A tall Chinese man covered in pin-up tattoos takes my unruly hair into his rough hands. I jolt a little in my seat, overcome by the sudden fear of stepping into an Asian salon and trusting this surprisingly gentle giant.
“Sorry, I’m just really nervous,” I say in a panic. “Because, you know… these curls have a mind of their own.”
He laughs, pushing back his bleached tresses. “It’s all right. I’m up for the challenge. It’s a new experience at least.”
There’s something symbolic to dying your hair, even if you purposely put yourself in a stressful situation just to feel a thrill. For the past three and a half months, I’ve been a resident of Kuala Lumpur. Now, it’s time to let the growing pains of summer limbo go and step into a new stage. This – this intangible feeling of change – is why I dye my hair.
Let’s back up to a couple of months ago. Seated on the veranda of a hostel in Cameron Highlands, Kyla and I enjoyed the company of a few bold backpackers – a pair from the U.K. and another from the U.S. Exchanging travel travesties and triumphs, we all decided to try the Cameron-renowned “Steamboat” special (basically Asian fondue, also a really great icebreaker because you’re all putting random food into a big pot).
“You have to ‘do’ Bali,” the California girl told us, putting a prawn into the stew. “It’s unreal.”
I nodded politely, engrossed in the conversation of getting lost and finding yourself – the same as any 20-something would. “Doing” places is common travel lingo and usually refers to passing through different places to get a sample taste of culture.
“And what did you think of KL?” I asked.
Cali girl’s eyes lit up. “I loved it. So clean, so nice! Hardly any traffic compared to Indonesia.”
Did we both see the same city? This intrigued me. As an expat, I’ve seen the cracks and pseudo-modernization chaos of KL. As a passer-by, she saw the “glistening” city for a few days and then carried on to the lush tropics of Taman Negara.
Neither of us is right. And neither of us is wrong. After all, my first impression of Singapore was that it’s a better, more efficient version of Kuala Lumpur.
“I loved it! So clean, so nice!”
First impressions are always deceiving, usually fixated on the first attractive detail you can find and then over-exaggerated to the point of creating a caricature. There’s nothing wrong with backpacking or taking weekend trips, but there’s also something to be said for truly staying with a place and appreciating it for its quirky political grit and grime.
Last week, I booked a ticket to Bangkok to indulge in the backpacker’s dream. Optimistic, Kyla and I were planning on roughing it all the way to Phuket with our friend Natalie. Yes, I thought. Finally time to explore.
Then, a couple days later, I got a fever. At a walk-in clinic near the Petronas Towers, I was diagnosed with “haze-induced cold and flu.” Basically, the city was making me sick. The “haze” is a common term in Southeast Asia for smog mixed with forest fires from Indonesia and northern Malaysia. After a summer of commuting from downtown KL and back, I was advised to take it easy.
Instead of backpacking, I’ve been welcomed by a family friend into their home. Now in the green neighbourhood of Ampang, I can finally breathe and my energy is coming back. Although I can’t “do” Bangkok, I can thoroughly enjoy the hospitality of Kuala Lumpur that made me first fall in love with Malaysia.
Maybe it’s not my time to be an adventurer. Maybe I won’t have crazy stories about backpacking all over Southeast Asia and running myself into debt. That’s okay. Because what I’ve gained from this trip is a sense of self throughout the ups and downs of financial and medical stresses. I don’t want to be someone who travels abroad just to collect countries as if they’re Pokemon cards. I want to be someone who appreciates the quality of travel over the quantity of passport stamps. At the end of the day, Malaysia is my second home and the friends I’ve made have shone through the cracks of crazy KL.
Oh, and my hair did turn out all right. I’m back to my natural colour of dark brown and feeling better.
Sometimes, you have to go outside your comfort zone to realize that, at the end of the day, you will survive. You will be fine, no matter where you go. Because this experience is yours and no one else – not even a travel aficionado in Lonely Planet – can define that for you.