A Long Walk to the Petronas Towers
Monday September 29, 2014
7;15 a.m. Bird Nest 2, Kuala Lumpur
It was a Sunday yesterday, and bike shops and such things were largely closed. I started the day in the Internet café. I mentioned before that the Internet café is FAR more advanced than the ones in the Philippines: Much more space; more comfortable; wonderful chairs, good mice, good monitors, fast connection, reliable computers. There’s really no comparison at all. My first time there, I was surrounded by screaming and yelling gamers plus an old man in the corner staring intently at Internet porn, but yesterday morning it was largely empty. It cost me seven ringgit for three hours. That’s roughly sixty-eight cents per hour. The first time I went there, the clerk was quite rough and rude. But this time, the guy was nice, though, as so many people in the world are, not that great at his job. This continues to be a big puzzle for me. The problem was that when I tried to use Skype, I couldn’t hear my own voice. I tried every fix I could think of, but nothing worked. I asked the clerk for help, and he came to the computer and was going to start clicking on contacts on my Skype list at random to test it. I had to physically restrain his hand. For one thing, I wasn’t doing a computer to computer call with video. I was going to call home telephones like yours. Besides, I had no idea who he was going to click on, and I didn’t want him contacting all these people at random, I explained to him that I was going to call a telephone, and he said that wasn’t possible. He said I could only do a computer to computer call. This surprised me, and I wondered if that was why I got no audio. But it turned out that he just didn’t understand Skype. He thought that Skype could only be used between computers. He didn’t know that you could also just call regular phones – cell phones or landlines or whatever. I tried to convince him that this was possible with Skype, but he could not be convinced. Here’s a guy with a full time job in an Internet café where half the foreigners that come in want to use Skype, and he doesn’t understand how Skype works. How is it that so many people are so bad at their jobs around the world?
In the end, I just changed computers and that seemed to work okay, though I had to speak into the tiny microphone hole on the web cam. And I couldn’t hear my own voice through the headphones, so it was hard to regulate my voice.
I think I have to get my own computer. The NEO simply doesn’t work for the volume of nonsense that I type. If it takes 10 hours to type the original file, it then takes 8 hours in an Internet café to download it. The typing speed of the NEO isn’t much faster than my own typing speed. So it doubles the amount of typing time technically. It’s clear that I COULD buy a computer here in Kuala Lumpur if I wanted to. On my wanderings yesterday, I stumbled across a massive IT shopping mall. It was advertised as the largest in Malaysia if not in all of Asia. It was a bit overwhelming, but with some effort to get over the shock of the place, I could probably find whatever computer I wanted.
Before this IT mall, I tracked down a large and well-known camera store. I was curious if they had circular polarizing filters that would fit my Olympus lenses. I found the store with only the usual amount of difficulty, but I was disappointed to find that they didn’t have a wide range of filters. The best they could do was a basic 46mm Hoya. The 46mm is the size I was mainly interested in, but, being me, I wanted a filter that matched the quality of the lenses. I was also interested in a 37mm filter for my 45mm lens. That is something of a specialty size, and they didn’t have it. At this store, I did not feel the same sense of warmth and welcome that I had felt at the bicycle shops, unfortunately. The customer service was rather harsh and impersonal. That could be because the English ability of the clerks was much lower. But I think it has more to do with the products they were selling. Clerks in camera stores in Asia just want to sell cameras and they have this mindset that the price is the sole important factor. They imagine that the customer is only interested in the cheapest price, and that is where their customer service starts: “I give discount. You want? You buy now?” And if you don’t “buy now”, they tend to walk away. If I was hoping for an attempt on their part to order a 37mm filter or see if another store carried it (or do anything at all), I was disappointed. And if I expected them to show any interest in me as a person and photographer who wants to talk shop about camera gear, I was also disappointed. It was a very unhappy shopping experience.
I’d mentioned the other day that KL has an extensive transit system. I was very excited about that because on my very first shopping expedition, I was able to take an aboveground subway to a stop practically right beside the bicycle shop. I imagined that this experience would be repeated as I continued my errands, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve since looked up the location of a variety of places – the Olympus service center, the camera store, and other bicycle shops – and none of them were anywhere near a subway line. They were also scattered far and wide across the city, and if my maps are anything to go by, they are difficult to reach by bicycle. On my first trip – the one to the unfriendly YL camera store – I decided to just walk. According to Google Maps, it was 2.5 kilometers away, and I don’t mind walking that far – especially when it is through a new city.
