of the food, except a dessert place which had cakes made entirely out of piles of crepes with different flavors between. I think I would have liked those.

To see the other tower I went out of the mall 90 degrees from where I entered. A lake! Sat by the lake on a stone staircase, twisting to look back up at the towers. There was grass on the other side of the lake but no one was sitting on it. The view would be better. I hobbled over there and found a bench right at the front of the lake. It was beautiful. I lay down on my back and passed out. I woke up to prayer calls and the towers starting to light up in the dusk.  A perfect view, one of the tourist moments for KL (you’re supposed to book a table at a posh bar to see it). Someone forgot to wait for the prayer calls to end before starting the rainbow water fountain show!  So as the dusk kept dusking and the towers slowly brightened, water like rainbow fire painted the lake. The colors were so saturated, it was so beautiful! Each individual waterjet cycled through the rainbow, it was just totally delightful. And I had a front-row seat with the spectacular backdrop of the towers. Like the Eiffel, I’d have to say the towers are indeed worth seeing. With extended contemplation, I realized that the cross-section (or floor plan) of the towers is an Islamic architectural motif. Fascinating!

Finally at 7:50, I tore myself away from all this luxury charm and headed back to the station.

Arriving at Sentral with exactly 35 minutes before the Express train to the airport, I intended to atone for my failure to eat about food I hadn’t read about first by buying dinner from the closest Indian joint off the station. I did. Takeaway food is packaged in plastic bags. Thankfully my other carry-on in check at the airport had a tupperware container into which I poured my dinner, I don’t know how I could have eaten it otherwise. The roti was oily and salty, but not that flavorful. The sauce and cabbage relish was nice.

Bagged dinner in hand, I stopped at a street vendor outside the station and bought some jewelry from her, in the dark, leaving just 3 ringgit to deal with the obvious dehydration caused by my irresponsible refusal to drink bottled water. I manage to get dessert and water for that and just made it to the train.

Silences in history. Silences by code. Silences of fear. You already know that Tango’s silences can be sublime and they can be devastating.

What I do in my blog is use myself as a lens – sometimes a microscope, sometimes a telescope. I try to be as honest with myself and you as words concede. Then I try to find a deeper meaning and imagine a pathway for us.

A blog post can be a fragment, a wisp of inspiration, an outline for thinking. A book must complete and reconcile it all. Now I drag the social scientist to the scene to enumerate the facts of the case, the mystery which brought both stardom and tragedy to my life.

I invite you to join my resolution to take a look at the dark silences of Argentine Tango in our lives. It’s time.


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