Monday, June 30, 2008

Suffering in KL

My first two days here haven’t been the best. I reckon the last straw was the air conditioning in the train up from Singapore, as almost straight after I picked up a cold that has knocked me out since.

So my idea to see the city over the weekend fizzled, and today hasn’t been any better.

Sunday I did nothing but suffer a lousy cold and stay in the hotel room watching episode after episode of Ugly Betty on TV. Anyway it was drizzling for most of the day.

Monday I have done almost nothing as the cold is, if anything, worse. I struggled out to the KL Tower and managed to get myself to the observation deck, but that was it. Gave up after 30 minutes and went back to the hotel room to feel miserable and watch documentaries on the building of several new complexes in Beijing as part of the build-up to the Olympics.

My meetings are all moved to Tuesday.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is new in every sense. The city only really got started in the 1880s and has only boomed in the last 30 years or so. There may be some older sections worth walking through but I haven’t found them (lets face it, my chill/cold has hammered both energy and curiosity levels). Below me, looking out over KL Sentral from my hotel window, lies Brickfields, evidently one of the older areas, now the Indian quarter. The houses there are mostly commercial, three floors high with brightly colored frontages. Could be good for some fotos.

The rest of the city is widely spread over a large plain with low rolling hills, itself fringed by higher hills and low mountains. Which means, even in this, the rainy season, that by 9am you can see the tobacco stain in the air as vehicle pollution mounts.

This is a city of wide freeways for cars, snaking through green parks and concentrated islands of high rises. As a modern city goes, not a bad idea. But it demands you have transport. No city that I have seen on this trip has (ever had) the European concept, tradition or history of a built up central area where culture, commerce and community are mixed together. Old Jakarta may have had (though in the book I bought I read that even in the 1850s one traveler told of the need for all to use transport to get around); the others surely never had.

After checking into the hotel on arrival, my first target was Petronas Towers. I got there by the Rapid KL ‘metro’, which is really good. In fact public transport in KL is impressive: fast, clean, smooth, cheap and with at least three ideas that others could adopt. There’s a monorail too, which I will endeavor to jump on if I’m OK and have the time.

When I exited the KLCC station just beside the Towers, a short downpour was just clearing the area; I was lucky to see them at all!

I love the flair of the building: sheer, smooth steel wrapped around a classic Islamic design. The use of shining steel reminds me just a little of the 1930s skyscrapers in Manhattan – Chrysler in particular – with the same attention to detail and the fine quality finish. It does not look like so many other pre-constructed buildings with their bolt-on facades or indolent exposure of concrete beams and walls.

The ride up is free (wow!) and there are batches of people every 15 minutes. I managed to ‘jump’ aboard one ride up thanks to an extremely sweet guy at the reception desk.

Before going up you are treated to a 7 minute 3D movie of the building of the Towers. I’ve seen better on Discovery Channel, not least because the storyline there is just a little less laudatory of Petronas. But fun to see, nevertheless.

The other riders were the usual mix you would expect to find – tourists, visitors and residents from all over – German, Italian, French, Indian, Chinese, Arab.

Between the Towers is KL’s luxury shopping mall, a classic list of worldwide high and low fashion brands. No city is worth its salt without them, it seems. The style of the mall is as you might expect – several floors of consumer delights radiating from a large open atrium with an architectural fancy, the sole differentiator between this mall and another. Here, as in Jakarta, Mexico or Sao Paulo, a great part of a family’s non-work time is spent, seeking out the next best thing.

Don't ask me why, but sometimes these malls look like the jails designed by Bentham, with its rows of cells that can all be seen from the large atrium. Who are the prisoners - the people sitting in their blind, air conditioned units or those wandering the aisles with a fear of leaving without having bought something?

I’m satiated and past all this. I’m older now - I know now how insubstantial and unnecessary so many things really are. I buy few things nowadays (OK so what I buy is expensive, like cameras and my adored Mac); if I manage to save anything then it going to be for my next life adventure.

Up to KL

The train to Kuala Lumpur leaves - 7:40 am. Singapore's main train station is a modest building. It looks untouched since the 1950s and far away from the 21st Century glass towers of the rest of the city; the English decorating style of the 1930s is still evident.

