Saturday August 21:
Shoes outside the office.
I found a map! An old fashioned one made out of paper!!! So with my map, a colleague’s list of where to go, sneakers, shorts, and my backpack, the doorman at the hotel made sure to tell me to look out for pickpockets.Sometimes I just have to be a target. I am a hiker, and I cannot let go of my hiking uniform. As most of you know dress is not one of my fortes, but here I am conscious of how much of my skin is showing. After living in a tropical climate for a year, ALL of my dresses and shirts are sleeveless. In Mexico, this was not a problem. After a few days at the office, another woman told me that I needed to cover up. I was feeling so good about knowing that I couldn’t wear shoes, but I was blind to the fact that I was the only woman in the office who had her arms showing. That night I bought two button down cotton shirts to cover my arms. I admit, that I am not diligent about wearing them, but tucked in my cubicle corner, I think I am safe from the HR police. I could feel my male cubicle neighbor breathe a sigh of relief that someone had brought this up. He added a few more tips.
I continue to marvel at the dress rules here.The office is informal. From what I can see, the men can wear whatever they want. The Muslim women in the office wear headscarves and loose fitting clothing. Some Hindu women wear loose-fitting, bright-colored flowing clothing, and some wear western attire (high heels, short sleeves). The only Chinese woman that I met was fired the other day, but she wore Western dress.The man who records the voice overs wears beautiful clothes:a short colorful tunic with a straight collar and white loose pants. Those who wear shoes in the office, have a special inside set. Outside the bathroom, there is a pile of flip flops. I am not sure which is better — wearing flip flops that a lot have people worn in the bathroom, or going in barefoot. I always choose the latter.
Yesterday, I experienced clothing in a different way. I went to Masjid Jamek, the oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur. This is where KL’s first settlers began their settlement. The mosque was designed by a British man in 1909. Here they supply those dressed inappropriately a combination headscarf/robe, and the men get long wraps to cover their legs. The mosque was stunning, shiny and impeccable — bare feet on slippery floors, a convincing argument about why Allah is the only god and that the Koran is the only Book. I got trapped in a conversation about why women, not wear headscarves, so when the man asked me if we wanted to continue the conversation in the shade, I said no, and the conversation ended faster if I had complied. In the museum about Islam, I was intrigued by another conversation, but the rivers of sweat distracted me, so much that all I could think of was tearing of the robe and head scarf that I was required to wear. I wanted to listen, so I inched my way closer to a fan and let it blow through the opening in my robe. This provided a little relief, but not enough to keep me there. I could not get that thing off fast enough. I understand on a certain level why women wear headscarves, protection mainly from other men is the very short version. It is the same reason why the man goes first — to protect the woman. Perhaps Christian women wear their own form of headscarves in a private way that no one can see. I do like the concept that when a woman wears a headscarf and loose clothing, she is not judged initially by her body, but by her soul and what you see in her face. For someone who has grappled with body image since day one, this aspect of dress suits me.
On the way to the mosque, I followed my GPS the wrong way through Little India. Cheap trinkets, interesting looking food, people moving at shopping pace, and an occasional vendor driving his wares to set up his stuff. Suffocating. Where do they find all of those knock offs? When I finally turned around and saw a giant flag, I followed it to my destination relieved to get spit out of the market. What a contrast the mosque was.
Once I left the mosque and my robes behind, I wandered on the perimeter of the market and chatted with a man carrying wine to a friend. I looked up and saw the Sri Mahamariamman Temple sticking up over the parking lot. Wow. It seemed that everytime I turned around yesterday, I was in a different country, or religion. This is the oldest Hindu Temple in KL built in 1873 for the Pillai family. It was private until the 20’s. The looming part of the structure includes figures from the Ramayana (I am so glad that I taught mythology for all of those years!). This temple was relaxed about dress, no shoes of course. There were many offerings of food and incense to the gods and goddesses.
Since Sri Mahamariamman Temple borders Chinatown, I think the next thing I stumbled upon was the Guan Di Temple– a Taoist temple honoring the great warrior for which it is named. It was foggy with incense, Shoes were acceptable. Again food was set out for the god — oranges mostly.
At that point I decided that to walk to KLCC. As tall as the Petronas towers are, sometimes they are difficult to find, so I walked toward another giant flag and found Merdeka Square where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time on August 31, 1957, when the Malaysians declared their independence.I caught sight of the Petronas Towers and continued my journey to KLCC. I was glad for this walk, because it put the city in perspective for me. Now I have some perspective, but I still get disoriented. I found the KL Forest Eco Park, which I will return to next week to find solace from the city.
I felt compelled to do the tourist thing in KL before I decided that the treasures that I want to find are outside of the city away from the people, tourists, pollution, cars, motorbikes. KL is a lovely city, but all I really want to do is settle into my work, gym, home world during the week, and take off to see the country on the weekends. I have 20 vacation days this year, which means 20 long weekends. Travel is cheap, so I hope to take my first trip to somewhere remote on the 31st while everyone is celebrating independence day. Maybe it is time to visit Thailand…