When in doubt, go to the Irish bar

Seeking out the familiar is not really the point of travel. Obviously. New sights, unfamiliar foods, bewildering cross-cultural Learning Experiences — this is what we should be after. On the other hand, sometimes you have to take it easy on yourself.

For us, this last point is sometimes hard to remember. Our time in any place we’re visiting is finite by definition, and there are always things we wish we could have squeezed in. On our month-long scamper around southeast Asia, this is especially true, since we’re spending only two nights on average in each city or town on our trip. It’s a survey course; we’re getting the broad strokes, but inevitably there’s a sense of having half-assed it, having failed to find all the things that really sum up a place. Even when we’re tired, and hungry, and sweaty, with blisters, it feels like we probably should walk another half-mile to that really authentic bone-marrow popsicle place we read about on that one food blog.

Cut to Kuala Lumpur, where, in what is fast becoming a trademark move, we’ve rolled up just in time for an unforeseen national holiday that has many businesses closed. After some confusion and minor extortion with a cab driver, we’re left on a nearly deserted block, where the coffee place we’d been hoping to try is shuttered. A 7-Eleven employee tells us that this holiday happening tomorrow, too — oh and also they can only sell SIM cards on weekdays and non-holidays.

Alrighty then. Back around the corner to the one place that’s open: A kind of Indian Muslim buffet with a local clientele. They appear to have coffee. The Farenheit temperature and percentage humidity are both hovering just below 100. We are disappointed and perspiring and in need of caffeine. So we do the hesitant-tourist shuffle: Do we just sit down, can we figure out who’s in charge of seating people, will we be successful in requesting two chairs and some coffee? No matter how many times we do this, and no matter how much I know it’s silly for me to feel this way, I always feel conspicuous and mortified.

But the proprietors welcome us very warmly and usher us to some chairs. Our attempt to just order coffee is confusing to them, so we line up and select from a buffet of various mystery chunks in various curry sauces. Surveying my plate of things like Organ Meats in Spicy Brown Sauce, a fried egg, tiny dried anchovies, Eggplant with Meat of Some Kind, and another curry I’m calling Maybe Fish?, I look at Kevin very seriously and make the pronouncement I am issuing with some frequency these days.

“You are very lucky.”

He smiles around a mouthful of something he’s identified as Possibly Mutton? “I know,” he says cheerfully. “I married the perfect woman.” This is a man who knows when to mollify.

We continue making lemonade from our lemons. DIY architecture tour! The landmark mosques are closed, but still lovely from the outside. Historic Merdeka Square is closed so they can set up for a holiday celebration, but we can still glimpse the polo field and colonial-era buildings from the periphery before being shooed away by security. There are row houses along the riverfront, some Art Deco landmarks falling into disrepair, and a well-restored market building that’s not only open but air-conditioned. After 45 minutes of sweaty haggling at a streetside phone kiosk, Kevin gets a SIM card. It doesn’t entirely work, but at least he got them to sell it to him on a Sunday. We find an open food court selling good versions of a lot of Malaysian specialties, which all goes very well until I go to get some cendol and get cut in line by a group that then orders — I am not exaggerating — 50 cendols to go.

As usual, we don’t have any arrangements made for the next city on the trip, so we hike back to our hotel, weaving our way along the thin margin between numerous construction sites and rapidly oncoming traffic, for another round of Train or Bus?, followed by the gauntlet of Does This Cheap Hotel Look OK? We will not miss this part of seat-of-our-pants traveling.

After more time than it would seem like this should take, we’ve made arrangements and it’s time to stroll out for a drink and some dinner. Except, is it maybe raining a little? I figure we can walk, but Kevin opts to spring for a taxi. And it’s a good thing, too, because by the time the taxi lets us off near our destination, it is raining harder than either of us has ever seen the sky rain. God has aimed His mighty fire hose directly at our heads. We run laughing from the taxi into the nearest establishment, where we arrive looking half-drowned. Kevin: “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so wet in only seven steps.”

And here we are: in the Irish bar. It’s totally Sheleighleigh O’McLanahan’s, and the scarred wood tables were probably mass-produced at a plant. But it’s raining so hard that the bar’s TVs can’t even show soccer — there’s too much interference to get satellite signal. After the slightest guilty hesitation, we collapse onto the path of least resistance. Bar stool? Thanks. Beer with name we recognize? Don’t mind if I do. Occasional soccer interrupted by static and error messages? Best programming I’ve ever seen. I’ve scarcely ever been so happy to be anywhere. Sometimes a guilty pleasure is the best kind. Sometimes you gotta just go to the Irish bar.

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