----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: 2007

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Penang: Chinese Opera in a Parking Lot

Once a week I go to the nearest mall, where I get money, sometimes see a movie, use the free wifi at Starbucks, and generally bask in air-conditioned comfort. When I leave, it's usually after ten, and I rarely feel like walking. So I take a trishaw. It's a dollar cheaper than a taxi, and I figure these guys are the ones that really need the money. Some of them know me now, so we have nice chats on the way to 75 Travelers Lodge.

One night I heard this, well, this wailing sound as we started down Love Lane. "What is that?" I asked. "Chinese opera!" And sure enough, a portable stage had been erected in a parking lot, and a woman in a bright costume and elaborate hairdo was wailing away.

When I went into the guest house and asked about it, Mr. Lo told me, "Yes, yes, Chinese Opera. There is a festival." I accepted this calmly as I have learned that there is a festival of some sort every week. All vacant spots on the calendar are immediately snatched up by some town or organization, and a festival is born. Also, there are apparently one or two Chinese holidays every month.

I walked back to Love Lane, and watched the last half hour or so. A tiny old Chinese woman told me there would be two more performances. I promised myself I'd return. And I did. I am now the proud survivor of more than three straight hours of Chinese opera. Go to one, and you will understand.

The second night, I found a spot on a nearby wall. A tiny old Chinese woman, scooted over to make sure I had a good view. It turned out to be the same tiny old Chinese woman. She was disappointed I hadn't come the night before. Through the whole performance she tried to tell me the story. "He very bad man." "She wife. He tell leave." "Father come. Bad man, now have trouble." At one point I actually thought I understood what was going on!

I didn't understand a word, of course. They did have one of those lit displays that shows the lyrics, but it was all in Chinese characters. It was set up for the benefit of anyone who wasn't Hokkien, not for people who knew no Chinese. I looked at it occasionally, recognized a few numbers, and a couple of the Japanese/Chinese characters that I know.

The crowd was interesting, because of the seating as much as anything. One man had rented a trishaw, had it parked in front, and watched in comfort. There were some plastic stools and chairs. Others came on motorcycles, and sat on those.

There was a picnic table off to the left of the stage, with some odd-looking people hanging around. A woman dressed in funny full balloon trousers and a white tank top went off to a shop and came back with a candy bar. Only when I recognized the makeup on one of the men did I realize these were the performers, lounging around 'backstage'. The lady with the full trousers showed up in the last five acts, fully made up and decked out.

The costumes were obviously a bit tawdry, but entertaining to watch. The sleeves were very long, and a common stylized gesture involved gathering them up so the hands could be used. They were also waved and draped for dramatic effect. Several fights seemed to be using them as weapons, as the performers flailed each other with their sleeves. "Take, that, you villain!" "No, no, not your sleeves! Anything but that!"

The tiny Chinese woman and I had a lot of fun when I told her I wanted sleeves like that. Well, I said, "I want" then made all the sleeve gestures. Every once in a while after that, we'd start with the sleeve gestures and giggle.

The audience was across the drive from the stage, and during the performance cars, motorcycles, and foot traffic would pass between them. I thought that must be disconcerting, until I saw the balloon pants woman blithely walking by. Obviously, no one cares.

This stage didn't have side curtains. I think that is typical of Chinese opera. I was sitting to one side, so I could see performers getting ready, passing time by practicing tricks with their fans, and all the other backstage happenings. I noticed that one of the performers had to open the curtains between acts. This happened a lot, as there were twenty acts, I think. I bailed at 18 because I was falling asleep. I could see other performers spelling the sound guy, and watch the panic when a microphone didn't work.

Finally, at almost midnight, I gave up and trotted on back. I'd been there since a little after eight. Three hours of Chinese opera.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Penang: A Place to Live?

In spite of the killer heat, and even though I am staying in a sort of historical district slum, I like it here a lot. I like the mix of people, language, food, and culture. I like seeing a Malaysian Indian woman in a traditional Malay kebaya, and a Chinese man in the standard white-with-blue-border longhi. Food is cheap, and the people are nic and friendly and definitely not pushy. There is a large ex-pat community, both those with a fair amount of money and those who are poorer, like me.

