They all started with a date

Malaysia is a Muslim country. Did you know this? I didn’t know this. That is, not until I boarded a plane destined for Malaysia did I realize there’s an Islamic thing happening there. I’m talking about veils, of course. Veils as far as the eye can see. Only, the Malay veil is stylistically a bit different though from others I’ve seen. It boasts a little front overhang—like the veil you’re thinking of, only with a built-in visor.

Something else: something I hadn’t remotely considered when I was planning this trip months before: Ramadan. All these people around me are fasting. They are all probably hangry. Or at least grumpy.

That’s when the questions, borne of ignorance, began to rain down: Will I be expected to fast during this flight too? How does this fasting work? If the majority of the population is fasting, does that rule the day? Do we all have to fast? Will I be able to buy a sandwich in Oman during my layover? And once I reach Malaysia, will I be able to eat during the daytime? Surely there are places that serve food to non-muslims. Yes? Or will I have to wake up before dawn for a meal just so I can have some energy for my day? Will my hotel forego its complimentary breakfast? If so will they discount my room? Will I be beaten in the street if the locals see me eating during daylight, like if I pull out a chicken sandwich or kebab? How about water? I drink a lot of water during the day? In plain sight too. Is that a rule? Speaking of rules, do the Malays have Sharia law?

As the questions pour scattershot through poor brain, the sun rises on a new dawn, one in which I come face-to-face with the notion that I know not enough about Islam and even less about Malaysia, yet here I am traveling to the place. Is this a good idea?

Answer: yes. This is why I travel. This is why people should travel.

Go out there, chase some awesome, and be prepared to not just open your mind a little, but to have the hinges blown straight off.

One small example:

It is late afternoon and I have been traipsing around Kuala Lumpur all day. [see below for some of the high and lowlights] The sun is low in the sky and I have wandered down Market Street, past the muddy confluence of the two rivers that give Kuala Lumpur its name, to find myself in the sprawling Merdeka Square. It is wide and green, lorded over by the great Malaysian flag— first raised in this spot—and surrounded on all sides by beautiful buildings. While people seem to be forbidden to walk on the wide expanse of grass—formerly a cricket green—I notice all around me clusters of people laying out blankets on the concrete in preparation for an evening picnic. Strange time/place for a picnic. Still it seems that everyone is doing it: groups of university kids, and a bevy of families, both nuclear and extended. I pay it little mind.

Still, while busily snapping photos of the area, playing with my camera, a part of me notices that although the blankets are set for a feast, boasting piles and piles of food and drink, no one is partaking. Strange again. Of course, at this moment, my western brain is still fully in control, processing (or not processing) and filtering out all according to my ‘Heartland of America’ presets.

I move to the base of the Independence flagpole, trying my hand at a cool upshot photo, trying to catch the flag against the blues and grays of the evening sky. Failing, I turn and take in the whole of the square. Only then do I notice, off to the right, dominating the entire eastern edge of the square is a wide tented pavilion set up. Hmmm. I move closer. Closer still. Under the canopy, five stripes of matting are layed out like red carpets, each separated by about a food of concrete. In the center of each stripe is set out what looks like a boxed meal and on either side of these boxes, sitting in neat cross-legged rows, talking and smiling and jabbering….Muslims. Hundreds of them. Smiling and laughing and being humans, set out for a massive communal picnic.

Just then I catch sight of a poster hung on one of the tent supports. It reads: Iftar 2016.

Iftar?

As if in answer to my unspoken question, someone approaches me. She is not veiled, but is otherwise dressed conservatively, in light silks good for the late June heat. “Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Would you like to join us?”

“Join you for what?”

“Iftar. The sunset meal that breaks our Ramadan fast for the day. Please. You are welcome to join. It’s free.”

I am led towards the center of the tent down along one of the concrete walkways separating two of the mats. As I go, I step over piles of discarded shoes and sandals, until I am lead to an open space. I kick off my own shoes and hop onto the mat, and settle cross-legged in front of—you guessed it—a boxed meal.

I glance around. The atmosphere is festive. All around people are sitting, chatting, laughing. They greet me with smiles and nods. One enthusiastic old guy in a long beige robe wearing a low cylindrical hat cries out, “Welcome! Welcome!”  Others are less boisterous. Some try to start conversations, to practice their English. Others just smile shyly when eye contact is made. A few paces down mat, a few local media outlets are passing along the rows of people, interviewing people who came to break the fast, Muslim or otherwise, Malays and westerners.

Oh yes westerners! I am not the only one. All around slightly anxious looking people with light, over-burned skin are being led to other open spots. A cluster of college coeds in ponytails, a Aussie couple with their four young children, an older couple from Vermont wearing ventilated khaki shirts and Teva sandals. All wear a look of wonder on their faces. And it’s no wonder. We have been invited to another world. I am an alien in this world.

