I believe one’s life has a limited repertoire of experience from which to draw. No matter how hard you try, you end up repeating things. You’re older now than you were the last time you did this, hopefully the characters have changed and maybe the scenery has changed as well. But in the course of one’s life, there’s very likely going to be a handful of scenarios that get replayed over and over. Never mind that I dealt myself a wild card by moving someplace so random as Kuala Lumpur, my life has indeed come full circle once again. In a way, it’s a return to my life in San Francisco in 1994 when I lived high on Castro Street in a modern apartment. It was the happiest apartment I can remember. I sat in the living room for 2 years just watching the fog flow over Twin Peaks and down into the toy village below. I hosted fantastic piano parties, I had a nice group of friends and lots of social engagements. Days came and went I never left the place. For groceries I would walk down to Noe Valley and then make the hike back up the windy hill. There on that hill, I had everything I wanted. Welcome to my life redux…twenty years later. Here, like in San Francisco, I sit perched in my little aerie of an apartment overlooking KL from the 30th floor and am happy as a clam. (Just out of curiosity, what does an unhappy clam look like?) My last apartment in KL was really getting on my nerves. It was a tiny shoebox studio with crappy furniture and surrounded by nonstop traffic which was jammed up all the time. All day and night it was the sound of cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycles. To get in and out of the apartment I had to brave 4 lanes of Ampang traffic. I feared for my life just crossing the road. In addition, M Suites, where I was renting, was just one of those buildings where they got everything wrong from the get go…the hallway floods when it rains, the view is of the other building, your knees hit the microwave when you sit at the counter, the floor was high gloss white which meant my part time job was picking up my boyfriend’s black hairs off the floor, my phone and broadband didn’t work there – an Internet dead spot. On top of that it was ridiculously overpriced.
So I searched KL high and low for a place that didn’t face a highway choked with traffic and that was near public transit. I kept coming back to this one building called Regalia in the Chow Kit/Putra World Trade Center area. It’s a 2-year old, 1,100 something unit building that is located a short walk from 3 different modes of transit: monorail, elevated train and commuter train. And most remarkable of all, it doesn’t face a highway. It faces a river and the elevated train (LRT).
There is definitely some noise from the train but to me, public transportation is a happy noise. It’s the sound of infrastructure. And they don’t honk or belch out diesel smoke. And miracle of miracles, I have one room that isn’t standard issue glossy white floor. My boyfriends hairs just gather in the corner in a cute little dust bunny to be collected in a pinch. The reality of KL is that it’s a big, noisy, dirty, traffic-choked city. The way to survive it is to have your home be sanctuary. In my last place, the street noises were inescapable. Here at my new place, there’s a beautiful terraced fern garden, little cascades and a footpath that leads to the sky pool. Now doesn’t everyone need a fern garden footpath to the sky pool? So a little bit about the sky pool on the 37th floor. A picture says a thousand words…
It’s more of a photo opportunity than a swimming pool. To swim laps, you have to photo bomb the tourists’ photos and swim through a gauntlet of cameras. (A third of this building has been turned into a hotel, so there are lots of tourists on the roof.) By nightfall, it’s even more spectacular. And in a monsoon, it’s a religious experience with lightning striking around the building tops. So Chuan and I actually prefer to go to the 5th floor pool… There it is way down there. Usually no photographers or drunk parties going on down there… This building would not be ideal for anyone with vertigo, by the way. On the 4th floor, there’s a nice big gym and a grocery story that carries essentials and some non-essentials. They even have some organic foods to cater to the expat clientele. Currently the building is at 68% occupancy which is great. Usually I’m the only one at the gym. Now, a little bit about the neighborhood. Regalia sits right in the middle of an older Chinese neighborhood called Chow Kit where there is a fantastic market every day of the week… That’s my building in the background and some seriously good potatoes in the foreground. I’ve actually never had such moist and delicious potatoes as the locally grown ones… This basket of veggies cost me 7.40 Malaysian Ringgit, so that’s about $2.50 US… Okra, which they call lady’s fingers here, is a favorite. Chuan pan fries them with garlic slices and some chili flakes and then serves them with crispy onion bits sprinkled on top. Ginger and limes are cheap and plentiful. Tropical tomatoes are tasteless. Dry climates are necessary to make for a tasty tomato. Avocados are completely absent from the market for some mysterious reason. Pineapple is typically about 80 cents and my all time favorite. Dragon fruit is a close second for my affection. They’re usually more like $1.75 each. Have you ever seen the inside of a dragon fruit? It’s a fantasy in fuchsia. I was thinking about bringing home a cow’s head but thought it might not fit in my tiny fridge. The “wet market” as they call it is not for the weak constitution. It smells of everything from fresh chicken blood, to dried fish, to burning cow’s fur. I often hear the sounds of screaming chickens as their necks are bent back and slit before being thrown flapping into a bucket to bleed out. It’s a grisly process but if you want fresh chicken, that’s about as fresh as it can get. Buckets contain muddy things slithering and crawling on each other. I’ve become even more of a vegetarian as a result of seeing (and smelling and hearing) all this. I can buy a nice big packet of fresh tempeh for 30 cents and a bag of tofu for about 75 cents.
Though the wet market can be an assault on one’s senses, I am drawn to it. It is fascinating and reveals a glimpse of the old Asia that I’m always on the lookout for. It’s not in a mall. It’s not air conditioned or sanitized. After a morning at the market, I head home and try to cook in my pitiful kitchen. It’s barely functional and a bit like cooking in an RV. But elaborate gourmet kitchens are more of an American thing and so I’ve just adjusted my culinary endeavors to making simpler meals, stocking up on less and eating more fresh foods — which isn’t an entirely bad thing. What’s missing in most Malaysian kitchens: hot running water, an oven, a garbage disposal, and a dishwasher. Watching TV here is pretty much a lost cause (outdated, censored, or sophomoric programs dominate the channels) so after dinner entertainment is usually reading, playing the clarinet, or a visit to the sky pool with some ice cream from the 4th floor store. Or just staring out the window — something I do a LOT of… Then each morning after a night of sleep undisturbed by midnight Malay motorcycle racing, I throw open the curtains to find some marvelous meteorological sunrise surprise… Each day is a little different. And each day is just as enchanting. My perspective on Kuala Lumpur has changed dramatically for the better now that I am somewhat removed from the traffic that chokes this city, and that I can find shops and markets when I walk out the door instead of honking cars and barbed-wire embassy walls. I got the boyfriend I always wanted. I got the apartment I wanted. I can afford the medical care here. I’ve returned to where I started, high in the air, with simple routines, but this time in a new and exotic place. Things are looking pretty good from this lofty perspective. As the slogan for the World Trade Center in New York used to say, “It’s hard to be down when you’re up.”
This, at last, feels like home.