So I've been thinking about this as a place to settle for a year. The visa situation is good, since they allow you 90 days per entrance, no visa required, and you can take a bus up to Thailand and return an infinite number of times and get 90 days each time.

The down side is that if I'm going to settle somewhere for a year or more, I'd want to get out of the guesthouse situation and have an apartment, and I'd want a fairly decent one, with air-con and cable TV and internet access, and a Western bathroom. Suddenly I'm looking at a lot of money. The small studio or one-bedroom apartment is apparently almost non-existent. People live with their families until they marry, then they want enough room for a couple of kids. So apartments usually have three bedrooms. And cost $700 to $1000 per month. Now, I'm sure there are cheaper places, but I'm pretty sure that as a westerner, I'm never going to find them.

On the other hand, if I could handle the budget hotel, hostel thing, I could live pretty cheaply. In Chiang Mai, which eventually got on my nerves, the opposite is true. Apartments can be cheaper than staying in a guesthouse.

The solution would be to share, but I don't know if I could handle having two roommates. Or how roommates would handle me.

So for now I've crossed Penang off of my list of retirement locations. A lot of places have been crossed off recently. Chiang Mai, Phuket, and most likely I'll have to scrap Panama. I understand it has become much more expensive there.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Penang: My Missing Festivals

I'm making a career of missing festivals and parades. In Chiang Mai, the Flower Festival came and went, and I never even noticed. Here, I showed up for Sikh New Year just as it ended. Apparently I was here for a couple of festivals in March and April, and knew nothing about them, either.

More frustrating are the ones I know about but can't seem to get to on time, or at all. One day I decided to go to a procession for Buddha's birthday. I asked at The Malibu, "When does the procession start and where is it?" Armed with directions, I set off, only to find myself in Little India. An odd place for a Buddhist procession, I thought, even though there are several Buddhist temples in the area.

Then I realized that I was standing in front of a Hindu temple, watching people get ready for some sort of ceremony. There were a couple of floats, and young girls all dressed up, women in pretty salwar kameez. After wandering around, looking in shops, admiring flowers, and sipping on an iced coffee, I had learned that the sleeveless Punjabi suit is very popular here. But I still knew nothing about the festival. I asked a policeman when the procession would start. It would be a while, he said, so I decided I'd try to find the Buddhist event.

Once again armed with directions, I headed for Burma Road. After a stopping to take some photos, getting disoriented and walking several blocks in the wrong direction, I gave up. I was now too tired to return to the Hindu temple. I gave up and returned to my room, for a shower and a nap.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Penang: Women's Lib on the Funicular

Friday I took the funicular up to Penang Hill. On the way down I started talking to a group of six young Muslim women. They were dressed in the typical intermediate Muslim wear here. Jeans and blouses, with headscarves, very middle-of-the-road. We started with the usual introductory stuff. Where was I from? Where are you from? Why are you in Penang?

They were all from KL (Kuala Lumpur) and are studying at a university here in Penang. They had taken their last exam of the year that morning, and decided to celebrate by renting a car and doing some sightseeing before heading back home to their families and their summer jobs. They had really not seen much of Penang in their two years here.

Eventually I asked, "What are you studying?" "Civil Engineering." "All of you?" "Yes." I told them I thought engineering, and especially civil engineering, was still not a common career choice for women back in America.

"We all had good mothers," one said. "They told us that we could do anything a man could do, and we should." Big grins, and one fist shoved into the air!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Penang: A Sikh New Year

A couple of people told me that there would be a celebration for the Sikh New Year over at Fort Cornwallis. I didn't even know the Sikhs had their own new year. A show, free food, and some cultural things were planned for Saturday from 6 pm to 10 pm. The actual New Year was a few days earlier, but mid-week isn't a good time for a party.

I went with a Canadian woman who is staying at my guest house. She's just come from India, and I've come from Thailand. We got there a little after 7:30. Now, in Thailand or India, they wouldn't have been very far into the event. However, this is Malaysia, and all we saw was two dances, as the performance was almost over. The dances were an odd mix of traditional moves, hip hop, and swing, and a bit jarring to watch.

