Arrival in Kuala Lumpur
The wait was long, the journey extended and the memories were made. I have now arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On Thursday morning I anxiously loaded up all of my important belongings and everything I could think I would possibly need for the next year into the car, and my parents and I promptly left my home town of East Grand Rapids. As we rode down the icy pavement I knew full-well that it would be the last time I would see those story-boo k streets for nearly a year, but after a short car ride we arrived at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. After a cordial and surprisingly helpful greeting by the United Airlines employee at the front kiosk, my bags were already on their way, and I pensively made my own way through the line of security. As I rounded the corner I said goodbye to my parents and I waddled through to the officers. Putting on my shoes I turned around to give a final wave, and perhaps a few additional waves for good measure, and then turned my back and swiftly walked onto the plane that was awaiting me on the frozen tundra of a tarmac. As we slipped into a flurry filled sky I said a prayer for the journey in which I was now partaking, and gazed out the window at the last few flakes of snow I would see until next winter.
I exited my small plane and without a hitch made my way directly for the next flight. I arrived at the gate and surprisingly I was the first person there. Slowly but surely one wandering soul after another straggled into the seating area and it became very clear, very fast who was a Fulbright. First there was one from Syracuse, another form Houston, and then others quickly arrived from Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts. It wasn’t because of a general appearance of intelligence or ora of confidence that led me to be able to identify these people quickly and without error, but rather it was a general bug-eyed look of anticipation and a seriously contemplative countenance that allowed us all to be unmistakable in congregating together. Their eyes where searching for something. We shuffled about each other giving our elevator speeches and trying to feel out the situation in whole. Compared to other similar groups I had been in, there was an overall sense of humility in the group. These were an accomplished but closeted people, somewhat unwilling to talk about themselves and play up the accolades that I am sure many had. There was something very unique and quite interesting about our first encounters. We boarded our flight and embarked on our 16 hour flight to Hong Kong.
A fair amount of small talk and a very small, very cute 5 month old baby playing peekaboo in the seat in front of me made the flight entirely bearable. After watching “Goodfellas” , three documentaries on the Great Barrier Reef, reading some of The Laws, and about 300 peekaboos later I finally saw them: the lights. For someone who has never been to Asia before, flying into a city like Hong Kong at night is something that I scarce could forget. As I looked out the window thousands, or more accurately, millions of lights shown brilliantly as they seamlessly blended up into the dancing stars above. It looked as though someone had thrown the multitude of light onto the deep black below and dashed them exactly as they were intended to fall. As we gently touched down the enormous 777 (I still don’t understand how those things can leave the ground in the first place, let alone for 9,000 miles) the plane sluggishly unloaded and I made a hasty getaway to the next gate where another plan would fly me to Singapore for the last leg of our journey. Another much shorter fight ensued and pretty soon the majority of the other Fulbright’s and I released some pent-up energy and childishness during a brief layover in the almost entirely empty airport. We were then poised to take the final and shortest leg of our journey together.
The flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL) was probably the most impressive I had ever been on. We were essentially the only passengers on a brand new plane complete with headrest TVs, smooth Malaysian Jazz, authentically dressed flight attendants serving authentically native fruits and drinks for the flight, and even an audio/visual display of the Koran (just in case you wanted to REALLY have fun). Beneath us passed endless groves of palm oil plantations, mangled mangrove forests, and sediment rich estuaries as morning broke over the clouds. As the plane landed our group broke into cheers and applause; it was the moment that many of us had dreamed of for almost two years.
It was the most excited I had been in a very long time. Getting off the plan the very air seemed to be sweet and damp, and the foliage around us dripping with freshly fallen rain. Everyone had a similar child-like smile as we all made our way to the baggage lines and into customs. Quickly, very quickly actually, we made it through customs and met with MACEE staff wearing brightly colored 50th anniversary Fulbright T-shirts as we exited the airport. Our bags were then thrown into the back of a truck and we were then bused to our hotel. As we wandered down the highway from the airport it then became very clear to me that Malaysia is one of the most quickly developing countries in all of Asia. The endless forests of palm trees quickly gave way to a forest of cranes and freshly built high-rises. Nearly everything seemed as though it was under construction or undergoing improvement as we drove towards the city center. The city literally looked as though it was being born and slowly maturing as we reached our final destination.
The Royale Chulan, a five star hotel complete with two pools, multiple restaurants, a free breakfast buffet, and private theater is what we would call home for the duration of the orientation. We will stay here for the next 20 days! I thought we would be treated pretty well, but I certainly did not expect this. We were greeted warmly by the director of the program where he told us to relax, get some rest, and enjoy the city until we started orientation on Monday.
I am rooming with great guy that recently graduated from the University of Michigan and continue to make new friendships every day. Everyone in the group seems friendly, outgoing, and terribly interesting. I have done some preliminary exploration of the city as well as some slow but delicious gastronomic testing. From what I can tell a new and wonderful door has been opened to me to learn, explore and help others. The rest of the coming events of this week will be exciting and certainly deserve some reflection as I dive more deeply into this new environment. But until then, the one thing I am certain of is that I am more than thankful and truly blessed to have such an experience.