 I bought my ticket, then scouted the cafe to the side of the public area and bought myself a bright blue concoction labelled "blueberry juice".

The train (and the station indeed) is operated by the Malaysian Rail.  The carriages are simple box designs, I think maybe from the 1970s. It looks like a commuter train, with one first class carriage that, except for the cloth fabric on the seats, is the same as second class. I was going to regret have chosen first class ....



The train pulled out of the station and then sinks into a defile, as if to slip out of Singapore invisibly.  The vegetation by the side of the tracks is wild and savage. Ferns cascade from the joints of trees where enough detritus has settled and let them seed; banana trees nestle among hanging lianas and slender palms.



Breaking out of the jungle trench I could see the outer residences of Singapore, still stretching skywards but interspersed by a hindu temple, a military emplacement and parking lots for trucks. It looks like the upper part of Singapore is all utlities, fabrication yards, warehouses and low rise offices - in essence the back office.



After about 30 minutes the train pulled into Woodlands Rail Checkpoint. Still on Singaporean soil, this is the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia.  The process is old world - everyone off and into queues to control documents and scan prints, then a long wait until everyone is processed and the doors slither open to let you board again.



I was already dismayed by the chill produced by the carriage's air conditioning. I had asked the steward to turn it up (or down, if you prefer) but this wasn't working - all I got was exasperated arms and eyebrows before a rustle of the same steward's newspaper. Already my throat was feeling the impact. By the end of the voyage I was dressed in three layers of clothes and had my beach sarong draped over my head to keep the chill from freezing my brain. To no effect. I remained a numbed skull.



After the pass control the train rolled over the causeway. On the road side, a queue the length of the causeway itself of trucks, cars, bikes and scooters, all waiting to trade in Singapore.

With a limpid sun rising in the hazy morning sky we passed through Johor Bahru, the main city in the province of Johor. The other side of the Straits isn't the same as Singapore.  For a start the commercial buildings in Johor have a dated 1970s and 1980s feel to them - obviously concrete frames with pre-fab panels.  The houses are much simpler too - more like Jakarta or Cebu - though I did see new construction projects going on. 

Here every is cloaked in dense green vegetation, which I always find beautiful.  Orange earth is pushed aside by the living areas, to tumble into brownwater creeks fringed by papaya, banana and a cascade of creepers.

Ten minutes into Malaysia and the mosques are evidence we are in an overtly Moslem country. The minarets are in the Turkish style, but stumpier; the roofing a strong blue, which sets off the white plastered walls very well.

Over the course of the next hour or so the train stops at several outlying suburbs of Johor Bahru. Commuters crowd around the second class carriages; no-one appears in the first class, where most of the travelers are tourists like me, including three Italian guys who have wrapped up to battle the air conditioning.  One indian lady can't stop coughing up her deep cattarh. She must hate the A/C too.



Leaving Kapas Baru the train runs into a defile again, deeper than the one in Singapore and almost overwhelmed by the vegetation. Occasionally it breaks out to run over a plain, full of palm trees and an occasional tin roofed dwelling with its tawny red bare earth front yard.



Passing by a small town I can see there is a small property boom, with new apartment blocks going up. Looking through the main street most building seem to be three floors high. Public buildings seem to have blue painted rooves here, not just the mosques.


We stop at Kulai; just over the track there's a pool of water with some plants in it, fringed by ever present palms.  The train waited here only a few moment, then pulled out to follow the main road with its moisture mottled buildings on the left and jungle with its tumultuous growth on the right. The road soons disappears, leaving us with views over palm plantations and what looks like coffee bushes.



In Rengam there is a large, sun blackened statue of Ganesh just over the road from a silver paint hindu temple.  Next to it a football stadium with the greenest, lushest pitch I've ever seen. By the station platform the bouganvillea is shaped into bushes. On the other side of the tracks a tall, flowering cactus, its flowers large and creamy yellow as though they were lotus blossoms. Another long wait and we pull away from Rengam, to be swallowed up by the palm groves again.



