I think the last time my ears popped on an elevator, I was eleven years old going up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Then again, I can’t imagine that vintage 80’s elevator was as state of the art and super-speedy as the one at our current and final abode, the Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had originally somewhat cast off our final stop on the voyage as merely a layover, a place we had to go en route from Johannesburg to Melbourne. I also thought that at this juncture in our trip, I’d be unimpressed by an ordinary modern city and just want to get home, but Kuala Lumpur has surprised me by making our last two days of this epic journey beautiful and lovely, not to mention comfortable. Even though you are in the midst of a modern, bustling city, it’s impossible not to notice you are in the tropics. Although the humidity is staggering and blow drying one’s hair is a complete waste of time, the glorious colors make up for it. After the dusty brown lowveld of Africa, we drank in the green of the palms and the rainbow of tropical birds, flowers, even the embellished clothing of the locals. Two days in Johannesburg with bars on our windows, holes in our sheets, and mildew in our bathroom, made us appreciate the luxury of the Traders Hotel even more. For travelers like us who usually shun luxury hotel chains as unauthentic, we use the excuse that we really had no choice. Apparently, in Kuala Lumpur, mid-priced accommodation is a rarity, and one must either choose between five star hotels for mid-range prices, or rat-infested shitholes in neighborhoods where they cut off chicken heads and murder hookers. The former seemed like the best idea.
This hotel, with its shoe shine kit in the cupboard, pillow menu (firm, medium, or soft – available from room service), and top deck pool bar with complimentary cocktails and two hot tubs (of varying temperatures) was the bee’s knees, and the perfect way to spend the last days of our extended voyage. We were ready to peruse the city at a leisurely pace, keeping our final days relaxing and comfortable. Although we took a walk in the hooker-murdering neighborhoods around lunchtime and rarely saw anything more dangerous-looking than an old man selling bags of durian fruit from a food stall, we were happy to be staying in the Golden Triangle, the posh new neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur that consists of nice hotels, extensive well-groomed parks, and air-conditioned malls, all circling the famous twin Patronus Towers, which enjoyed a brief stint in the late 90’s as the world’s tallest buildings. We were bummed that the Towers were closed until December for renovations, but were instead able to go up another ear-popping elevator to the top of the space-needle looking KL Tower, which gave us a 360 degree view of the city (including a good one of the Patronus Towers, which we wouldn’t have seen at all if we were up in them, of course) and a thorough audio guide to go with. The observation deck and first floor of the KL Tower also housed a number of tacky souvenir stalls and a small but ok cultural center and mini-zoo, so although we didn’t get to any authentic Malaysian markets, I was able to stock up on floral print sundresses and glittery scarves and get a bird on my head, so it didn’t disappoint.
Another thing that didn’t disappoint were the malls. I know, malls are everywhere, and I am not usually one to go seeking them out in foreign countries because I can get perfectly good ones at home, often for less money. If I am going to purchase something in a foreign country it’s going to be a hand-carved soapstone elephant from a blind man in a tin shack, not a pair of pants from the Gap which would be exactly like a pair of pants from the Gap at home. And although the Malaysian mall had very good prices at their Gap andtheir Crumpler store, we originally went there in pursuit of the most sought-after commodity in all tropical countries – air conditioning. Like in Abu Dhabi, the burst of chill we experienced as those shiny automatic doors slid open was like mainlining the world’s best drug. However, once we were sufficiently cool, it was the food court we’d come to see. There was no crappy Sbarro or Orange Julius in this mall – the entire first floor was packed with various Asian delights – dim sum, noodle bars, Thai curries, Bento boxes, odd soups, substances literally labeled “fried product,” barbequed chickens with the heads still on, durian (the famous smelly fruit that supposedly tastes great) cakes and milkshakes, and various sizzling platters of unidentifiable meats mixed with rice and egg before your very eyes, thrown together with precision from a cook screaming in some unknown Asian language that makes you realize THAT’s where you truly are. Then you get your can of Nestea Peach from the drink stall and eat your lunch with gusto, amid a hundred other happily slurping mall-goers.
