Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, April 17th

We got adopted

Hats off to the towers

The next day we got up very early, to my great misery, and went to the Petronas Towers to secure one of the free visitors' tickets, a limited number of which are given away every day. In retrospect, I was glad we had. We returned at 12.30 for our scheduled visit of the towers, which, incidentally, are bloody amazing. At a mere 452 metres, they are no longer the tallest building in the world (though rather clutching at straws, the exhibition hall says they're still the tallest twin towers), having been overtaken by something in Taipei, nonetheless they remain an astonishing piece of architecture, built with an Arabic design as a floor plan, and five sections tapering towards the top, that represent the five pillars of Islam, a giant steel-and-glass monument to ambition. The tour took us up to the "skybridge" connecting the 88-storey towers at a disappointing 41 storeys. But still.

The towers are part of a (cleverly-named) Malaysian scheme called 'Vision 2020', set up by the former PM Dr Mahathir Mohammed - a visionary, if autocratic and cantankerous, leader who is still behind the scenes of Malaysian politics, despite having retired - to make Malaysia an officially developed country by the year 2020. The country has been judiciously improving its infrastructure while simultaneously encouraging inward investment and outgoing manufacturing exports. Malaysia is now the world's leading exporter of semiconductors and palm oil, and though many people don't believe in trickle-down economics, the results are evident in the service industries that have sprung up to assist the new wealthy, and all the flashy cars, shopping centres, and condominiums around. Of course there are still desperately poor people in the country, but there is a distinct absence of the droves of beggars you find in other places in Asia. The story is at the moment different in the east and on Borneo, but gradually the wealth is spreading out across the country, and I am fairly confident that they will achieve their goal.

Iwa was the name of the woman from the day before, and we didn't know how serious she was about us calling, but gave her a bell anyway, and she arranged to meet us at the KLCC (KL City Centre) shopping centre at the base of the towers. She duly arrived, and said she had a day free because her (American) husband had to work weekends. "Anyway," she told us, "I love to talk."

And talk we did - we talked, in fact, for ten hours, as she drove us all around the city and its outskirts, acting as an unpaid tour guide. She was interesting, and charming, and filled us in on Malaysia and its cultures, but she was also interested in us and what we had to say. Her grandmother had been a refugee from Guangdong province in the 1950s, and thus Iwa spoke Cantonese - as well as English, Bahasa Malay, Mandarin and the Hakkanese dialect, such polyglotism being no big deal in multiracial Malaysia. Like me, she had lived and worked in Hong Kong for several years, and had an exceptionally cosmopolitan outlook on the world. In Hong Kong, though, she had felt that despite her race, she was being passed over for promotion in favour of local employees, and her mother, who runs a cleaning service for budget hotels in KL, was ageing and becoming in need of help, so she returned to Malaysia to help out, even though she didn't really have any interest in the business. Though proud of both her Malaysian nationality and Chinese heritage, she was also self-effacing about the problems in the country, and the inefficiencies of the beaurocracy compared to Hong Kong.

She drove us to shopping malls - I even got a look in a Malaysian Tesco - and out-of-the-way local restaurants, sampling the Malay-Indian roti canai (pancake-like flatbreads served savoury with curry dips, or with sugar and butter, which were divine), then to a non-tourist outdoor seafood restaurant in a suburb, where we enjoyed steamed fish in chilli paste, clams in rice wine and, bizarrely but deliciously, "Marmite crab" - two huge crabs cooked in a Chinese style with the colonial legacy Marmite being one of the major ingredients of the sauce.

And though we had taken up too much of her time already, she insisted that we call her again tomorrow, and she'd take us for lunch. Which we did, this time to a Malay hawker stall, where we ate nasi lemak, rice boiled in coconut milk, served with anchovies and peanuts, and the Malay version of the Thai tom yum soup, which was spicy and sweet, and full of lemongrass, prawns, squid, beef and chicken. After another while driving us around, explaining the city, she dropped us in the shopping district, from where we took the utterly futuristic, and perhaps a little gimmicky, monorail back to our hostel.

We were deeply touched and moved by her kindness, that wanted nothing in return. She said she had a karmic view of doing this - though she didn't use the word - that she appreciates such treatment when in a strange land, and that all she wants in return is that we do the same for someone else in the future. It's an attitude I've encountered in the past from the most unlikely people, and I'm a little shamed that I haven't been terrribly good at reciprocating. I resolve to be better in the future.

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