Roaming Around JB and the Benefits of a Bad Mood.

With the Winter solstice safely over and done with for another year, and no more spectacular public holidays until Chinese New Year, I set off from KL for a few days, heading South towards the city of Johor Bahru.
Speaking of the festivities by the way, my Malaysian Christmas experience was low-key but fun. Malaysia has Christmas but it’s not a major holiday so the country has basically adopted all the Western practices, Christmas trees and snow flakes in 35 degrees celsius.  The hostel where I was staying did a pot-luck and had a big party on Christmas Eve, everyone slept in on Christmas day before blearily making their way into the outside world for breakfast at 2pm. New Year’s was probably the quietest celebration I’ve ever attended. Quakers would have been jealous. I went to Datan Merdaka – Independence Square- because not one, but five websites had said there would be fireworks , live music and a party there. There were a couple of hundred people in the square, but it’s a big area so it felt populated but uncrowded. The music was, from what I could tell, some low key chanting and civilised choral singing. Midnight was heralded by a clock chime…2 minutes before midnight. There was no count down, no singing, no cheering, certainly no kissing, and absolutely no fireworks. At actual midnight, the KL tower in the distance started flashing different colours and then far, far away, sandwiched in between the roof tops of a mile of buildings, we could see the edges of firework bursts from KLCC, the park at the base of the Petronas Towers. New Year’s so over rated anyway, unless you’re doing something that you know you’ll love (like seeing your favourite band, or hanging out with your best friends) then the pinnacle of the entertainment is usually the girl in the toilets crying her eyes out, and the guys having a scrap too drunk to actually make contact.
Back to Johor, we did not get off to a good start. I didn’t stay there long enough to get a fair taste of the city, so if anyone else has been there and has something they want to add, please do. My stay there was defined by the difficulty I encountered getting from point A to point B.
The issues began at the train station in Kuala Lumpur. I’d elected to take the train because the tracks cut through dense forest, and I like the idea of feeling like a 1930s explorer in exotic climes. It didn’t quite pan out like that though. I felt more like I was getting the last ride home at the end of a disappointing night out, with all the other exhausted revellers who’d finally admitted that the evening had peaked about five hours ago. My train left the station at 4:20 in the morning. At 3:45 am I was discovering that all the walkways into the station are locked at that time of the morning. By 3:55am I was scaling fences and checking all the entries into the station to fine one that was unlocked. Less 1930s explorer, more 1930s cat burglar. Although that brings to mind a lithe creature with enigmatic, agile glamour. I am not that creature. That creature does not get stuck on low fences, fall over teeny cracks, or swear profusely under its breath when it hits itself in the head with its backpack.
It sounds like I was stressed, but I really wasn’t (the stress came later). 4 am is one of the few times I’ve ever seen KL in a tranquil state, and when the usually 200 decibel, chaotic world around you is suddenly blissfully quiet, it’s difficult to have a break down over the possibility of missing a train that cost you 30 ringgit (about $3.80).
Bus travel in Malaysia is so luxurious and so cheap (huge padded seats with footrests, like business class on an aeroplane), that I’d assumed the train would be the same. Nope, not really. It’s not awful by any standards. I’ve been on much worse, but this was the first time I’d ridden on a train that had multiple bullet holes in the windows. To be fair it is on a bunch of websites that there is civil unrest in the South, but all these sites also tell you that the train is perfectly safe…
I arrived into JB Sentral at noon the next day, with the address of the hostel and a google map of how to get there loaded onto my tablet. I’d chosen the hostel largely because of its location close to the train station and immigration for Singapore. All the reviews said it was a short walk to everywhere. What they neglected to mention was that you’d need to bring your rocket shoes in order to get over the freeways and also that you had to take a short-cut through customs, boldly ignoring the occasional no entry signs. I spent three sweaty, thirsty hours walking to the hostel that was no more than a mile away from the train station. Google maps says I can go up here, whoops no, that’s a dead end. Okay here’s a massive freeway, I need to be on the other side of it, google says there’s a bridge just up there. Oh so it’s not actually a bridge, it’s scaffolding. Right let’s try anther route… The road I need should be right here, where there’s a road with a completely different name to the one on the map. Hmmmmmm
Three hours of that. In the sun. With a back pack. Icing on the cake? Eventually it got so hot that my poor little tablet got heat exhaustion, so now I didn’t even have the half-correct map to follow. Each time I ran across 8 lanes of 70 mph traffic the foremost thought in my mind was “My mother would go ballistic if she saw me now.”