After lunch, we went for a stroll around the mall to take in some people watching with our dose of air-conditioning. For the obvious reasons mentioned above, we are generally attracted to malls in cities where it is very hot, and in the case of this trip, happened to be the two cities that were predominately Muslim. In Abu Dhabi, where malls catered largely to the wealthy Emiratis, I noticed that stores were heavy on the designer shoes and handbags, and light on the Victoria’s Secrets. There were several stores that sold various styles of hijab, or head covering. The most common is the abayha, the black robe and headscarf worn by Muslim women in most countries of the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Although some women wore the full burqa (covering the face), most seemed to wear embellished or colorfully trimmed abayha, complete with intricate bead or sequin work, as per contemporary style. These women often added to their look with expensive jewelry, designer makeup, shoes, handbags, and perfectly manicured nails. The look was glamorous and intriguing, and not nearly as stifling as a Westerner like me might expect. Ironically, although tank top and shorts I wore were technically much more revealing, I felt frumpy and plain next to women who often could only show their eyes. The fact that they also looked perfectly cool and comfortable and I was sweating like a pig probably added to that conundrum. It was exactly the opposite feeling from being on the beach in Barcelona, where people in thong bikini bottoms made me feel like body image issues were all in my head. Here in Malaysia, where it was not nearly as hot as Abu Dhabi, but definitely uncomfortable enough for me to feel like that sweaty pig again, Muslim women tend more towards the tudung, or colorful headscarf paired with flowing top over long sleeves and long pants, also meticulously embroidered with gilded thread or encrusted with rhinestones. The look was, again glamorous and awe-inspiring, and not just because I simply couldn’t figure out how they were not sweating their deaths while they leisurely pushed their children in the swings at the park, high heels and all.
Let me point out now that in both Abu Dhabi and here in Kuala Lumpur, there are plenty of people dressed in typical Western fashion, just like me, so we didn’t stick out in that way. Although here, I began to notice that most of the non-Muslim people around us were Chinese, and the Caucasian person more of a rarity. Even rarer is the Caucasian child. Even rarer still is the Caucasian child with red hair and blue eyes – henceforth began Lily’s status as the Golden Child. It began when we first decided to pry ourselves out of the air conditioned hotel room and give Lily a chance to run around on the playground. When traveling with a small child, finding a playground in your vacation city is always a necessity, and some cities do it better than others. The playground in the Golden Triangle of Kuala Lumpur is probably the most extensive I’ve ever seen, complete with wading pool and gushing play fountains.
Right from the start, Lily started to get stares, from kids and adults alike. When we decided to let her play in the pool, a couple of followers turned into an entourage of about 25 Malaysian kids, all wanting to follow her, listen to her talk, or touch her hair or her arm. Parents started to want photos of their kids with her, and by the end of the afternoon, we found ourselves getting weary, frustrated and slightly creeped out by the whole paparazzi effect. All we could imagine was that her looks were simply so unusual, that the sweet natured Malaysian people tended to lavish her with attention. Rather than in Western society where we tend to conspicuously ignore anything that doesn’t fit in, with the lame idea that we are being polite. One thing I’ve definitely figured out from traveling the world with a small child is, although you must use as much (and often more) common sense and caution as you would anywhere, many old rules tend to bend. The people who seem to be the most forward, that would normally take me aback, are also the friendliest and most helpful, like the Greek woman who scooped Lily onto her lap on a crowded bus without a word, entertaining her on a 30 minute trip into Athens with no decipherable English, while Marcus and I hung onto the Jesus bar six feet away, or the waitress here at the Traders, where I worried they would snarl about apple juice stains on the white tablecloths, instead brings us a special colorful plastic breakfast set for Lily for her first morning at a lavish buffet. As I’ve mentioned before, Lily has struck up conversations with people we might normally have never spoken to, given us a reason to smile during tough times, and reminded us to get enough sleep. More than anything, she’s gone with us on our family adventure, taking us to places we may otherwise, in every sense of the word, never have gone.