Of islands, cats, and second chances

“Hon, I swear I’ll change,” Kuala Lumpur begs, stomping out a cigarette in the midst of the Bukit Bintang bustle. “I’ll quit smoking, finally put a helmet on our kid when he hitches a ride to sekolah on my motorbike… Heck, I’ll even start to recycle. Just gimme a second chance, lah.”

Okay, so Kuala Lumpur isn’t your typical clueless man-boy in a rom com and I’m not Carrie Bradshaw. But, now at the end of July, I’m thinking of giving the city a second chance to woo this Canadian.

From the Sarawak Rainforest to the comforts of air con in KLCC, the past couple of weeks have shown us the two sides of “1Malaysia.” When Kyla and I first arrived in early May, we got a bad first impression. Chinatown isn’t necessarily known for its fresh air or friendly faces, and our hostel stay lead us to grow hostile to our second home.

First, let’s hop on an Air Asia flight to Kuching (Malay for “cat”), a quiet town home to the rambunctious Rainforest World Music Festival.

Kuching’s small town charm

Life is easier on the East side of Malaysia. There’s a reason we left the haze of KL for Sarawak, Borneo, praised for its jungle and timeless hospitality. Home to over 60 tribes, Borneo boasts a colourful history much different from the peninsular coast’s Western feel. We honestly felt as if we saw the real Malaysia.

While Canucks are Osheaga-ing, we became honorary members of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and hit up the Rainforest World Music Festival.

The Orang-Ulu longhouse, only one of the many tribes of Borneo

Once a year, the Sarawak Cultural Village is transformed into a Heineken-sponsored musical playground. For the weekend of July 13th, we sampled sounds from Norwegian concert band power-pop to Palestinian classic guitar to mighty Malaysian rhythm. Before the big-name entertainment, the days were filled with native dance workshops and interactive art exhibitions. We learned the intricate steps of the Iban tribe (including a wedding dance. I think I accidentally got married… again), I got to test out my skills as a metal wire sculptor (verdict: despite the metal elbow connection, I should just stick to writing), and we shared our love for Malaysia in a traditional longhouse.

Kyla gets a lesson in bracelet making

A local artist’s future self-portrait

9 Ringgit Heinekens in hand (that’s about 3 bucks Canadian), we descended to the slip-n-slide land of mud pits and massive stages. When you dance with as much senseless white girl vigour as I do, you don’t necessarily want your $1000 camera grinding with the crowd (so James Dean, my Canon Rebel extraordinaire, didn’t take any live shots).

Sarawak’s own export sensation, Zee Avi, extended her usual ukulele routine to a full-out band. Originally discovered on YouTube, Avi has made Borneo proud with two successful albums and plenty of American press coverage. Showing her love for hometown Miri, the pint-sized star incorporated chilling warrior cries into her radio-friendly pop. The crowd couldn’t resist joining in on an alternative rendition of latest hit, “Concrete Wall.” Avi formed a percussion brigade on stage with members of the Cultural Village, hammering out the heart-wrenching line: “You say that I need therapy. Well, my darling… so do you.”

It was a homecoming show suited for the appetite of all of Borneo. The sky opened up and sing-a-longs rang from the infamous mud pit. Avi is a class act, combining traditional Malaysian instruments with her pop appeal. Here’s a shot of the sapeh, a string instrument from the lute family:

Jammin’

Another favourite Malaysian act was Rhythm of Borneo. Fusing elements of jazz, funk, rock, and pop, this young group is bright-eyed and boisterous. Winners of the Rainforest Talent Search last year, they definitely have a strong, somewhat One Direction-esque fangirl following (count me in).

While Francine flew back to KL, Kyla and I had our hearts set on Bako, a short 20 minute drive from Kuching. It was hard, like most experiences in Southeast Asia, to not feel like a voyeur. When we arrived at the dock of this little fishing village, we were surprised to find every hostel booked. Instead of lounging on the beach or hanging with orangutans in one of the National Parks, we decided to save our cash and take a little tour around the town.

