Sunday 2 May 2010
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
I don’t often pay attention to political slogans. Sloganeering was almost a way of life in Cuba when I was growing up and it still is, so, in a way I have become inured to the standard big billboard bellowing platitudinous political messages.
However the caption ‘1Malaysia’ rings true even before you set a foot on Kuala Lumpur. Mixed with the western tourists escaping the still chilly spring days, plenty of Malays were on board of the Air Asia flight that took my family and me to KL recently. The various tonalities of their skins, their facial features and their accents hinted at diversity. Having been to that Southeastern nation before in 2008, I wasn’t surprised of this element but still it was a good reminder of what’s made Malaysia a success story in latter years.
I wouldn’t be doing KL any justice if I attempted to sum up its charms in a few hundred words. My only advice is, get on a plane and visit it. The experience of mixing with the locals, riding on the public transport and enjoying its out-of-this-world.cuisine is unique beyond description.
Whether you go to a local joint like Suzi’s Corner, where Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes are served in a mirthful atmosphere or you nip out for a quick lunch at one of the many ‘chicken and rice’ restaurants that populate the corners of KL, you’re in for a treat. As long as you’re not a fussy eater, like yours truly. My first discovery this time around came the day after we arrived when we went to the aforementioned Suzi’s and I had lychee juice. This fruit has a large single seed with an edible aril. After gulping down my juice I kept nibbling at the flesh (the staff usually leave the actual fruit at the bottom of the glass), turning the sweet, jellylike pulp around my mouth and milking it for all it was worth. Needless to say lychee juice became an accompaniment in many meals out.
Whereas two years ago we spent four or five days in Redang, an island to the east of Malaysia, this time we stayed in KL the whole time. That was partly due to the civil unrest in Thailand, a country included in our itinerary. However, rather than allowing ourselves to be browbeaten by a situation that was out of our reach, we decided to spend more time walking the city and admiring its culture and history. Yet, as parents of younger children will know, what interests adults, hardly ever holds any special significance to a member of the younger generation. So, in order to take advantage of Malaysia's rich heritage we also had to include visits to the Aquarium and the Watersports Park.
Still, we had plenty of fun in the city of the ‘muddy confluence’. That’s the meaning of Kuala Lumpur’s name and as if it was trying to prove that point on the same day that we visited the Thean Hou Temple – a building that boasts the richest features of Chinese architecture in Malaysia, according to its brochure - KL also gave us a call to prayer in a nearby mosque in one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard (in fact, the man who intoned the prayer could have given the contestants of American Idol a run for their money). Just the day before, we had gone to Brickfields, a stronghold of Indian culture, which was a short walk from KL Sentral station. Whether this cultural assemblage was swampy, I don’t know, but to a person with an inquisitive nature like me, it helped me understand better the country’s ethos, 1Malaysia.
To me markets are one of the ways of measuring a city’s beating pulse. And KL never disappoints. Whether it is a local – mainly Chinese – fruit'n'veg one like the one in Yulik, or a crafts one like the more famous Central Market, the visitor will be exposed to a wide variety of products that cater to all tastes. In Central Market’s case, this is a building that could be considered to be the equivalent of Covent Garden in London, but with lower prices. The stalls combine antiques, beautiful, hand-made local products and the usual stuff for tourists that exists in any major city.
The road infrastructure is pretty good (plenty of A-roads and flyovers that circumnavigate the city), so, moving from place to place is not that difficult. At first the sight of motorcyclists wearing their jackets back to front was puzzling, until my brother-in-law’s wife explained to me that they do it because of the dust. It’s nice to know that human beings always come up with effective solutions to turn up looking nice at work. The little experience I had with the train network was satisfactory with the staff always willing to help.
Going back to the Malaysian cuisine, I suffered a major casualty because of it. On the day we were due to return, I received a resignation letter from my nose. In it my organ of smell informed me that it’d sooner stay amongst the fragrances of spices such as turmeric, chilli and sambal than return to the vapours emanating from the factories near my house in London. Fair enough, I could see its point. My nose also had made new friends whose names betrayed the pungent roots on which much cooking in Malaysia was based: galangal and ginger. So, now, I am the Cuban in London With a Prosthetic Nose. My only hope is that I can do a Nicole Kidman and take an Oscar home with me.
For some reason I kept thinking of Cuba whenever I was downtown or in a working class area. The buildings, the people and the roads, they reminded me of my country of birth. Even the architecture was similar. Some of the edifices reminded of the famous ‘cajitas de fósforos’ (boxes of matches) that were the butt of many jokes amongst people of my age. These were Soviet-style buildings that appeared in the Cuban landscape at the tail end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. In KL, I saw a few. Some other areas were the total opposite. For instance, Bangsar is an affluent neighbourhood with gated houses and guarded blocks of flats.
‘I wasn’t looking for anyone, and yet I saw you’. That line was part of a song I posted a few weeks ago. The melody was written by the Argentinian pop and rock singer, Fito Páez, and on that occasion, I uploaded a version by the Brazilian performer Caetano Veloso. The refrain came to me again in Malaysia because I wasn’t looking for music and yet I came across one of the more refreshing and vibrant voices I’ve heard in recent months. Zee Avi is a Malay singer whose debut album has been playing on my stereo almost everyday since I returned from KL. A review of the album will follow soon but in the meantime I shall leave you with this charming and beautiful song. Have a great week.
(all photos by the blog author)
Next Post: 'Once' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 4th May at 11:59pm (GMT)