I had thought earlier of getting off in Kluang but decided to go on to KL.  It is a pleasant looking low rise town, spread either side of the tracks.  Most of the people at the station seem to be Indian, one of the three main ethnies in Malaysia. The town stretches on a while - there's more developments on the northern edge - but the track is soon deep into nature.



Beyond Kluang are low lying hills. The vegetation changes for a short while, high standing slender trees and with broad leaves that alternate with the palm plantations As we pass Genuang the scenery is more open but the principal vegetation is still palms.  What they produce I don't know. 

The train stopped again at Segamat. Well it stopped, rolled back over the bridge, then puffed back into the station again on a different track Someone pulled a lever too slow, it seems.  Ah well, good thing we changed over - another train went through on the track we were on - heading the opposite way.


After Segamat the views open up again, with the additon of some broad fields of swamp and low bushes. Then its palms mixed with what I think may be coffee bushes.

The sky darkened, clouds are building heavy heads that begin to glower over the trains destination. It might rain later... I fell asleep, my head bandana'd by my sarong, my eyes looking at the eternal plantations of palm trees.

A sound of braking, the movement of people pulling bags down from the racks. I've arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tiger Island


Singapore in the early morning light as seen from my hotel window.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

New York again

And so I’m back in New York again, for the third time this trip. This has always been my favorite city, but the more I see it now, the less happy I am with it. Maybe it’s not New York that makes me feel this way, though I know (I feel it) the local mood has changed since 9/11. The trauma is still there – in me for sure, and I was in Europe when the attack happened. Next time I’m here, I want to get out of the city.

I think something has happened to the spirit of America. The people are not happy; pressure and stress are evident, as though they’ve lost the natural ebullience that is their soulmate.

The bureaucracy is generally unpleasant and burdensome – especially the subcontracted Federal sort; in fact it begins to feel as much a barrier to doing things as it is in Brasil. In the airports and stations the redundancy and inefficiency of security is palpable; nothing they do here is more than has existed in Europe for years and yet they make a hash of it. The costs must be enormous and I have the sensation of their having set up a Frankenstein of a bureaucratic beast that is or will become such a monster for patronage that it will never be made efficient.

The focus on customer service is gone too; whether from the airline reps to the subway staff to the bank tellers. New York’s subway is visibly rusting; the speaker system worse than that of the UK. Airlines are using old aircraft where monitors don’t work and customer amenities haven’t been attended to in a decade. Same goes for the Greyhound coach – no change in twenty years there. The Amtrak up to Boston was good, but the manner of the stewards towards passengers was almost brutal. Airports are ‘as-was’ but for the controls; no reworking of customer facilities notwithstanding the need to provide more ‘entertainment’ during the long waits (and if you want to provide your own you have to search for power sockets here too).

Hotels are managed by immigrants who, for the most part have no experience of customer service in their own territories – and who are evidently not (no longer) trained here to consider it; to the point that you question why return to what would otherwise be an OK hotel/restaurant/store. Staff seem to be about as interested in caring for their clientele as do the staff of hotels in Italy – i.e. not at all.

I’ve always wanted to live and work in the States (New York specifically). I’m disappointed with what I’m seeing now. I used to enjoy every moment of being in New York; now I do almost nothing when I visit.

Maybe it’s just a moment of funk brought on by the events of the last few years and a general malaise thanks to the ructions of the economy. However what I see is enough for me to decide on a rain-check.

The United States is beginning to feel a little bit too much like Europe – tired, uncertain, fearful and middle aged, focused on protecting benefits and without a vision. It does indeed need change, for the wind is out of its sails. I fear it may remain so for some time.

If that is so, Europe is more attractive because it offers more (non-monetary, non-opportunity) quality of life. Except for Italy, that is.

My mind keeps turning to Asia …

Friday, June 13, 2008

Miami

Just passing through the airport, which is as I remember it from a decade ago. There’s some restructuring but the only change I see is the in the security controls – queues and queues – and in the general comportment of the people.

A short summer shower broke as we took off; the tail of the great storms drowning the Mid West. Rising fast through the clouds the plane created its own rainbow, strong, bright and, as always, just out of reach.