The lines for food were too long, so we headed off to a hawker center (sort of an outdoor food court) for some something to eat. We stopped again to explore a place called the Red Garden, a sort of hawker center with shops.

Our route to and from the festival took us past the old colonial buildings that house government agencies, museums, and such things. I saw them all when I was here in the early nineties (this is my sixth visit to Penang), but never at night. It was nice to see them all lit up.

It also provided a photo opportunity. Carol reminded me of Jellybean. One minute she's there, and the next minute I was talking to thin air. I'd look around, and there she'd be, standing on a park bench, her face hidden by her camera. Later we also stopped at the Hainan temple, which is just a few doors down from the hostel, for more night shots. I finally got Carol to put her camera down by reminding her that I could sleep as late as I wanted, but she was getting up at five in the morning!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Penang: It's Rambutan Season

A Rambutan is a funny little fruit. The edible part is a shiny, moist, juicy white, much like a lychee. But the outside is red, with soft, rubbery green spines. You open them by twisting, and sometimes digging a fingernail in a bit.

Empty rambutan skins along the road are one of my strongest memories of my first visit to Penang. I was doing a day trip loop around the island, by public bus. There were three other travelers doing the same route. As we walked up to one of the stops, a waterfall where we could swim, munching on our bag of rambutans, we noticed all the skins along the road.

We later found out that they grow just about everywhere, and only tourists buy them. As someone told me today, "We usually steal them." It reminds me of the big island, Hawaii, and stopping along the road to pick the guavas that were everywhere.

"Stealing" doesn't save much money. They cost four ringgit for a kilo (2.2 lbs) in the tourist area. That's $1.20.

I love them, and I'm not sure if it is the taste or just the whole weird look of them, and that funny twist to open them. Or maybe it's just the memories from my first trip to Asia.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Penang: I Should Be Exploring More

I should be exploring more. I do walk down strange alleys, and sort of wander about, but I haven't done much sightseeing, and I've only left the old part of Georgetown once.

There is a mall at the edge of Chinatown that used to be the only one around. Now it is rather run down, but it does have a Starbucks with free wifi and air conditioning. That's where I am now.

However, this is an island with many towns and villages, and two newer, slicker, richer malls. I went out to Gurney Plaza one Saturday, just to watch the Malaysians shop. They are quite skilled at it.

It's a very different world out there. People see Georgetown and the run down buildings, and the grime, and think that everyone here is poor. I'm not sure who they think owns the Mercedes and the SUVs,though. Anyway, a visit to the mall would cure that. Behind the mall are high rise condos overlooking the sea, and the whole feeling is different.

I'm told that in the off season, some of the nice condos out at the beach are rented out for as little as $200 per month. Hmmmmm.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Penang: I Just Don't Feel Like Leaving

The plan (stop laughing!) was to spend a few weeks in Penang, maybe a month, and then move on to Lake Toba on Sumatra. But the first week was a waste, because I reacted to the heat by retaining water. In the day I blew up like a balloon, in the night I got up both frequently and often, then collapsed in exhaustion early in the morning.

I'm still a bit overwhelmed by the heat. Yesterday I had to file my income tax, and by the time I finished the forms, walked to the post office, got the package mailed, and got back to my room I was soaked to the skin and felt smelly and awful. I showered, and took a three hour nap, followed by another shower, before heading out again. The clothes I had worn for six whole hours were relegated to the laundry. When I got back that night, I needed another shower and added more items to the laundry bag.

I have my routine. Fruit salad with yogurt and muesli at the Malibu Cafe, then some work on my pictures and my writing. A murtabak or chicken rice (said as one word,"chickenrice") for lunch, sometimes back to the cafe, sometimes a shower and a nap, and once in a while, a walk. After another shower, I often have dinner at the cafe. I like the toasted sandwiches on really good whole grain bread. Back to 75 Travelers Lodge, and a chat with Trevor or Carol or whoever else is around. A shower, and bed.

