Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Here's Johnny!

We arrived in Tangier on New Year's Day after a long train ride from Marrakesh, hungry and exhausted. So much so that we didn't even bother to haggle with the taxi driver who probably charged us quadruple the normal amount for the short trip from the railway station to our hotel.

It had been so long since I went to a hotel with a doorman, and this one had two. We thought that after 2 sleepless night in nomad tents in a freezing desert, we could use a little comfort. On the internet site where we made our reservation, the hotel definitely looked a lot fancier than the dodgy back alley European hostels I usually frequent, and it cost less because we were in Morocco after all, where luxury comes cheap.

The moment I stepped into the lobby, I felt goosebumps on my back. The place was fancy all right, and it could've passed for a 5-star hotel... if we were in 1950. The utilitarian furniture reminded me of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. The sitting area looked like it was inspired by the hotel where Humphrey Bogart ran around in Charade, minus the telephone booths. People were smoking in the lobby, exactly the way it used to be in the olden days. The suspended luminaries were outdated in design, and the table lamps had caps in the shape of tubes. The reception counter was wooden, painted in mahogany. In keeping with the ambiance of days gone by, there was a clerk behind the counter typing furiously on a typewriter. A typewriter!

The place was very clean and well kept, but something about the frozen-in-time look made me uncomfortable. Like I'd seen it all in a horror movie before, and something terrible was about to befall upon me. The doorman was a pleasant guy with a permanent smile on his face, but he terrified me the most. His uniform was a faded orange Nehru jacket and a matching sarouel, with long white socks that went all the way to the knees and a bright red tarbush nested on top of his head, very reminiscent of the creepy lift operator at Disneyland's Tower of Terror horror ride where you get into the lift and plunge to your death while the lift man eerily laughs, showing his rotten teeth, and vanishes.

The hotel probably spent all their money on polishing their outdated post-war furniture because the doorman also doubled as the bellboy. He showed us to the lift and carried our bags to our room. I felt plenty rich at that moment, because I was so used to cheap hostels that my travelling mantra was "Please God let there be an empty bottom bunk in the 16-bed dormitory with shared bathroom." And here I was with a bellboy carrying my suitcase, and all of a sudden I felt like Bill Gates.

Despite all this, I still felt uneasy. The dim hallway, long, empty and very, very quiet made me nervous. The bellboy's silk tarbush tassel swung from right to left in a hypnotizing manner, which made the walk to our room even more like a stroll down the death row for some inexplicable reason.

"This place is creepy," I remember telling my travel companions. They just looked at me without saying a word, most probably because they were too fatigued to entertain my childish remark. A 20 dirham tip, and the bellboy left us to enjoy the extremely vintage looking room. The closet doors had maroon cushions on them, that's how vintage it was. And don't get me started on the bidet in the bathroom.

The next day we went down to the lobby using the stairs just because we felt like it. I saw some framed photographs on the way down, and they were all dated to the pre- and post-war period. The stairwell floor was covered in small black and yellow square tiles and I had to double check the date to make sure we were, in fact, already in 2013.

The huge lobby with utilitarian furniture, the typewriter, the long and quiet hallway, the pleasant bellboy with an eerie smile. Suddenly it all added up, and it hit me: I was staying at The Overlook, that creepy hotel in The Shining where the innkeeper murdered his wife and twin daughters, where blood comes out from the lift doors, where room 237 was haunted by a naked old woman's ghost, where Jack Nicholson froze to his death while chasing his son with an axe in a blizzard.

That's why I felt so nervous and spooked. Tangier was a lovely city, and the people were nice. But if I could do things differently, I would gladly pick a dodgy back alley hostel over a spooky vintage hotel that looks like the one they used to shoot The Shining, a horror movie that makes my hair stand on end every time I hear its title.

When we finally left the hotel, I felt relieved. And I'm glad curiosity didn't get the best of me, otherwise I would've sneaked behind the reception counter and taken a peek at the typewritten sheets just to check if they were, in fact, just hundreds of pages containing one single sentence: "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."

