It’s 4:30am as I’m starting this. I’ve been sitting in this small, windowless room for nine hours. At some point during that time, if my brain worked properly, it would have told me to go to sleep. If my brain worked properly, it would be telling me to do that right now.
It isn’t that I’m not tired. I’m very tired. It’s not even that I have insomnia. I could close my eyes and be gone inside a minute. I just don’t.
It sounds stupid, doesn’t it?
I’ve had this problem all my life.
Some kid on Pulau Tioman introduced me to Spider Solitaire. It’s one of those dumb games that comes built-in with windows. It should be called Freebase Solitaire. That’s what I spent the last nine hours doing. I didn’t move. I didn’t even go to the bathroom. My back is sore from sitting frozen in the same hunched-over position all that time.
To get to Kuala Lumpur, I took the ferry from Pulau Tioman to a small town called Mersing, then caught a bus across the peninsula to KL. I was the only non-Malaysian onboard. It wasn’t at all the crowded, sweaty, smelly, bumpy ride I was expecting. It was a brand new deluxe bus with personal lights and fans above each seat. The road was newly paved and as smooth as any road I’ve been on. The houses we passed also seemed reasonably nice. Malaysia is definitely crawling its way out of the third world.
It struck me during this ride that I’d somehow acquired the notion in childhood, and still carry it in the back of my head to some extent, that you can’t live a comfortable and happy life outside the United States or one of its affiliate subsidiaries. Not true at all.
Funny side note: the in-bus entertainment was a Metallica concert video called "Cunning Stunts."
I saw this resort on Tioman. It was built seven years ago, and as the story goes, the investors ran out of money before it opened. They also found out that their waterfront was a protected marine park, so they couldn’t build anything off it. It’s been sitting there empty for all that time. The rooms are ready, but no one is coming.
Fruit bats hanging out in a tree.
Okay, Petronas Towers. According to the Malaysian government, it’s the tallest skyscraper in the world, so of course I had to make a day of it. But as I discovered, it has numerous problems:
1. To start with, it’s ugly. Two giant ballpoint pens reaching into the sky.
2. Petronas only has 88 floors. The Sears Tower has 108. The World Trade Center had 110.
3. There’s just no way it’s the tallest building in the world. They measure it at 452 meters, counting the full height of the antennas. They measure the Sears Tower in Chicago at 442 meters, but curiously, they decided not to count the antennas on that one. If they did, it’d be over 500. The Sears has a viewing deck all the way up around 435 meters, whereas the top floor of Petronas is only at around 370. But it’s a moot point anyway, cause you can’t even get up that high. Which brings me to my next point.
4. If you’re going to go to the trouble of building such a tall structure, it’s a good idea to actually let people go to the top. Not Petronas. All they offer is a trip to their 41st floor skybridge, a staggering 170 meters above the ground. There are hotels in Kuala Lumpur that go higher than that. There are HILLS in Kuala Lumpur that go higher than that. It’s like being in any reasonably tall building, except it’s worse because you know you’re not even halfway up to where you could be looking out from.
I had a better view from my balcony in Brisbane.
I’m having to get used to being hit on fairly frequently by Malaysian women. Of all things, Superman seems to be really popular here, and they think I look like Clark Kent. I’ve heard this a couple times, and I’ve also gotten Peter Parker. I guess the glasses make me look like a mild-mannered alter ego.
One woman stopped me in the street and told me I was American. I agreed. She started chatting me up. I told her I was from New York, and she asked if the World Trade Center had been destroyed. I confirmed that yes, it had been. She told me her sister was going to America and tried to drag me to see her. I told her I was tired and had to get back to my hotel, but she insisted until I finally agreed to meet the two of them at 5:00pm. I really really didn’t want to. It was very awkward.
I get back to my room and immediately start stressing about whether or not to meet them. I felt obligated, as an American, not to be rude. But I had a pretty strong inkling that this woman was going to try to marry me off to her sister, and I didn’t want to deal with that.
In the end, my conscious and subconscious minds colluded to prevent me from showing up at the designated time. I took a nap and awoke around 10 to 5. I showed up at the meeting place at 10 past. They had left already. It was the perfect, guilt-free outcome. I was there. They just didn’t wait around long enough.
Malaysia has a similar ethnic mix to Singapore, but in different proportions. There are many more indigenous Malay people, less of a Chinese presence but still strong, and not many Indians at all. What amazed me is that they all really do get along pretty well. Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindi living in harmony. It’s heartwarming.
I asked a cab driver how they managed to coexist peacefully. He explained that if they didn’t, they had their heads cut off.
Shopping for bootleg s
tuff is really fun. I ca
n get thousands of DVDs for USD$1.50 each. I can get a cartridge with 100 Game Boy games for USD$15. All sorts of imitation clothing and watches are available, though I have no use for any of that. It’s a bit annoying dealing with the salespeople, but it’s great what you can get. The moral issue has no impact on me. There’s just no way Malaysians could afford to buy this stuff at the prices we charge. It’s too easy to pirate and it’s impossible to prevent.
Anyway, I don’t plan on engaging in it other than when I’m in these countries, and I doubt I’ll even bring much of the stuff I buy back with me. It’s just disposable entertainment for when I’m sitting around in my hotel.
I will probably cave and watch a bootleg of the new Matrix movie if they make one of decent quality.
Has everybody heard about that Chinese actor who committed suicide a few weeks ago? His name was Leslie Cheung. He starred in Farewell My Concubine and some other lesser-known films. He was getting on in years and losing his good looks. Work was drying up, so he decided to end it all. He had plans to meet his agent for lunch in front of his hotel in Hong Kong. She called from her cell phone while he was up at the gym on the 44th floor. He told her he’d be right down.
And he was.
I really admire that. If you’re gonna go, make it memorable. And if at all possible, do it with a sense of humor.
I had a great conversation with a Malaysian cab driver named Man. He wanted to move to the US, so he had me explain what salaries are like and how much it costs to live there. I told him that lunch at a restaurant in a place like New York or LA can cost $15, once tax and tip are included. Then I had to explain tipping, which he found mind-boggling. $15 is about what Man spends on food in two weeks.
I tried to discourage him from going. He had that old-fashioned image of America as a happy fairyland where opportunities abound and hard work is always rewarded. I don’t know if my efforts did much. That’s a difficult image to shatter without letting someone experience it firsthand.
We had a really good talk about the whole terrorist thing. Once he realized I wasn’t a Bush supporter, the floodgates opened. Man is a muslim, and like most muslims, he’s very worried about the American attitude toward his religion. And well he should be, I suppose. I explained that most of us really don’t know much about it, and we don’t particularly want to. I told him that when people have money, they don’t want to be exposed to people and places that don’t, because it makes them feel obligated to do something about it. And I told him that most of us are very frightened by the rest of the world.
I think he was happy to hear me say all that. He gave me his phone number in case I ever got in trouble. He was a really swell guy.
Went to another Chinese restaurant. It had a vegetarian set meal that included vegetarian shrimp, vegetarian squid, vegetarian chicken, and vegetarian fish ball soup.
Went to the hawker stands in BB Park. There wasn’t anything I’d be willing to eat, but it was neat to look at.
Okay, I’m off to Sipadan in Borneo for some diving. Then Sandakan to see monkeys and stuff.