9/27/2015
The Malaysian Driving Experience

They say the best way to learn how to drive is to drive around Manila. Just dealing with drivers who will squeeze themselves into every nook and cranny just to get ahead, with buses who veer past the yellow line just so they can get passengers, with jeepneys who stop in the middle of the road for the same thing - that, the logic goes, should make you a good driver anywhere, because everywhere else, or at least most of everywhere else, is much more civilized.

I can't possibly test that. I don't think I'll ever drive a vehicle outside of the Philippines. Not that I have to. The longest I've been out of these shores is eight days, and that was in Singapore, a country with a public transport system so purposeful you'd be an idiot to want to drive. (Well, there's also the fact that the Philippines uses left-hand drive and Singapore uses right-hand drive. That's a bit of a learning curve.) For the most part, I could subsist with public transport. I could find my way with a map, a proper train, and a few sacrificed calories.

But not in Kuala Lumpur.

Now, don't get me wrong. Yes, the Malaysian capital has terrible traffic jams during peak hours, but outside of that it's actually relatively easy to get around. The trains may be a bit more complicated - lots of walking between line transfers - but at least it works. My first trip there was perhaps the only time I got myself from my hotel to a relatively far-flung tourist spot without resorting to a cab. Not that they're any more reliable, especially if you're a foreigner.

But on this second trip, I'm not going to the city center at all. I spent most of my 72-odd hours in the country in that strip of land between actual Kuala Lumpur and the airport. (There was a whole day at Malacca, but of course there were vehicles provided.) There is not much to see in the suburbs, understandably, although the hotel was nice and there was a 7-Eleven nearby. But it's hard to get to Kuala Lumpur without resorting to a cab at least part of the way through. There are no trains where I was. Or, well, there are, but they won't be open until next year.

So my only option... well, Zaty wasn't my only option. She could have said no. She could have just given me directions to our meeting place. But no. She was nice enough to drive from her place in Dengkil (I hope I remembered that correctly), to my hotel in Puchong, to our destination in Petaling Jaya. That's where she studies, and nearby is a store where we were supposed to go to. In secret.

It's a sticker store. You know, the usual artsy stuff. Stationery, pens, paints, and lots of stickers, thus the name: Stickerrific. Once again I had a care package with polvoron and a random assortment of vintage stuff, and once again I'm going home with stuff we'd both pick together for Rainy. Zaty says the stuff there is better than the ones she bought at Typo the first time - and cheaper, too. So a plan was made. We'd meet on Saturday afternoon - I was there until Monday, but the store was closed, and it also was Merdeka Day - and make our way to the store, get some stuff, perhaps get some lunch, catch up somewhat, and then return back to the hotel in time for the thing I unfortunately have to do that night.

But then Rainy found out about the store and begged Zaty to buy her stuff there, for me to pick up. So much for secret plans.

I did start this essay with a bit about driving, right?

Yeah, Zaty would drive me. It's not out of her way. If it was, I wouldn't have asked her. Imagine you're driving from the airport to the city center. You'll pass by, in order: Dengkil, Puchong, Petaling Jaya. Well, you wouldn't quite pass through them, because Malaysia has an extensive, if not complicated, highway system where the speed limit is 110 kilometers per hour. Everything is smooth outside of Kuala Lumpur's traffic jams. I arrived in the country at one in the morning and my host was driving, nonchalantly, at 120. Well, nonchalantly until he saw a truck veer off his lane. "Must be sleepy," he told me.

The downside to this speed is, well, everybody is fast. And vehicles will suddenly show up from out of nowhere.

Zaty's car is this small hatchback, a hand-me-down of sorts, but still working fine. I fit, of course, seated comfortably, even, but she was concerned I wouldn't. I just had to get used to the fact that I'm seated on the passenger seat, and it's located where the driver's seat usually is in Manila. My fate is not in my hands, but Zaty's.

She's not a bad driver. No. But just moments after we left the hotel, this vehicle suddenly pops up from nowhere. Well, it was parked on the road, and it just popped out of its slot, and it was on the same lane as us, and it was going our way.

That seemed to be the theme of the whole trip. It wasn't a long one - the traffic was good, and we weren't really driving towards the city center - but there would always be a vehicle popping out of nowhere every five minutes or so. We'd be talking about Malaysian K-pop derivatives one moment, and the next, there's a car that entered our lane without signalling at all. Then we'd talk about the struggles of being a non-Chinese tasked to direct a documentary about Chinese opera, and then, another car. It's not exactly a vicious cycle, but then again, I was in the passenger seat, and it's where the driver's seat should be, at least on my side of the world. I can't say I wasn't a bit afraid. What if I get into an accident here? In a country I'm just visiting? Less than 24 hours after I land?

"Over there... that's a hospital," Zaty says, pointing to my side. She was making a left to the mall parking lot, and indeed, there's a hospital right beside it.

"And you're showing me this because...?" I ask.

"Because you might end up there at this rate."

I didn't. But I did rethink the whole "Manila has the worst drivers" thing. Sure, some of us hit the brakes at the last possible moment too, and some of us don't flick the signal lights on early enough, but at least we flick it just before we make a turn. Here - or at least in this particular trip - nobody did. They just show up and we have to adjust accordingly. Maybe I feel this way because Zaty, like me, is a cautious driver - albeit one who drives far more often than I do, so she's more jaded than I am. Or I am more jaded than her. I drive in Manila, after all.

We got to the School safely, and all we did was walk around, and take a long time choosing stickers at Stickerrific, and then have four bowls of Thai noodles each. (Yes. Four bowls. Each.) In between we talked about indecisive lecturers and vintage cameras and the religious police. And how lucky I was that I decided not to bring my bright yellow Minion shirt on the weekend of the Bersih 4.0 rallies. She drove me back to the hotel, and on our way we saw a Porsche vroom wildly right behind a sedan that's stopped in the middle of an overpasss. And then we got lost - Waze wasn't being nice - so we managed to snap a couple of selfies, better ones than last time, while in the car. Along the way, more vehicles showing up from nowhere, and even more vehicles making U-turns where they weren't supposed to.

"I'm the only one doing it in the right place," Zaty tells me.

The right slot is quite far away, I must add.

"Well, at least you're following the law," I answer.

I'm really just standing in for Rainy, by the way, so it was all weird.

We planned to meet on Monday, but homework meant she couldn't leave her home. So there I was, not sure whether I should take a cab to Kuala Lumpur so I can do some CD shopping. I remember the whole "taxis here are not reliable" spiel Zaty made in the weeks prior to the trip. That wouldn't have stopped me, but uncertainty over my schedule did. I was at the hotel lobby the whole afternoon, which would've sucked if not for the really good wi-fi, and later, my hosts treating me to cow stomach bak kut teh and coffee.

Also, I did want to rest a bit. Sunday at Malacca was tiring. It's fun seeing a place quite different from Kuala Lumpur - not to mention all of the Baba Nyonya food - but it was a long day, and all I wanted was to sleep. It was a weird tug of war, that.

Speaking of Sunday, in the rented van I was on, our host pointed to his left. "That's the hospital," he said.

And then a vehicle cut in front of us, without signalling.

And your responses...

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