Another long trip, another attempt to sleep to recover from the deprivation of the night before.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Belo Horizonte

This was just a quick jump to Belo Horizonte, Brasil’s third largest city. The weather is bright and clean and clear. The city is built up in a valleyed plain with higher mountains around its rim. Infinitely more ‘breathable’ than Sao Paulo.

I’ve been here before – when I lived in Brasil I came here a couple of times on business and once during a long weekend holiday. It looks like the place has grown significantly since then – its no longer a large city with one main street of no consequence; now it a larger city with several main streets and many shopping malls.

The people are more mixed here; simpler than in Sao Paulo but just as alive and, maybe, a little more confident. It certainly doesn’t suffer the sense of pressure Sao Paulo has, or the unchanging laid-back attitude of Rio.

If ever I come back to Brasil again, this is the place where I would see the most of in the future. Who knows …

Monday, June 09, 2008

Sao Paulo

My second time here this year. Nothing much to say about it; here it is business and nothing else.


Sao Paulo is the powerhouse of Latin America and the original concrete jungle, a totally anonymous carpet of high rises that stretch from horizon to horizon wherever you look.

About as enticing to live in as Milan. I hate Milan.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Return to Rio

This I never expected. I am in Rio de Janeiro again.


I lived here for almost one and a half years, in 1993-4 and 1996-7, when I worked for two software companies.

Here it is where I met Marcia, the woman I fell in love with, courted, went half way round the world to bring back to me, and married. Life has taken many unforeseen paths since then, but the memory of her here is so strong.

I am here with three business colleagues, the result of the earlier trips to New York, Houston and Vancouver. Its their first time here; our Brazilian colleague has set up a driver to take them around the usual sites – so I tag along to see them and Rio again, and to see what has changed in eight years since I was last here.

Well, nothing has changed that I can see. A few stores have different labels, the telecom monopoly is no longer (but the “big ear” booths are the same). But Rio is the same. No new construction, no remake of the road system (other than a back-of-city bypass that was being built when I lived here.

So strange to walk to these streets again, to see the apartment in which I lived in Lagoa district, and the other one in Ipanema. The Bahiana ladies who prepare their spicy snacks have moved from one corner to another corner in the Hippy Market, but the rest looks as it always did; some products are topical but essentially they are all the same as before – hammocks, wood sculptures, semi-precious gems, paintings, bags, painted glass vases, silver rings and things.


Families and tourists still go up to see Cristo Redentor on Corcovado, lovers still take the cable car up to Pao de Azucar. The beachfront road is closed to traffic on the Sunday; at the kiosks the cocos cost 2$ instead of 1$ (ah, there’s a change); the beach has its obligatory scattering of winter bathers, who stick to the beach and avoid the cold water; the vendors still stroll between them offering drinks, skewers of shrimps and beachwear. With the exception of most tourists, the women are sensual, sylvan nymphs the men their Adonis. The stories are all true. Believe me.

I put all the pleasure of living here behind me when the company I worked for then folded; I didn’t expect ever to be here again. It is most strange.



Thursday, June 05, 2008

Over the Canyon!

Work is wrapped up in Vancouver. So back to where I came from - Liberty, Texas.

The return flight is the same, through Phoenix. But this time I'm flying by day, so I get to see some of what I flew over going up. What do we fly over? The Grand Canyon!

Here's the quickly grabbed shot ... :-)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A stroll in Stanley Park

Every day so far it rains and the cloudy lie heavily on the city. I'm waiting for some movement in my business and have a few hours to kill, so I've decided to take a stroll around Stanley Park, the broad pathed, deep wooded garden park that all Vancouvers love.

And it is beautiful. It functions as Vancouver's Central Park but it is more like London's parks, with its rhododendrons and rose gardens. Maybe even a little touch of Copenhagen's Tivoli, with the dark wood lodges scattered around. The flourish that ensures you know you are in Canada - the totem poles and their animal spirits.

I walked up to the lighthouse guarding the entrance to the inlet and saw beyond that the Lionsgate suspension bridge.