The only days when I take only two showers (cold ones, mind you) are those I spend at a mall, usually in Starbucks, using their free wifi, paying their outrageous prices for drinks (more expensive than in St. Pete), and basking in the joys of air-conditioning. I don't want to spend too much time in air-conditioned bliss, however, because then I'll lose all my hard-won acclimatization.

In spite of being covered in a thin skin of sweat within two minutes of stepping out of the shower, I like it here. It's always been my favorite SE Asian city, and I think it still is. If western style apartments weren't so expensive, and the used book stores were better and cheaper, I could move here.

As it is, I guess I'll be staying a while. Today is Wednesday, and I found myself thinking, earlier in the day, that maybe next Wednesday I'll see some movies. Wednesday is bargain day. So I guess I'm not ready to leave.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Penang: A Tossed Salad City

Georgetown, the main town on Penang, is a Chinese/Indian/Malay city, more of a tossed salad than a melting pot. The languages and customs have been preserved, and businesses seem to be entirely from one or the other of the ethnic groups. This doesn't apply to the really large businesses, of course. Enter a bank and the tellers will cover the full spectrum.

Some parts of Malaysia are predominantly Malay, others predominantly Chinese, and the two states on Borneo have a large Dayak population, but here in Penang there is a rich mix of cultures. Last week I visited a Chinese temple and a mosque, and next week I plan to see a Hindu temple, and a couple of churches. And I've heard there is an interesting Christian cemetary not too far from where I am staying.

I've been eating a lot of Indian food, mainly murtabaks and tandoori chicken, but will probably move on to gorge on Chinese after a while. I will look for a local Nonya dish, laksa. But today I had a tomato and cheese sandwich on toasted whole grain bread.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Penang: The Blue Mansion

The first time I came to Penang, in 1989, I stayed at the Cathay Hotel, on Lebuh Leith. Across the street was the most derelict old building, obviously once a mansion, obviously once painted blue. Laundry hung from the upstairs balcony, and several people seemed to have made part of the balcony their home.

Friday I toured the house, which has been beautifully restored. I learned why it had become a derelict, from a woman who was part of the restoration team.

The house had been the primary home of a man known around the world as the Rockefeller of Asia. His favorite wife lived there, and there he fathered a child only two years before his death at 76. This is important to the story, because the birth of that child extended the effects of his will long past what was probably intended.

Cheong put the house in a trust, specifying that it could not be sold until his last living child died. He provided $250 per year to properly maintain the house. This would have been adequate had he a normal family, with his youngest child perhaps 40 years old at his death in 1916.

However, his youngest son was only two, and didn't die until 1989. The daughter-in-law managed the house, and desperate for funds, she rented rooms and floor space. With no indoor plumbing, and no remodeling, people carried buckets of water to their allocated floor space, set up charcoal stoves, perched their woks on top, and cooked. They strung laundry through the filigree and draped it over banister rails.

When the house finally came free of the trust, a group of people used their savings, borrowed money, and went to work on the house. They personally cleaned it out, finding old clothes that the guide remembers pulling from a pile of trash using tongs, and while wearing a surgical mask to protect her from mold and other possible health problems.

They sent samples off for analysis, ordered special colored washes from America, and imported a poisonous wood stain to treat and stain the new wood that was being added. They found people with skills that had nearly been lost, .employed old men who worked very, very slowly as they plied their trade.

The restoration is totally true to the period in the main house. They did install modern plumbing in the wings, and converted both of them into a bed and breakfast. The income from the B&B, the tours, and book and souvenir sales is enough to maintain the building, no more than that.

It is safe now, because Georgetown has passed very strict laws protecting their old buildings, but in 1989, the laws were weak, and that original group of people, with their passion for the house, saved it from the wrecking ball.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Penang: A Walk Around the Block

Saturday, I set out to exchange some books. I've moved to a new hotel, so I had to walk all the way to the other side of the block. Since I had my camera with me, I decided to take pictures of everything I saw that interested me. I started with some building tiles, then the Buddhist temple a few doors down.

I took 219 pictures, the number considerably reduced by being caught in a downpour. My collapsible umbrella is small, and I could only protect part of my body at one time. My back got wet, but the camera stayed dry.