In the background, an Islamic boy band (think an Islamic version of Jars of Clay) sings a few songs as the last remaining people settle down to their mats and the sun continues to dip lower. After the band, the MC hands the mic to a solemn looking older gentlemen dressed in simple brown pants and matching knee-length, long sleeve tunic. The man kneels and begins to speak in Arabic, a gentle rolling cadence to his words, rhythmic and arresting. Gradually the chatting and laughter in the rows around us begins to peter out and I watch as my neighbors bow their heads. Some mouth prayers inaudibly, others mumble theirs, some clasp their hands to their chest in a prayer, still more grip strings of beads. Regardless of the variation in styles, each seem to be taking a private moment with their religion.

The energy is quiet and uniformly positive, and after a minute or two, the people around rise out of their individual moments with big, toothy smiles and with careful, deliberate movements, crack the plastic lids on their boxed meals. My neighbors, a group of 20-somethings smile at me and raise their glasses of juice in a sort of, ‘Buon appetito’.

I thank them, nod and crack my own lid, but don’t partake. Not quite yet. Instead, I watch.

These good people are carefully taking stock of their bounty. A big portion of rice, a fruit cup of some sort, a piece or two of grilled chicken in a brown sauce, some water, a bowl of warm porridge or something like it, and in a wax paper baggie, 3 dates.

Almost to a man, everyone around breaks their fast with one of the sweet dates. Just one. I watched maybe ten people in the span of a minute break their fast like this. Taking it from the wax paper bag, holding it between thumb and forefinger, bringing it up to their mouth—ooop a moment of hesitation—then a bite. Most flutter or close their eyes at this first moment, as if sight would get in the way of savoring the flavor.

Watching these first moments, seeing how much these people are relishing this first bite, I have my own flutter…of jealousy. So deep is their savoring, I almost long to go on my own fast, if for no other reason than to break it. That is until I remember the delicious Indian grub I had near the Batu Caves earlier that morning. Yeah, I’ll fast on the fasting.

Even so, as I begin my own meal, I start with a date too, but I am certain that the Muslims’ dates taste better. Moving on, I dive into the rest of the food and in imitation of my neighbors, eat it all without silverware. I must say there is something a bit liberating about eating a rice and meat dish with your hands. Maybe it’s some connection with a primal past, who knows, but it added to the experience. Before I know it, my little free boxed meal is empty, all save my remaining two dates. I pocket them for later, thinking maybe a bit of forbearance will increase their flavor.

All in all, the meal was simple and delicious. Wonderful. Easily one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve had. Finished, I begin to tidy up my space and that done, look around to see what, if anything, will happen next.

Turns out…nothing. Just like that, Iftar ends. Without fanfare. Nothing sharp or abrupt. No signal is given or alarm sounds. The people have finished eating, and satiated, are ready to finish their evening. Friends and families and schoolmates and strangers all wave and move off into the gathering night.

I guess that is my cue too.

After I rinse my hands and throw away my trash I smile and nod to some locals, being sure to thank people who are wearing nametags. Soon I too am out of the tent, moving away into the night. But before I leave Merdeka Square, I pause near the flagpole again and reflect a little taking a moment to bask in the warmth of my welcome and reception to this community here in this other world. I feel a little fuzzy inside. How wonderful that was.

This is why I travel. To see things like this. To experience things like this. To blow the hinges off the door of my mind.

Some Sights:

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1. Batu Caves: A definite must see, not just for mountain climbers or those who love a good cave, also for those who like 42 meter (140 feet) high gilded statues of Hindu gods.

P. to the S.: There is a collection of shady-looking eateries to the right of the Batu on a sidestreet. Don’t be scared. Pick one, wade your way past the coconut-gorging Macaques and get in there.

Transport: Easily reachable via train from KL Sentral. Look for the red line. Its last stop is the Batu Caves. Cheap cheap.

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2. Central Market: which is on most all of the ’Things to do’ lists, but really, aside from its place historically as a long standing market, really is NOT great. Two floors of covered shops, selling souvenirs, wood carvings and coconut-based ice creams. In a little spillway in the center I heard a group of four Malay musicians playing an Alanis Morisette cover using traditional instruments. Strange. I spent all of 8 minutes there, 3 of which with Alanis, then left.

3. Petaling Street. Basically little Chinatown. I love going to various Chinatowns across the globe. This one has great signage and lots and lots of lanterns, but as Chinatowns go I’d rate this one a 17 on a scale of 13-25. With 25 being the best of course. Very close to Central Market.

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4. Muddy Confluence : Doesn’t everyone love a nice muddy confluence? This is actually the rough English translation of the Malay, Kuala Lumpur. In the heart of the city, go stand on Market Street Bridge and take in its majesty, one of the first steel brides in Kuala Lumpur.

P. to the S.: Actually, the muddy confluence is not really that majestic. Cool view of the mosque at the fork in the river. Also, the ‘river’ is undergoing a revitalization/restoration project right now so it is definitely not at its best.

5. A Mall: I haven’t been to a mall in an age, but when in KL…sigh. These guys know their malls, ridiculously huge, with every sort of store imaginable and plenty of glorious air-conditioned shelter from the heat, or in my case, a torrential downpour. Nice way to wait out the rain. I went to the 8-story job annexed to the KL Sentral Station, called Nu Sentral.

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