But the weather is too gloomy, so I head back and cross over the promontory to English Bay. Here the waters are calmer. The tide is out and the beaches leach lazy streams of water that join the ocean at the water's edge.

Here also is the iconic stone figure of a man. You will see this image a lot during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The weather is wintry already. I'm heading back to the office.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Vancouver

I arrived in Vancouver at close to midnight. The air was soft, refreshingly cool, and almost about to rain when I exited the airport terminal building. Grabbed a cab, driven by the ubiquitous Punjabi (even here!) and arrived at the hotel within few minutes. Switched on the TV, which had blanket coverage of the US Democratic primaries (this time Puerto Rico). Crashed.

The following morning broke with fairly heavy cloud cover but some blue sky and sunlight also. Went down to the hotel lobby and muddled with the other guests in finding out how the breakfast process worked (I'm in a 'budget' hotel so its the usual bad layout, display, selection and service). By the time I had finished, what had been a semi sunlit morning had degenerated into total cloud cover, with black rollers lurking over the hills and the soft breeze turned to chilling squall. And so it remained to the end of the day.

I had a business meeting in the afternoon, so split my day into a before and after, strolling around town, seeing some of the sights and shooting a few photos (just snapshots).

Its 10 years since I've been on the Pacific coast (last time was Monterrey in California) and, for me, there's always something of a 'frontier' sensation here. I don't mean in the 'Old West' discovery sense, but the recognition that there is half a world of Ocean to cross before you see the mainland of Asia. The great, wonderful, immense, awesome Pacific.

Indeed, the very reason why Vancouver was built. The Brits needed/wanted a deep water Pacific port; they had been looking since the 1760s, found it in the 1790s, and seriously settled it in the 1860s to counter US moves westwards when they founded Seattle. It was all about trade then (lumber and furs) and its all about trade now.

The core of the city is built on a grid plan, stretching over a slim promontory with a ridged back. Imagine the back of a breaching whale and you have it. Or again, a smaller version of Manhattan, itself originally settled for the same purpose - end of the line for the export of furs and timber. Like New York, the greater part of the people live in other districts over the bay, places like West and North Vancouver; a sliver of high rise along the waterfront with a broad carpet of residential homes stretching up the mountain slopes behind the shoreline. Like them, they either drive into town or take the ferries that cross the dark grey waters regularly.

I was always curious to visit Vancouver. It is famous for great variety of its flowers, its natural scenic beauty and its soft, rainy climate. Well the last point is for real, and unfortunately that means I can't see much of its natural beauty as the clouds are getting darker as they bend they way down towards the town.

My instant impression? This could be western Norway, or with a little imagination some parts of western Scotland. More like Norway, because here the houses are timber or timber clad, not those miserable, stunted brick houses the Scots live in. There's even a trace of Australia here, the way the town 'feels', likely because of the same time in which both were first developed and the inevitable British colonial imprint.

The other thing Vancouver is famous for is the historic mixing of peoples; mostly Scots, Irish, Chinese, Native Americans. And this I can see too, which is delightful. Now its reinforced by tourism, as the families of these immigrants visit and as others from all over the world, like me, come to see this Pacific outpost.

Downtown in Canada Center there is a convention hall, built in the harbor in the shape of a cruise liner with its prow facing the Ocean. A real cruise liner, the "Norwegian Sea" is moored alongside. This is the beginning of the cruise season: from here people go up to see the islands of the NorthWest; I can hear the voices of Germans, Americans, English and Swedish aboard.

The Gaslight area of the town was its original center; fallen into decay it has been restored and is the tourist shopping street today.

Wandered around the stores a bit, looking at the many trinkets, reproduction totems and local NorthWest Indian artwork, which is based on the animals they knew and stylized in a way that almost anticipates 1960s swirls and colors.

I wandered up to Chinatown too; this area seems to be the new skid row, full of straggle bearded hobos curled in doorways, clumped around a liquor store and slumped over supermarket trolleys. Not a few times have I been asked for spare change today. That surprised me.

Such warmth as there was disappears in the late afternoon, so I head off for a warmer place.