After the camera store, I had plans to get on the transit system and then go to see the famous Petronas Towers. The way things turned out, I should have stuck to that plan, but after a bit of trouble locating the subway stop, I decided to just walk. I could see the tops of the towers in the distance, and it didn’t seem that far away. My route took me right through the highly developed downtown core of Kuala Lumpur and I soon found myself feeling like a tiny, insignificant organic speck at the feet of concrete, steel, and glass giants. Skyscraper neighborhoods can be deceiving, I find, when you are on foot. You decide to just walk to this or that building or around this or that building, but the distances often turn out to be far longer than you imagined. I ended up walking much farther than I had intended and I became more and more tired. I would have switched over to the transit system, but I never did figure out a convenient place to do that. On a map, the transit system looks just like the MRT in Taipei. But there is a big difference. The MRT in Taipei is all one system of subway trains. And they are all huge and spacious and fast. The transit system in KL looks impressive at first glance, but it appears to be made up of bits and pieces of different systems that may or may not be connected in any kind of convenient way. The lines all look the same on the map, but one line might be a regular subway, another might be a train system, and a third might be a strange kind of monorail. And the stations don’t connect well. Plus, the trains themselves are somewhat small and cramped and even short, consisting of just two or three cars. The lines also seem to be almost an afterthought and were placed on top of the city and go around all the buildings rather than in straight lines under them. Therefore, the trains go very slowly and follow serpentine tracks curving slowly or quickly all over the place. They didn’t take the time to or go to the expense of ripping up the city and burying the subway lines deep underground as they did in Taipei. I’m sure things will improve in the future, but the system seems somewhat quaint and underpowered at the moment. It is not the high-powered subway system that I thought it was at first.
I had gotten a tip from some other travelers that it was interesting to go up to a bar on one of the top floors of the Traders Hotel to view the Petronas Towers. I decided to do this and I stuck to my guns even when I saw (to my dismay) how far away the Traders Hotel was from my current position. Getting there through the concrete giants and the huge convention center was not going to be easy. I was feeling rather hot and dirty and disheveled when I reached the sleek glass doors of the Traders Hotel, and I felt self-conscious about going in. I was rather underdressed for such a fancy place. However, no one even glanced at me as I went in, and I found the elevator bank with ease. There were two options – the Traders Lounge on floor 34 (I think) and the Sky Bar on floor 33. I chose the Sky Bar. As the elevator rose, I was joined by a smiling and good-looking man in his late twenties or thirties. He seemed to be familiar with the place, and I asked him which he thought was better – the Bar or the Lounge. He said both were good. Then he asked me if I was going up there to have fun – and he started dancing in the elevator to show me what he meant. I laughed and said no, that I was just going there for the view and to take pictures. He then said that he thought KL was a boring city. I figured out by then that he was from the Middle East somewhere and was in KL on holiday. Perhaps from an oil-rich family with money to burn? In any event, he was here to have a good time and he had been disappointed by the possibilities.
At every step of this visit, I expected to be stopped by security and asked to leave. In fact, I felt that way everywhere I went on my errands. And that has nothing to do with Malaysia. It was a holdover from my time in the Philippines, where even the smallest of buildings will have armed guards and metal detectors and physical searches to be navigated. And, of course, you can’t bring in any kind of bag or knapsack. Kuala Lumpur has none of that, and I was able to go in and out of any shop or shopping mall that I liked without any security hassles or concerns. It was a wonderful feeling and I enjoyed it, but I felt strange all day. I felt on edge and worried that I was doing something wrong. Going into these shopping malls and then into the Traders Hotel was far too easy.
I made it to the 33rd floor, and I fully expected to be stopped there. I was sure they’d ask if I was a guest in the hotel and then would kick me out. But no one was worried about me in the slightest. There was a woman at a counter, but she just smiled at me and then went back to her work. There was a wonderful, clean, bathroom there and I popped in for a much-needed bathroom break. I was puzzled by this bathroom at first. It had showers and lockers and other things that made no sense. Then I realized that the Sky Bar was in fact a swimming pool. I could smell the chlorine before I got to the entrance. The pool was long and narrow and there were window-booths along the side. Guests could lounge in these window booths on big cushions on the floor and enjoy a cold drink after their swim and look out over the city. I did not go to these booths, of course. I think you had to swim to get to them or something. But there were other places to sit next to the window, and I sat there and took in the wonderful view of the towers and the city around it. I expected a server to pop up and tell me that this spot was reserved or that there was a minimum charge of a million dollars or that cameras were not allowed, but none of these things happened, and I snapped a few pictures of the towers with both my point-and-shoot and Olympus. I was shooting through thick dirty glass in the middle of a bright day, so the pictures weren’t going to be anything special, but they’d be a record of the event.
All day, I had been suitably impressed with the scale of the buildings in downtown Kuala Lumpur – the office towers, the apartment buildings, the luxury hotels, the convention centers. There was a lot of money here, and I felt very much like the poor cousin with my cheap sandals, dirty shorts and shirt, and 15-year-old pannier bag rigged up amateurishly to be a knapsack. Everyone else was decked out in their finest clothes and setting up giant full-frame DSLRs on tripods (when they weren’t taking selfies with their iPhones).
The tip about the Traders Hotel was a very good one. The view was perfect. The hotel was part of the massive Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, and this center was wrapped in a gentle curve around a large children’s park with swimming pools, water slides, swings, and monkey bars. There were nice pathways curving through this area with convenient bridges over water – set precisely there to give visitors the perfect vantage point for photographing themselves standing in front of the famous towers.