It wasn’t some cheap tourist thrill that changed our day. It was a little girl, with as much curiosity as a kuching, that gave us the best souvenir: a Malay conversation. So we only said “Nama saya” (My name is) and asked her if she liked cats… but for some strange reason, I’ll always remember that part of our trip.

She likes cats, too

Island living has seemed to have rubbed off on us.

With this new laidback mindset, we came back to the grind and grunge of the city. Each day, I’m reminded that there are still new experiences to be had. With only 17 work days left of our internship, we’re discovering the trap doors of KL. This past weekend, Francine and I oogled over the green areas that apparently only gas money can buy.

A park? In our city?

Allow me to adopt the Amelia Thermopolis persona once again (last time used: the Queen’s Bday Bash).

Shut. Up. 

Art + park? Okay, we’ll take it

Thanks, Petronas.

We’ve been likening this secret hangout spot of ours to Central Park, only in Malay it would be called “Sentral Park” (no C in their lingo). It’s tucked right under the Twin Towers and serves as the backyard to high-end shopping centre, KLCC. Over the next few weeks, we’re planning on doing some writing and sketching here. You know, truly embracing the artsy side we sometimes hide during the hectic school year.

All of a sudden, we’re awakened to urban possibility. The arts & culture promotional initiative in KL, http://alive-my.com/, sparked my interest in a few spunky local businesses and collectives. Despite the racial tensions, the skewed politics, and the hazy days, this city is finally unafraid and releasing its pent-up creativity.

You can actually breathe here!

KL, you’re not such a bad guy after all. Even though I’m leaving you in about a month…

Here’s to second chances.

Coming up: I swear to ramen, the William Beckett interview (travel has gotten in the way), a chat with The Annexe Gallery’s Pang Khee Teik, and tidung (hijab) fashion with my lovely friend Hannan

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“Send my regards to Justin Bieber!”

Deloreans are great and everything, but time travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Malaysia is 12 hours ahead of my motherland, Canada. Whenever it’s noon at the office here and I decide to take a break and update this little blog, it’s naturally “everyone’s sleeping in North America and won’t notice the meticulous maintenance” time.

Right now at 8:06 p.m. in Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, listening to a bizarre jazz rendition of Coldplay’s “Clocks” while Muslim business buffs chitchat over Chai tea and iPads, it’s time to catch up.

Makan! Time to eat at a Chinese stall in Petaling Jaya

In Malaysia, every “time” revolves around food. There’s breakfast, then there’s tea, then there’s lunch, then there’s tea 2.0, then there’s supper. And, well, always and any way there is dessert. Everyone from work has been more than accommodating, letting us into their cherished “makan” community. “Makan” basically translates into “eating,” “time to eat,” or, as the Canadian interns know: “time to eat things with heads and laugh it off.”

One of my favourite nights here so far has been at a Chinese stall in Petaling Jaya, a quiet suburb of KL with a comforting family feel. Francine and I tagged along with our co-worker, Siew Eng, and temporarily joined her “Glutton Gang” – a.k.a. 15 or so feisty Malaysian foodies. We indulged in homegrown mint tea, flathead fish soup, and more than enough garden-grown veggies to make me turn vegan. Dishes were washed at the table, ingredients were given to the chefs themselves, and we felt like we were invited to Southeast Asian Thanksgiving.

Siew Eng, staying true to Malaysian hospitality, took us out for appetizers. At Restoran Say Huat (yeah, I may have giggled at that), we gave popiah a try. Although it has a thin crepe-like wrap, this Asian delicacy houses a whole city of ingredients: bean sauce, finely grated turnip, bean sprouts, French beans, lettuce leaves, grated carrots, thinly sliced tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallots, and shredded omellte. Oh, and chili sauce… somewhere in there.

Popiah’s innards, as taken from the mobile phone perspective

Lesson learned: Malaysians throw whatever they have left in their cupboards and call it a meal. And, even if it’s a fluke, you’ll never know because it’s fantastic.

