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)

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Once' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 4th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. It sounds incredible; I would definitely like to visit there one day.

    The big slogans in Cuba really struck us, too. (Of course there are plenty around in England at the moment but they're all temporary election billboards... it's not the same as having permanent displays at the roadside!)

  2. Now that I've read this travelogue of a post, Malaysia is going on my List of Places to Visit.
    I wouldn't have considered it before, not because I've anything against it, but because I didn't know that much about it. Having a first-hand report like yours makes all the difference, and you're such an enthusiastic traveler!

    I laughed out loud at the line about the letter of resignation from your nose. Spices are heady smells indeed, exotic and sensual. I think they press the brain button right next to the music one.

    Really enjoyed this, Cuban. I'm curious as to what made you go there - something you've probably alluded to in an earlier post which I missed.

  3. Such a wonderful description of your trip here, Cuban.

    It intrigues me that so far from your original home in Cuba you are reminded of home in KL.

    It sounds as though you have savoured your trip to the full and I love the singing and singer you've selected here. I suspect we'll hear more from her.

  4. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Deborah, one of my brothers in law has lived in KL for ten years now. That's the conenction. He and his wife have just had twins so our visit was commplemented with the sound of infants' cries. A much welcomed sight it was, too.

    I enjoyed my visit much more this time around. I also became more acquainted with the language, which, after all, comes natural to a linguist, interpreter and translator. I found it alluring and captivating. I forgot ot mention that in my post. By the end I was able to understand a little bit of Malay, especially on the telly, where one of the channels has subtitles in Malay for movies in English.

    Thanks for your feedback. Enjoy your week.

    Greetings from London.

  5. So many delights in this post, Cuban! I love lychees and I will now try to hunt it down in our local Asian markets. I've recently fallen in love with coconut water and cherish drinking it as much as a glass of wine.

    I've never been to KL, but I think my parents have. We spoke Malay when we lived in Indonesia. I'm not sure it is still considered Malay or if it's drifted enough to now be called Indonesian. In any case, "terima kasih" for this fragrant post! May your nose be persuaded back to service soon!

  6. Wow - what a wonderful song and singer - thanks for the introduction to her and look forward to the album review..Great to have you back Cuban - ebjoyed the info about KL a city i am not familiar with - Greetings from Mexico...

  7. Greetings from a Lakota in Louisiana :

    I visited the city of muddy confluence thanks to you this afternoon. You painted such a vivid, riveting portrait with your words and pictures that I felt I had a true glimpse right along with you.

    You have a lovely blog, and the obvious effort and creativity shows. Thanks, Roland

  8. How's this for a coincidence..Just watching a cooking show before I went on line..and the chef was preparing Malaysian Spatchcock chicken.. if you had this..well lucky you!!
    Your trip sounds divine..fortunate you! Like the mellow music...

  9. It's so cool to have a peek into a country I've not visited. The lifestyle there sounds like a lifestyle I'd enjoy.

    You made my mouth water in talking about the lychee juice. I love lychee but haven't had any in ages! Not since I left the UK actually.

    The diversity of Malaysia is just my cup of tea. I love to be around so many different cultures and walks of life.

    Thanks for this great post. I'll have to think about a trip to Malaysia in the future.


  10. What a wonderful post. I visited Malaysa and Thailand ages and ages ago. I remember the spices - and the not-so- wonderful smells, the marvelous art and architecture, the food (some of which liked me and some of which did not) and the charming people. My eyes were dazzled by all the vibrant color; in fact, when I got home, I think I started pairing bright green with orange and purple for the first time in my paintings. I hope that the recent resurgence of a more aggressive form of Islam doesn't cause problems for this multi-cultural, multi- ethnic society. Anyway, as always, a wonderful, insightful post for my Sunday reading. I raise my cup of coffee made from beans from that part of the world and salute you. Viva Senor Cuban!

  11. Cuban, your post provided such beautiful sensory images! A lot of what you said about Malaysia reminded me of India -- the diversity, the coming together of different cuisines and dialects effortlessly and so on. Now, you've gone and made me homesick! :-)

    Zee Avi has such a rich and beautiful voice. Thanks for introducing her!

  12. Thank you for the glimpses!

  13. Thanks for the wonderful post on Malaysia, a place I've not yet visited. How privileged you were to be able to do it knowing people who live there. As for political sloganeering, it made my smile as I remembered something a cousin told me this morning. Every day, he has a one liner about something religious, and I tune out almost without reading it. It wasn't until I read your post that I honed in on the fact that what I find offputting about his daily expressions of faith is that they are, at heart, political sloganeering. So now I'll feel doubly comfortable about overlooking them.

  14. I must apologise for taking time to come visit but I rushed as soon as I could. And thank you Cuban for your kind comments. I really appreciate it and it means a lot to me.

    And I love your travel review of my country and beloved city, Kuala Lumpur. People, food, music, politics, culture, religion, language, landscape, sights and smells, you have covered it all and that is true travelling. And I enjoyed your pictures too. I am glad you and family had the opportunity to experience it all.

    I am one who do not go for that particular slogan because it is a political slogan. But we are a diversified one nation and without taking anything for granted, I am proud of my country for that.

  15. Terima kasih to all of you, too. Your feedback was great.

    Greetings from London.

  16. Cuban, it sounds like you had an absolute blast! I still remember visiting KL, and Malaysia in general, when I lived with my family in Singapore. A fascinating country, for sure! The culture is so very rich, and I'm not at all surprised you found parallels between Malaysia and Cuba. I often have the same experience when traveling from country to country. We are, in more ways that we can imagine, a small world.


  17. A lovely sharing of your holiday. You have injected my day with images of beautiful scents,sights and sounds. I am now yearning for a little taste of diversity and I may finally make that 40 minute drive to DeKalb International Farmer's Market in the city of Atlanta, a United Nations of sorts. The one place I can be assured of mingling with "various tonalities of skins, facial features and accents that hint at diversity."

    Atlanta is still very much a segregated city(80-20% rule is evident in many social settings). But I digress. Just that you brought the famine that we've been experiencing here to mind. With your wonderful description of your great holiday!!

    Asante sana!

  18. What a journey! I'm dizzy just reading about it. There's something about Zee's tone that reminds me of Corinne Bailey Rae. Zee is a lovely, charismatic, singer. I love lychee as well although I don't think I've ever munched on the seeds!

  19. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  20. imagine eating in a mirthful atmosphere...
    that in itself is worth the price of admission...
    thank you for this long report...I'm not a traveler, but this would be such a curious, calming place to go..
    I hope your nose doesn't give up it's protest too easily, too quickly, in London..... I hope it continues to march around in protest, holding up whatever placards it had dreamed up...



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