In which case I would be traumatized till the end of my days.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

RM 10

Whenever I go back to Malaysia, I never cease to be surprised by how expensive things have become. As a young boy, I remember looking at 10 ringgit bills like they were messiahs disguised as red banknotes, with which all my wishes would be exalted and all my wantings satisfied. A misplaced 10 ringgit would spark a fight between us siblings, because a lost 10 ringgit really felt like your world was crumbling down around you.

But now, a 10 ringgit bill seems more and more like what it really is: a simple piece of paper. It still holds a value, but not the one it used to have. Not to me, anyway. These days I can never be so confident as to go to 7-11 with only 10 ringgit in my pocket, hoping to buy 2 grocery items as staple as milk and eggs. Even if it was enough, the change would be small pieces of metal even a vending machine would spit out in disgust.

I go back to Malaysia once a year, which seems like such a short time for significant changes to occur in KL. It is not. KL is such a dynamic city buzzing with all kinds of excitement that KLites change eating habits the way they change phones. Whenever I ask friends for makan recommendations, I'd get a plethora of new or up-and-coming makan places, and all of this new eateries happened to sprout out within the short period of time I was absent from the country. It's impressive, and one of the utmost reasons why I love KL so much.

The only problem is that most of these eateries charge exorbitant prices for their food. I wouldn't mind spending more on exceptionally good food or great ambiance. I just don't think it's logical to be spending more than 10 ringgit on bubble tea, or 15 ringgit on a simple nasi goreng ayam. Let's not get me started on Tutti Frutti. That stuff is good, and I went there 3 or 4 times during my last holiday in Malaysia. But a small bowl can cost around 15-20 ringgit, and the big one can set you back 40-50 ringgit.

When I really think about it, a lot of my freshly graduated friends' salaries are in the vicinity of 2000-4000 ringgit, with some making more than 5000 ringgit and then a few who are cashing in over 10K a month, but these two latter groups are not the majority. So how they hell do they manage on a 2-4K salary to afford going to these expensive places on a weekly (if not daily) basis? Either these people are excellent at minding their money, or they are in denial that they don't make as much as they'd like to.

When I first went out with my girlfriend, it was Starbucks-Tony Roma's-Pizza Hut-fancy salmon laksa at The Curve kind of affair. Then I realized that neither of us was actually that fancy, so we toned things down - way down - and started hanging out at mamak stalls and Rasta, where I felt more at home. Come to think of it, I don't think any of those people we saw at those posh restaurants were really all that fancy anyway. No matter how dim the lights are and how jazzy the music they play in those restaurant, Malaysians will be Malaysians. We talk loud and laugh like no one's business, negating all kinds of romantic ambiance you are going for. And table manners? We don't follow them, which is yet another reason why I love Malaysia. I once licked the side of my knife in a restaurant here because some good sauce was dripping, and got stared by almost everyone. Apparently in France it's impolite to lick one's knife at the table, and I, honest to God, couldn't give a flying f- to the French complicated table etiquette with their ten thousand pieces of cutlery neatly arranged on both sides of the plate, three million types of glasses (you could give me a bowl for all I care, I just want to drink water dammit!), and napkins in the shape of constipated swans.

But I digress.

So my point is, knowing my splurging self, I can really imagine myself being one of those people who live beyond their means when I go back home. I have to develop the skill of saying no whenever people suggest glitzy restaurants, and remind myself that I just can't afford it. All this while I've been going back to Malaysia on holiday, so I spend money according to what I earn in euros and everything looks dirt cheap. But now the moment of truth is approaching and I'll soon have to stop dividing all prices by four and start spending like the poor fresh graduate that I will be.

Hopefully at that time the 10 ringgit bill will regain its former value in my eyes and I'll appreciate its existence in my pocket.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


My ultimate goal in life is to win a Nobel Prize in Physics and a Man Booker Prize. Well, I thought of winning a Pulitzer as well but opinionated as I am, I can never be good at journalism where you have to be objective and stick to the hard facts. My piece on the Syrian civil war would have been titled "Let's make those uneducated Muslims fight among themselves so the rich countries can swoop in and suck their oil."

It's 2013, so I guess it's the perfect time to have new resolutions.

Hence this year, I am going to start writing a book that will get me that damn Booker. As for the Nobel Prize, I'm thinking of inventing human teleportation but as of now, I've got nothing yet.