Onto the next adventure: Canada Day in the jungle.

Cameron Highlands, about 4 hours northeast of Kuala Lumpur, is a perfect retreat for the smog-afflicted city slicker. After overcoming a horrible cold spawned by what Malaysians called “the haze” (basically pollution mixed with forest fires from Indonesia), Kyla and I decided we needed space. Known for its lush tea plantations and strawberry farms, the Highlands (or d’Highlands as our California friends joke) seemed like our escape route of choice.

Getting lost in a rainstorm before grabbing some local tea

Going to Cameron, we expected to take it easy. I had picked up one of those mind-bending J.G. Ballard books and fully intended to explore another world that didn’t involve secondhand smoke and motorbike exhaust. Instead, what we found was something even more mystical – something even more soothing than jumping into the pool after climbing up 100 steps to our apartment.

Totally felt like Mowgli

I think that what was so freeing about that weekend was the fact that time didn’t cross our wandering minds. Kyla and I toured the small town and stumbled across sights that most tourists wouldn’t see.

Things you won’t see on a guided tour of Cameron Highlands (and so the point form list for scatterbrains returns):

– A children’s adventure camp. Feeling like Madonna or Angelina, we stumbled across starry-eyed kids who shrieked with intrigue once we told them we “kind of, sort of… live near your favourite Canadian pop star.” After we left, one girl even yelled, “Send my regards to Justin Bieber!”

Wes Anderson, look out

– Tea time with a local imam. On the way back from our first hike of the weekend, we ran into a local mosque and ended up feeling the most welcome. The kind imam even gave us a Qu’ran, which is ironically nestled in between two Tiger beer bottles in our apartment. Hey, it’s a “bookshelf.”

– Falling down the Malaysian rabbit hole. After almost climbing up to 6500 ft, the 3.5 km uphill jungle trek was completely unguided, rough, and breath-taking. I fell into a mysterious pit of mud and many Hunger Games-esque photoshoots were had. Thankfully, there are always vines to help you up when you fall down.

– The lives of the dear souls who pick up hitchhikers. One Muslim woman was singing along with us to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” Another Malaysian couple picked us up after we had ran in the rain with wild goats and didn’t mind that we were full of jungle filth. Although, I still think this guy is my favourite:

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Malaysia

Mom and Dad, I’m so sorry. If it makes you feel any better, we were with a pretty responsible white man (see: second from left).

Okay, on a tour you’ll probably experience “Steamboat,” a Cameron Highlands favourite. It’s basically Asian fondue, with everything from prawns to bean sprouts thrown in the mix. Nothing says “find your soulmate” like yelling across the table, “My little prawn dude only has one eye. Who’s got the other one?!”

Southeast Asian fondue will do

Time is warped in Southeast Asia. It’s been two months yesterday that we landed in KL and our internship officially ends on August 17th. That leaves us about two weeks of satisfying our inner Lonely Planet and living out of a backpack before going home. While Francine goes off to her native Phillipines to visit family, Kyla and I have decided to backpack around Thailand and Indonesia. Our friends from California told us about temples, beaches, and one-of-a-kind tailors that can recreate your dream dress for a mere 50 bucks (hello Topshop knock-off. You’re mine, baby).

We’re learning to appreciate the next month and a bit. This includes making music at 12:30 a.m. I think I’ll end this post with a little insight into mine and Kyla’s brains. Yeah, we messed up, but it’s fun and captures sleepy summer days.

Onto the next adventure: being haggard hippies at Sarawak’s Rainforest Music Festival!

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Here’s the link to my last column for London Community News, published in late June: http://www.londoncommunitynews.com/2012/06/democracy-isnt-possible-without-free-expression-column/

And there’s some exciting writing news to come… Once the details are worked out, I’ll be collaborating with the Go Overseas team on a Malaysian internship guide. You can find out all the great work they do at: http://www.gooverseas.com/

Upcoming posts in blogland: The William Beckett interview (finally), Sarawak’s Rainforest Music Festival, and KLoset pt. 2