You could walk for a day in this city without touching the ground. Take an escalator, a monorail, an elevated tunnel. If you see someone driving you’ve dropped too low. One covered bridge comes with a disclaimer, as if tracing an arch were a risk. These interlocking stars are decorative (and pious) – but will they hold you up?
This could be about climate, resisting the heat and rain with roofs and air-con. Or is it a fantasy of modernity in which our bodies have ascended, leaving the smooth earth for our wheels? There’s that moment as you step out of an airplane and feel the heat, momentarily, between long bouts of airconditioning. “It’s hot,” you think, already forgetting what it feels like. In many ways Kuala Lumpur resembles a jungle, only without people in it.
The cave walls are painted. “Vandalism,” the guide complains. But these marks predate my birth. How long between graffiti and sacred site? We’re asked to dim our torches. “There’s an alien species in here,” says the guide, before lighting up a bench. Imagine sitting here! Sharing a picnic with the roaches!
A pleasure of environmental tourism is harshly judging those who came differently before us, those who commemorated their journey with theft and paint. We’re not like them, although I suppose they didn’t have this path to stick to, this guide to chastise them. “We need your help,” he explains: “People don’t know.”
“People” in this case means Hindus, in whose neighbouring cave no bats sing. Religion as environmental destruction, outmoded by a new piety – cool worship of a godless world. (I’m with the cave-painters.)
The day started with teh tarik smoothly drained from a glass. Others hacked open coconuts, emptied durian of its flesh. Hollowing is a culinary verb.
Around the corner, a store sold 24-litre tubs, heavy duty, called “lava juice dispenser.” We pushed past and found tiny porcelain cups on sale, made a small tower of ten of them. Nearby there were plates with raised edges, shaped like a crescent moon. An amplified prayer drifted across the market, making the air full.
Only people weren’t actually eating. “People” in this case means Muslims, who were fasting until sundown. In the afternoon a queue of men formed outside the mosque, not for prayer but for food. Each one received a bag full of cooked rice, which they proudly held to show they weren’t eating.
“Airport?” asked a woman wearing a necklace of marigolds before stepping briskly onto the carriage. Not really, but there were enough tourists on board to reassure her.
Across from us, white people compared travel stories. “The best question I ever got was: ‘Do Western women shave down there, or are they born that way?'” Behind them a sign warned against “indecent behaviour,” illustrated by two people kissing, their hairstyles distinctly non-Muslim. “Sorry!” shouted a Chinese mother, in English. Her baby had dropped its bottle on a stranger, spilling milk.
The young man continued his stories about cultural exchange. “My Japanese girlfriend said, in Chinese: ‘I want to eat you. I want to devour your body.’ I dumped her after that. A year later I learned what she was trying to say. What’s the most awkward thing that’s happened to you on your travels?”