Kuala Lumpur. Christmas Eve. Horrendously hot. Morosely muggy. Extremely engrossing and exciting. During my time in KL*, I remember carrying a handkerchief in my pocket to serve two purposes: either to wipe the sweat from my brow, or defog my eyeglasses given all the moisture in the air. In this heavily humid atmosphere, my camera gear seemed to weigh twice as much as it typically did, but that was part of the adventure, and I knew it would be that way during this excursion in Southeast Asia in late December 2013.
Around 10am, I took a taxi from my hotel on Jalan Ampang (Ampang Street) to Sg Besi Airport, the municipal airport within the city. At the entrance, three Malaysian soldiers greeted me and inquired to the reason of my visit. I didn’t know enough Malay to explain so the taxi driver added the details as he referenced the reservations on the ticket I provided. One of the soldiers nodded and informed me, in very clear English but delivered in a shy manner (as though he was afraid of possibly miscommunicating the message), that I would have to stay at the gate until the representative offering the aerial tour (KL Hunter) arrived. That was fine as the flight was scheduled for 11am. My wait would only be for 30 minutes. No problem.
I was led to a small waiting room, and one of the soldiers requested to view my passport, to which I obliged. My stay in Malaysia had been so pleasant and virtually everyone I encountered was friendly, humble, and very down-to-earth. (I remember telling my friends several weeks afterwards that the Malaysians were “my kind of people”). Nevertheless, I was certain I was a bit of an anomaly to the soldiers. One of them entered the waiting room, carrying my passport. He didn’t return it to me immediately. Instead, he proceeded to sit down next to me. The soldier was a younger fellow, perhaps in his mid-20s. For a while, he slowly flipped through the pages of my passport, slowly reading aloud the names of former American presidents and notable individuals listed after each one’s memorable quote or saying on top of each page: “George Washington…Martin Luther King…Theodore Roosevelt…Anna Julia Cooper…”
I perceived that he was practicing his pronunciation of English names to himself. One name stumped him, though, to which he looked at me and pointed at the name.
“How do you say this name, please?” he asked.
I looked at the name in question, and smiled because I remember asking my teacher how the same name was pronounced when I was in elementary school. “Dwight Eisenhower,” I responded slowly to enunciate the syllables. He repeated it twice, and proceeded to return the passport to me.
The soldier continued to regard me with interest. I could tell he wanted to have a conversation so I initiated the dialogue by complimenting his English. He smiled, said thanks, and asked if I knew any Malay. I knew that question was coming, so I replied that I, indeed, knew a few words and expressions that I had learned prior to my arrival from the States. His eyebrows rose with some surprise, and then his eyes squinted somewhat, perhaps in subtle disbelief. “Okay. Tell me the expressions you know.”
I began to recite from memory:
“Selamat pagi!” / “Good morning!”
“Apa khabar?” / “How are you?”
“Minta maaf.” / “I am sorry.” / “Excuse me.”
“Tolong.” / “Please.”
“Selamat malam.” / “Good night.”
“Terima kasih.” / “Thank you.”
I foiled the pronunciation of a few expressions, which he helped me to correct by repeating after him. By the time I got to “terima kasih”, mimicking the action I had observed many times of people putting their right hand over their heart and gently bowing their heads, I think the soldier was impressed and satisfied. I had won him over. He loosened up, saying that he was unaccustomed to meeting foreign visitors who took the time to know a few words of his native language and practice the everyday courtesies. He asked whether I was enjoying my vacation, what brought me to Malaysia, and what life was like in the States. (“Yes, I think I have heard of Seattle. It is near Canada, right?” the solider had asked).
By the time we had made that connection so many of us enjoy when we travel, the representative from KL Hunter had arrived, and it was time to go to the hangar where the pilot was waiting. The soldier and his colleagues (all of whom, I believe, must have overheard the entire exchange) all smiled, waved, and said, “Selamat tinggal! (Goodbye!),” as I exited the waiting room.