But I made it in one piece to the cool relief of the hostel, took a shower, and forced my aching legs to go out and find something to eat.
When your read about Johor on the tourist blogs, they always mention the duty free shopping mall down on the waterfront. There’s a cluster of restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints on the way down there, so I got some food and pootled on over to the mall. There was a peculiar sense of desolation to the place, it had the air of an abandoned building without being abandoned, which added to the impression I was getting of JB being the city that Malaysia forgot while it was busy getting excited about Singapore. The waterfront walk at sunset however, cleanses a person of all their negative feelings and I was in a pretty optimistic frame of mind strolling along admiring the lights in amongst the trees on the island of Singapore. So optimistic, that I decided to go and check out the walking route from immigration to the hostel, in preparation for the next day when I’d be going that way for a day trip to Singapore.
A guy at the hostel had tried to explain the complex path I needed to take, and I thought I’d understood it pretty well, especially the part when he said “All the Malay use it as a short cut, just follow them.”  Following a crowd of people heading in the same direction? I can do that, no problem.
It all went swimmingly until I accidentally went through passport control and got an exit stamp, and then couldn’t find a way to get to the other side of passport control to get re-stamped. After wandering round bewildered and tired, I ended up back at the same desk where I’d technically exited the country 20 minutes before. If you’re confused, imagine how the officer at the desk felt. An awkward conversation ensued with me trying to explain that honestly I wasn’t trying to do anything illegal, and doing my best impression of a dotty, clueless, middle-aged tourist at the end of their tether. Oh alright, it’s not an impression.
The immigration officer decided this was out of his jurisdiction and took me over for a chat with the immigration police. Cue another embarrassing conversation and my further demise into the love child of Hyacinth Bu-cket and Edina from Ab Fab, much expressive sighing and hand-flapping. Fortunately the police pitied me, and gave me an escort to the Welcome-to-Malaysia side of things after simply scribbling the word VOID across my exit stamp. If I’d known it was going to be that simple, I could have done it myself and saved everyone the bother.
So after all this rigmarole, I still had to figure out how to get back to the hostel. Desperate times and all that led to me deviating from my usual tactics in these cases: pick a direction and will it to be the correct path. Instead I went to the information counter in the train station and asked for advice. They very kindly printed out a walking map for me on google which did not go through customs (for a short-cut through customs that supposedly everyone takes, ‘everyone’ are extremely shy about admitting it exists), after proffering the advice that I should take a taxi instead. Their parting words were a bi-polar offering, “Here’s your map, it’s not too far. This is very dangerous – thieves. Good luck!”
I set off, swatting away the knowledge that google maps lie. I found the dark and intimidating road that would lead directly to the point of the freeway where I could dodge the least amount of 70 mph traffic, and marched determinedly onwards hopefully emanating “I am not in the mood to be robbed, so don’t even think about it, sunshine!” vibes.
I got about 5 metres up the road before a young security guard very politely and sweetly insisted that hell no I couldn’t walk up that road because it went through a private compound. I tried playing the dotty, middle aged, lady foreigner card. I tried implying (oh alright, blatantly lying) that I had special permission from the people at the train station to use that road. Then I tried making him feel guilty that I didn’t know another route to get home, that it was dark and I was on my own. He very politely and very sweetly didn’t give a fuck, and insisted I leave. Stupid, private, men only compound. I very impolitely and very sourly, foul-mouthed my way back down the road, and explored a few dead ends in the dark before I found a main road into the freeway, and grumpily stomped along with the traffic on curves where there was no hard shoulder and all of 20 inches for walking.
At this point I had an epiphany, whilst being angry and grumpy sucks and is one of my least favourite states of being, it does take the edge off fear. So top tip, if you ever have to wrestle an alligator, or walk through a wall of fire, or navigate a freeway on foot, get yourself good and mad first.


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