March 2, 2010

Good People in the Streets, Kuala Lumpur

It was nearly dark on the walk back from Jalan Alor, but I could see the river of matted fur pouring up from the sewer, marking the nightly dinner hunt. The world was a smorgasbord, and even the rats knew: The hawkers in Kuala Lumpur cook up some of the best food around. The hardest thing about walking down Jalan Alor is choosing between Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Indian cuisine. For a self-confessed street food junkie, the place was overwhelming.

There’s almost a carnival aspect to the street, from the smoke billowing grills to the plastic tables and chairs. Every stall looks so inviting. If you arrive early, say 5:30 or so, it’s easy to spot the local favorites. The tables are already filled with folks taking in quick inexpensive meals before rushing off to work. It became a nightly pilgrimage to go out looking for new places to eat. Takayo and I hit up a Thai stall for sausage balls with chili sauce. Next, an Indian joint for some Bryani and chicken Kurma. As we sat and talked, the locals cleared out. Before long, the seats filled up with freshly showered tourists like a culinary Changing of the Guard. Time to hit the streets.

The hardest working man in KL might be the Chinese toy salesman on Jalan Bukit Bintang, your typical high-traffic shopping area. Armed with a cargo van full of electronic dogs, doll babies, alligators, robots, etc., he stuffed them with batteries as fast as he could, turning them loose right there on the sidewalk. We just stood there and watched. The sidewalk flashed red and yellow and green. The toy man poured sweat, taking in money hand over fist. Animals crashed into unsuspecting ankles or made slow getaways. Everything brayed or chirped or cried bloody murder.

Further up the street, we passed a stretch of sidewalk occupied by, what seemed to be, a roving clan of disfigured street peddlers. One of these poor guys stood about four feet tall. He wore thick glasses and leaned against a tree on legs that bowed at an impossible angle. I dropped a Ringgit into the tin cup at his feet and hurried past.

There was an odd scene in front of the McDonald's at Bukit Bintang. A car was parked on the sidewalk with two shirted monkeys jumping around it. There were some cats caged in the backseat and a couple of birds. It was hard to tell if somebody was living in the car, or just using it as a mobile zoo. A crowd had gathered by the time we walked up.

The monkey handler had a shaved head, and a disposition that matched the smell seeping out from his car. When a girl raised her camera to take a picture, the monkey man brandished a windshield wiper blade.

“No! These are my monkeys. I don’t take pictures of YOU, do I?”

Now, of course, everyone wanted to take a picture because he told us we couldn’t. Meanwhile, the monkeys were going wild, jumping from a lamp post to the car. I tried to take a photo, but he turned just in time and threatened me with the wiper blade.

“Can I take a picture with the monkey,” I said.
“Come here! Five Ringgits.” I forked it over and he put it in his pocket.
“OK, be very still or they will tear you to pieces.” He took my arm and turned it into a cradle for the monkey to sit in. The little guy held on to my shirt, but jumped onto the car before Takayo could take my picture.
“Watch this,” he said, pulling a juice box from the trunk. He handed it to the monkey in blue, and rebuked the one in red for trying to steal it.
“Do you see that?” he asked Takayo. “Did you know monkeys are GREEDY animals?”
“No. I didn’t know that,” she said.
“Yes, maybe now you know.”

We checked out some bars, but nothing compared to the streets that Friday night. “I can’t wait to see this place on a Saturday night.”

The following night, however, it was as if a downpour had washed the streets clean of freaks. Normal folks and women in burqas filled the sidewalks. There was no Chinese toy hustler. No roving band of street peddlers, or the monkey man. All that decent open chaos was gone. The following afternoon, we turned on the television and found out why.

The Malaysian immigration bureau conducted a round-up. A camera stalked the fringes of Kuala Lumpur’s underbelly, capturing the whole thing on a Dateline-style exposé. Anyone without papers was hustled into a paddy wagon and hauled off. And wouldn’t you know, I saw the little guy with the glasses and bowed knees. The camera was right on top of him. He didn’t have the necessary paperwork, so they apprehended him and the rest of that sad crew. So that's the end of crazy in the streets of KL. So long, my bowlegged friend. So long.

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