Meleka, or Melacca, was my first port of call in Malaysia. An old colonial town that forged alliances with China way back when the Thais ("Siamese") were aggressive, it was subsequently raped by the Portuguese and then the Dutch and then the English, a long successive displacement of foreign conquerors, and yet somehow the city never seems to have been tamed, despite having a Dutch fountain in the middle of a Portuguese town square with and Anglican church off to the side.
I also know that "malaka" is the Greek word for asshole. I knew this because of my Greek room mate for that one month in Beijing in 2004. So I knew I had to go.
The cool breeze from the sea chased away the perpetual oven of so-damn-close-to-the-equator weather. Sarah and I spent two days there before making it to Kuala Lumpur this morning.
Kuala Lumpur is ... strange.
There's something about the name, something deeply ingrained in my brain from history class, seventh grade with Mrs. Irvin-Davis, eighth grade reading my history book alone during lunch at Skyline. The city was a mental bastion of Asia, of The Foreign, The Other, a place whose name conjures (conjured) images of a place and culture as far away from Wilmington and Delaware and America as you could get.
And inevitably, it's a disappointment. Clear away the romantic fantasies of the naive traveler and you get just another huge city; Asian no doubt, with mosques and Chinese temples and seemingly impromptu markets and too many people and the smells that you can never really describe, the smells you wish you could capture in the moment with your camera that mix with sound and vision to create indescribable memories that aren't easily forgotten. But beyond that, it is just another city. There are giant buildings, there are homeless, there is litter, there are malls and shops like Kenny Rogers Roasters and Starbucks, Gucci and The Gap. Somewhere in the long lost forgotten, when the world was still growing and not as bloated as it is today, everyone decided that a giant gleaming mall full of pointless expensive shit you won't ever need was the pinnacle of whatever it is we're trying to do on this planet.
It's hard to find anything exotic and new and bizarre, it's hard to really marvel as a traveler at the brilliant diversity of language and culture that humanity has to offer, when there's a Kenny Roger's Fucking Roasters next door.
And one final thought: I don't believe in the spiritual loan you get from just entering a temple, for just walking around a mosque and seeing the incense in a shrine. It's backpacker-traveler bullshit, because your spiritual pool should not be so shallow that rejuvenation comes from such empty religious voyeurism. I'm guilty of it, I not only hit all the churches I come across, I hit the mosques (when I'm allowed in), I hit the temples. But they're all the same: a fallible man-made incarnation of the ineffable. I don't need an ancient crumbling whatever to think about that. But then, maybe some do.