Now, the pilot was another character altogether. The representative introduced us. I don’t remember his name, but I will always remember him when I recite tales from my international travels. For the sake of sharing this anecdote, we’ll call him “Azmi”. (That’s a Malaysian name that translates to mean “one who keeps his word”). Azmi had been sitting at a table with his legs crossed above it, like he was the boss of his dominion – and perhaps he was. Although he appeared to be in his early twenties, his laid-back demeanor, very thin build, short height, and cigarette smoking made him seem – oddly – much younger. He was definitely one of the youngest pilots I had met in my career in aerial photography. Cool, casual, friendly fellow. The only thing I didn’t care for was the smoking. Given the humid weather and how hot it was, with the haze blurring the atmosphere all around the city, seeing this fellow smoking was bizarre to me. This thought left my mind as Azmi extinguished his cigarette and we started to discuss our game plan for the route we would to take to conduct the aerial photography. I knew he couldn’t smoke while flying, so there was no need to complain or protest. It’s not like it would have made a difference, in retrospect.
“Once we’re in the air, just tell me if you want to move in closer to a particular spot, or farther away. I’ll communicate with Petronas to see how close we can get,” Azmi told me. I had previously discovered that small aircraft that fly over KL have to alert the Petronas Towers of their intent to fly nearby and around the city centre. (Call me very nerdy, but I thought that was cool. I imagined there must be an air traffic control monitoring room, or something similar in nature, somewhere in the twin towers).
As usual, the only thing that an aerial photographer cannot control on the scheduled flight date was the weather. Christmas Eve in Kuala Lumpur had forebodingly thick, engulfing, dark, grey clouds of smog hovering above that made Los Angeles look crystal clear on a bad day. Fortunately, the sun was quickly beginning to dissipate the clouds, so I was optimistic to get a few good shots. I just needed a few.
Azmi informed me that none of the windows could be opened on the plane so I would have to lean my lens against the windows. Upon saying that, a thought occurred to him, and as we walked toward the plane, he grabbed a bucket of water, a towel, and liquid soap and took some time to wash the windows as we spoke. That impressed me because it made me believe that Azmi knew exactly what I was trying to achieve, and this would be my only chance to do it. As he inspected the plane’s exterior, I let myself into the cabin, placed my backpack in the small storage unit at the back of the plane, adjusted and locked my safety belt, hung my camera around my neck, and readied myself for takeoff. Meanwhile, Azmi entered the front seat and looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and fascination. Before I put on my headphones, he said, “Hold on. You didn’t even wait for me to explain anything. You have done this before, I’m guessing.”
After affirming this, he said, “Well, I still have to explain safety procedures, even though you probably know them all.” I listened patiently as I truly didn’t want to come across as a “know-it-all”. After he finished, we put on our headphones and microphones, tested the audio functions, and prepared for takeoff.
As we waited for clearance, I could see a big grin on his face. “I love to fly, man! I could do this all day long,” he said, virtually chirping with anticipation.
I asked how long he had been a pilot.
“I got my license about three years ago. I try to do this as often as I can. Take visitors like yourself around all the sights. Your goal is a bit different though. You just want to the city centre and nothing else. I can definitely do that for an hour. Okay, it’s time to go!”
By this time, I found my pilot to be very amiable and friendly. I trusted his good nature and confidence, which led me to relax in the backseat.
We took off into the skies above the capital. As we got higher up, I felt that sensation signifying I was entering my element in aerial photography. I looked at the skyscrapers and landmarks below, identifying all the ones I recognized. While looking through my camera’s viewfinder, I started to formulate my compositions.
I must tell you all now – Kuala Lumpur is a glorious metropolis seen from the air. I was in pure amazement throughout the flight.
As though Mother Nature was watching with approval, the clouds became less ominous and began to break apart so I could capture more of the city below. Azmi and I continued to communicate about direction and positioning. I could see he was making a concerted effort to make sure I captured what I needed for my portfolio. At that point, it suddenly occurred to me that the pilot and I had something in common. As I was silently basking in my own element engaging in aerial photography, Azmi was very much “at home” in the pilot seat. We were both doing what we loved simultaneously.
“Normally, I would tell you which buildings are which, but I have a feeling you know this stuff too. You’re a smart guy who came prepared. No one ever comes prepared. You’ve made my job so easy. All I need to do is fly. I don’t have to talk too much. Thank you, Tosin!” Azmi remarked. He was so happy.
We circled the city centre many times. After about 45 minutes, I checked my camera’s LCD (liquid crystal display). I had taken nearly 400 photos. It was coming to the point that anything more would just be repetition.
