Small Scenes of SE Asia 2

We’ve brought a bottle of red wine (white was double the price for some reason) up to the rooftop, where there’s a pool overlooking Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. Everything glitters, and the haze of steam or smog that sits over the city glows. It’s hard for me to fully grasp what I’m seeing; after a few days of afternoon tanning and swimming, rolling this anxiety and discomfort with the view around in my head, I realize that I’m feeling culture shock at being back in a global city. Kyrgyzstan feels impossibly far away, and guilt about being gone for so long and indulging in such a trip starts to creep up… The second glass of wine helps me put these thoughts aside for the time being and to just enjoy the night and my friends’ company.

Wandering around Chinatown, having picked up some cheap dresses in the market, we take a random turn in search of the city’s main Hindu temple. A man calls out at us from a dark corner; my initial response, which is always my response, is to keep walking. He calls out again, though, inviting us to look at something. It’s a massive silver chariot, which will lead a 9-mile procession of thousands of Hindus around Kuala Lumpur for an annual festival, Thaipusam. Two men are shining the silver, carefully, with toothbrushes. A small group of younger men admire the bright lights from a bench across th street. They invite us to the festival, and when we say our travel plans won’t allow it, they insist we come another year. ‘Insha’alah, God willing,’ I call out – for a second I worry about offending the Hindus with this Muslim phrase, but they nod and smile and wave cheerfully as we walk away.

In a very fancy, seven-story mall in Kuala Lumpur, I’m in a booth with Rebecca and Audrey waiting for a huge sushi platter to come to our table. We look on, hungry and tired from the heat, as plates of sushi pass by on a conveyor belt that loops around the cafe. Plates’ colors correspond to the price; I pull only one plate off the line so we can have seconds of our favorite roll, one with squid and cucumber. Our stomachs were full before our minds could enjoy the energy, and we let ourselves be entranced by a documentary about sake, Japanese rice liquor, playing on all the TVs in the restaurant.

At first, the National Mosque was a little off-putting — a huge crowd of Italian tourists were being loud and a little disrespectful of the dress code. The mosque offered long cloaks and headscarves for women, but some of the men in the tour group had put the long purple garments on and were dancing around the stairs. We dressed and walked inside, where we found a few stands selling snacks and trinkets next to a huge row of massage chairs. What mosque needs so many massage chairs? Any weirdness melted away the moment we were approached by Khadijah, a volunteer with the Islam Outreach project. She patiently explained the architecture and history of the mosque, the pillars of Islam, how prayer works–she was surprised at our familiarity with Islam, and we were able to chat about cultural differences in the way Islam is practiced in the countries where we live, what it looks like, tastes like, sounds like. We all nodded our heads in a sort of solemn agreement about Islam’s ‘PR problem,’ in Khadijah’s words, and hoped that programs like this would help educate people about real Muslims and real Islam.

On the way to see the Petronas Towers, our Uber driver blasted Adele’s Hello and asked us to sing along. After the song finished, I asked him if he ever wonders who made Adele so sad. He said no, and that he doesn’t understand her music — why be sad about the past when the present is so beautiful? He dropped us off at the base of these massive buildings, connected by a sky-bridge halfway up, where we craned our necks and agreed that they’re more impressive from afar.

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