I didn’t stay in the Sky Bar for very long. I had intended to order a cold beer, but the beer turned out to cost more than my room at the hostel. I decided that since no one was forcing me to buy an overpriced drink in exchange for the view, I would just take my pictures and leave.
I walked through the park towards the base of the towers and enjoyed all the activity of the hundreds of local families out with their children in the park. There were also hundreds of visitors snapping away with their cameras making me think about the nature of this kind of photography. It would difficult to even guess how many pictures of the Petronas Towers are taken every day. Certainly the number would be in the tens of thousands, maybe the hundreds of thousands. Every picture is many megabytes in size, and all those megabytes end up being stored somewhere whether on the Internet or just on home computers. Imagine the massive amount of computing power and resources dedicated to just pictures of this one set of two connected towers. It’s interesting when you reflect that, really, just one picture would be enough for everyone in the world. All we really need is one good picture of the Petrnoas Towers on Flickr, and we’d all be fine with it. As I walked around the park, I snapped some more pictures as well. By the time I finished my visit, I had probably taken fifty pictures of the towers from different angles. Yet, not one of those pictures will be even a hundredth as good as one of professional images you’ll find on Flickr. So why am I taking an amateur shot of something that is represented by thousands of professional shots free online? But it’s what we do.
At this point, I’d really had enough of walking, and I made a strong effort to find a subway station. On my map, it looked like there was a convenient stop right there and it was on the same line as the stop at my hostel. Finding the subway stop wasn’t easy. This time it was underground and buried deep beneath a shopping mall. The problem was that there were no signs anywhere at street level to indicate that the subway system existed at all. You just had to know it was there. I sort of knew it was there because of my maps, but I still wasn’t able to locate it until I asked some people. The trip back was only four stops, and it cost about two ringgits (66 cents). I was very glad the subway was an option, but I did find everything to be a bit cramped and uncomfortable. The stairs, the escalators, the platforms, the cars themselves – everything was too small. It seemed to be a toy system when compared with the scale of the city around it. Seeing it made me appreciate even more the quality of the MRT system in Taipei.
I had one very amusing experience on the subway. I found myself absolutely overwhelmed with the desire for a good cup of coffee. This didn’t surprise me because I love to sit in coffee shops and drink coffee, and I hadn’t had that experience during the day yet. I had looked at a Starbucks and a place called Coffee Bean, but I hadn’t gone inside. A cup of coffee in these places cost more than the full meals I was having. So it was no surprise that I felt the urge for a cup of coffee. But the feeling was so strong. It was so strong that I imagined that I could smell the coffee. Then I realized that I WAS smelling coffee, and I looked around to see who was drinking this wonderful coffee on the subway. It seemed strange because there were many signs about not eating or drinking on the subway. Then a couple of things creeped into my conscious mind. The first was there were ads for Wonda Coffee all over the place. I looked at these ads, and then I saw that there were – strategically placed around the subway car – large devices that were pumping coffee aroma into the subway car. It’s no surprise that I wanted a cup of coffee and that the feeling was so strong that I could smell the coffee. I really was smelling the coffee. It was being pumped into the air. Very sneaky on Wonda’s part, but very effective.
I spent a very pleasant evening at the hostel chatting with a variety of people. My first two nights, I had talked with people but not to a large extent. Most people were Germans or some other European flavor and they were hanging out and smoking. Not to be too much of a wimp, but I really can’t stand being around cigarette smoke. It makes my already sore eyes burn even more and my throat get very sore. I never used to be that sensitive, but I am now. I’m not a smoke-Nazi. I don’t care that people smoke. But the smoke really does bother me physically now.
Last night, however, I had the chance to chat with a trio of British travelers, and I quite enjoyed it. Whether by choice or circumstance, I had turned into nearly a recluse. This pattern dates back even to my last two years in Taiwan when I was doing all my weekend trips and all my museum trips and theater trips and photography trips all on my own. For whatever reason, I started spending nearly all of my time on my own. That pattern got even stronger when I got to the Philippines and after my initial time at the hostel in Legazpi, I met almost no foreigners ever. Anyway, it was pleasant to talk with these people and exchange stories. I could feel the conversation having a strong physical effect on me. After that long social gathering, I slept better and deeper and this morning, I don’t feel nearly as tired as I have for a long time. It has even helped my eyes, believe it or not. Last night, I started reading a “Game of Thrones” book and without my reading glasses, the page was a complete blur. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make out the letters. I couldn’t even see that there were letters and words on the page. I just saw a grey square, it was that bad. But this morning, with some effort, I can even read the words. I wouldn’t be able to read comfortably without my glasses, but if I squint, I can read the words. And, oddly enough, for the last couple of days, my right eye is far worse than my left. I still have the double vision in my left eye, but what I see with it is sharper than what I see with my right eye. The vision in my eyes changes that fast. From one day to the next I go from good vision to seeing next to nothing. Something weird is going on.