I had all the shots I needed.
I spoke to Azmi through the headphone set. “We can land now,” I said cheerfully.
That’s when the situation took a confusing turn (literally as we circled past KL Tower, seen in the picture below).
The pilot seemed to pause in his seat for an extended amount of time. His facial expression visibly tensed up. A few seconds later, he looked back at me and said, verbatim, “I’m not going to land this plane.”
Speaking so boldly and bluntly, I thought Azmi was making a joke. However, his laid-back demeanor had vanished and he was quick to straighten up in his seat. This sudden change in body language delivered the message, loud and clear, that he was quite serious in what he had said.
I repeated in much more formal tone, “Azmi, we can land.”
What the heck was wrong with him? I thought.
The pilot shook his head in disagreement. I wasn’t scared at all, but I was taken aback just as much as he was. I could tell something was bothering him, but I didn’t know what the issue was. His behavior and mood changed so abruptly. I couldn’t understand this conspicuous display of defiance. I had said our project was over, and he didn’t want it to be over. If this was about him loving to fly, then he could do so with the next customer. As far as I was concerned, my own job was done, and we had 15 minutes to spare. What was wrong with that?
Apparently, I learned a few moments later, that was precisely what was wrong.
The reason why he didn’t want to conclude the flight was based more on regional, cultural norms than an attempt to be belligerent or adversarial. Our flight assignment was scheduled for one hour, and I was saying we could end after 45 minutes. In the States, I would never get an argument from the pilot. He or she may ask, “Tosin, are you sure?” just as a courtesy, but never a blatant refusal to do what was requested.
In Malaysia, the same scenario was not interpreted the same way by the pilot, and after my experience in KL, the reasons were not difficult to grasp. Azmi said, “I’m not going to land until you confirm that I’ve done a good job of what you have asked.”
His interpretation of my request to conclude early was that he was not providing a good service, which was completely contrary to the reality. In this case, he was supposed to inform me when we had run out of time and communicate when the flight was over. By offsetting this procedure with my request, I had unwittingly made him lose face, and he was trying to figure out how to save face as quickly as possible. As a result, the first thing that came to mind was his refusal to land. After recalling many of my studies and experiences in East Asian culture and interpersonal interactions, I reassured Azmi that he had done a marvelous job and apologized for the misunderstanding. Afterwards, he smiled. “I was so worried that I had done something wrong,” he said. With the sudden tension eliminated in the small plane above the city, we returned to Sg Besi Airport.
Mission accomplished. Conflict resolved.
In conclusion, I have to say that I loved my time in Malaysia. Specifically, I was so endeared by the culture because there was such a deep honor and pride in what people do from day to day. People want to know and be acknowledged for providing a good service with plenty of respect and personal dignity. Saying “thank you” or asking “how are you” in this part of the world really *means* something of significance, and is not considered to be trite or rudimentary. Singapore was very similar in this cultural aspect as well.
Additionally, I cannot emphasize how important – and helpful – it is to learn a few words of the language of the country to which one is traveling. Even if it’s obvious that one is a foreigner, or that the visit will be a very short one, any attempt to communicate in the native language, I have observed, is very well received. For natives, it eliminates the assumption that they must know how to speak English and cater to the foreigner. Also, I find that residents are much more cordial and willing to engage in conversation, or help out travelers, if the initial effort is made to communicate in the native language. It doesn’t matter that most people in many nations know English as a second or third language. This is really a matter of respect for the people and culture of the country being explored. I found this to be true in France, Argentina, and Malaysia.
This philosophy is not universal, of course. It didn’t work so well during a brief trip to Montréal some years ago. When I tried to speak French to les Quebecois on many occasions, most of them understood me, but just responded to me brusquely in English. Technically, I can’t complain about this, as Canada’s two national languages are English and French, but I tried to impress the francophone residents of Québec, and they weren’t that impressed apparently.
* Where the River Gombak meets the River Klang — that’s where you’ll find Kuala Lumpur, which is Malay for, literally, “Muddy Confluence”. As an enthusiast of etymology, I find the meaning of “Kuala Lumpur” to be one of the most fascinating names for a gigantic city, which started off as a small mining town for tin, situated at the meeting point of two rivers.