I kept saying to myself over and over again, as I struggled to find my hostel. I’d landed two hours earlier and the Kuala Lumpur international Airport is very far from the city… like it’s far enough to be another city actually! So with one eye on the street and one on the ticking taxi-meter, I got my first taste of KL.
I usually ensure that I arrive in a new city earlier in the day, but this time around, I didn’t have a choice. But even this late at night, on a Tuesday night to be precise, the streets were teaming with tourists and locals. The only thing I was worried about was the fare racing up, up and away!
The Taxi driver let me use his cell phone to call the Cosmopolitan Hostel and at quarter to one in the morning, I finally reached my home for the next few nights!
Ten minutes after check-in… I was asleep, jeans, dirty t-shirt and smelly socks on!
I woke up just in time for the free breakfast- usually a humble spread but always welcomed by the backpacker crowd. Got chatting with some veterans who’d been around the city for some quick tips on how to spend my first day. A Spanish fellow strongly recommended taking the hop-on hop-off city tour that offers tickets that are valid for twenty-four hours.
At 11 I was at the bus-stop waiting to Hop-on and hop-off! An hour in and I was feeling really grateful to the Spanish and their advice. The KL Tour bus makes twenty-two stops along its route. You can get off where you please and spend as much time as you want there. There are designated bus stops and a Tour bus passes through ever thirty minutes like clock-work.
Every bus I got on was packed with families, solo travelers and honeymooning couples. On the first day I went to the Petronas towers- much prettier at night, quite tacky and unimpressive by day, then onwards to The National Monument and then the National Cultural Center. The center had an amazing exhibition of contemporary South East Asian artists running at the time.
I saw a striking three piece work called ‘Devotees’ by artist Ahmad Zakii Anwar. I stood there captivated by it. Simple Charcoal and paper transformed into three stunning images of faith. At first I thought they were black and white photographs, but they were the most detailed, intricate Charcoal sketches I’d ever seen. I stood there imagining the stories of the three men in front of me. Who they might be and what their faith meant to them. What a remarkable piece of work.
At about 6 in the evening, it started pouring. I was in the China Town area and ended up spending some quality time with myself at Starbucks. The rain showed no signs of easing up and I knew the Tour service stopped at seven, fortunately I’m not opposed to occasionally getting soaked!
At the bus stop, I found a bench to warm and hoped the favour would be returned. And tried to tune out the chatter of the other waiting tourists and the clamour of a city experiencing it’s first real shower of the season.
“You from Egypt? My friend here is from Egypt.” I heard in the background. Then a tap on my shoulder… “You from Egypt?” He repeated again.
No no, I’m from India! I blurted. That was enough encouragement for him and before I knew what happened, I was in a conversation with the stranger sitting to my left.
Not that I minded at all. He was polite, goofy and very comfortable doing most of the talking. His name was Ali, and he’s an accountant in Kuwait. He came to Kuala Lumpur for a business trip and decided to stay two extra days for a break.
The conversation was happily detached at first, just two people swapping notes on a city foreign to both. Ali seemed like he was in his late thirties, he was well dressed and well spoken. As soon as we’d done the mandatory exchange of information- what do you do, what brings you here and the like, my new friend’s guard dropped. He poked fun at me, and between my shock and the fact that he was actually funny I forgot to protest! Very quickly, we were engaged in a battle of sarcasm and good-natured antagonism!
Fifteen minutes and no sign of the bus. “Are you married?” Ali asked. I told him, that even though it was none of his business, No, I wasn’t married. I’ve learned to become rather vary of strange men who want to know if you’re hooked or available, but Ali just wanted to talk. The poor fellow was nursing a broken heart. He told me that he’s been waiting to get married to the love of his life, but it will never happen. He pulled out his expensive looking Smart-Phone and proceeded to show me dozens of pictures of his girlfriend. The home they shared, the vacations they took and judging by the number of hairstyles I saw on the lady, they’d been together a long time.
The bus came, Ali continued talking. He followed me and as I sat down, he asked if he could join me. But he was sitting next to me before I even said yes.
He’d been talking non-stop as we boarded the bus and all he talked about was his lover. The things he and his lady had gone through to be together were epic; dangerous clandestine meetings, running away from home, secret vacations in strange countries and even violent protests from each family.
But, the circumstances had gotten the better of them and they had recently split. I swear the poor fellow’s eyes welled up. He’d been walking around this lively city with a heavy heart and sometimes, there’s no one better than a complete stranger to pour your heart to.
All this while, I was thinking of all the stereotypes I held about Arab men. Ali had shattered all of them.
Ali’s phone rang. It was his Egyptian friend. He’d missed the bus and I could hear him screaming at Ali for leaving him behind. Ali was apologizing profusely in Arabic, right hand on his chest, bowing repeatedly in genuine regret.
As he gave instructions to his friends to reach their hotel, speaking in Arabic all the while… He said the words ‘Twin Towers’ a couple of times. Referring to the Petronas Towers as a landmark for his agitated friend.
Every single head in the bus turned around to look at this Arab man talking about the ‘Twin Towers’. I could smell the panic. I was appalled by the reaction of our co-passengers.
Ali hung up with a final apology and ‘Allah Hafiz’ to his friend, blissfully unaware of the ominous interpretation of his instructions. Two stops later, the bus was empty.
We continued talking till my bus stop. And I was glad that I had the opportunity to meet this delightfully ordinary Arab man.
This is what I will remember most about my first day Kuala Lumpur.