Between the rain, the search for a new book, and a stop for lunch, the whole circuit took four hours, almost half of it needed just to get to the bookstore.

Sunday morning I went out with my camera again, wandering down a couple of alleys, taking some pictures of food stalls. And getting a couple of shots of things I missed yesterday.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Penang: Chinatown

Penang is an island separated from the west coast of Malaysia by a narrow strip of water, and the city I'm in is called Georgetown. Everyone from off the island refers to them both by the same name, Penang.

I'm in Chinatown. It's the old part of town, worn and faded, with cycle rickshaws and sidewalks blocked by vendors and motorbikes. Just as in Chiang Mai, there seems to be a temple or other religious building or two in every block. Except here, there are several kinds of temples. Chinese Buddhist, Burmese Buddhist, and Hindu. Next door there might be a shop, or a mosque, or a masjid.

The call to prayer for the Muslims is a pleasant surprise. In most Muslim countries, I hear a horrible noise. A loud, screechy, sound system with blown speakers broadcasts a call to prayer that originates as a scream and is made worse by electronic equipment. In Penang there is music. The call to prayer is sung by someone with ability, and is carried over a well-maintained and low-volume sound system. I find myself smiling when it starts. I enjoy the singing.

It's quieter here.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Penang: The Long Road Here

What did I see on the long bus ride(s) that took e from Chiang Mai to Penang? Towns and small cities that pretty much look all alike. The same street stalls, and the same people eating noodles at 3 a.m. Strange gray karst rock formations rising from the plains. A fishing village built out over the water, with gray wood houses and a raised wooden sidewalk winding between them. Old rubber plantations, the trees tilting, displaying few leaves and no taps. One or two working plantations, taps in place, a lone man collecting the latex sap. Roadblocks near Surat Thani, with the police only asking those in the mini-bus, "Farang? Farang?" Once they knew we were all foreigners, we were free to go on.

The road to Phuket was long. I took a VIP day bus to Bangkok (aaaah, clean air! No, I'm not being facetious. The air in Chiang Mai was awful enough to make the news in the US.), and then planned to take an overnight train down the peninsula. It turned out to be the beginning of school holidays, and the train was booked. So I took a bus that left from the train station, and then a mini-bus. By the time I'd reached Phuket, 28 hours had passed since pulling out of the Chiang Mai station. The beach was a perfect place to rest.

Then to get to Penang, I took a first class air-con bus to Hat Yai, then changed to a mini-bus to cross the border. All that went pleasantly enough, and it only took 14 hours. The big surprise was seeing the Butterworth/Penang area, which has developed a lot of very modern, very big-city areas since my last visit in 1993.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Phuket: No More Maaaak Maaak

One of the first things I noticed in Phuket was that there seemed to be fewer bar girls. Maybe it was the beach I chose, but there were a lot of families and older couples, and very few ugly old white men with impossibly young and beautiful girls, each one emitting the horrible bar girl screech. Maaaaak maaak. I had sort of put it in the background in Chiang Mai, like the dust and the sidewalks blocked with motorcycles. Then when I got to Phuket, I really noticed the difference. I noticed how much it had annoyed me.

The bar girls are a funny phenomenon in Thailand, as a lot of face saving is involved. The girls work in bars, and men "hire" a girl to travel with them, paying a fee to the bar owner to "make up for the temporary loss of his employee". Usually they leave the bar and travel with the men, who of course pay all expenses and buy lots of presents. The girl will have at least one family emergency during the trip, and the man will be expected to pay for her brother's hospital stay or her mother's doctor. Both act as if they are terribly in love, then he gets on a plane and goes away, and she resumes her hunt. She does have to eat, and she has parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews to support.

One of the strange aspects is that the men, especially the young men, frequently do not seem to recognize that the girl is "hired". They truly believe they just paid the bar owner for inconveniencing him, and the girl gets no cut of that money. And worse, they believe that the girls are in love. The girls do other work around the bar, taking turns being the cashier, for instance. This allows the men to pretend she "isn't one of the bar girls." Then later it turns out that "she was just like all the others, after money."

Interestingly, it is possible for a girl to get out of the bar contract that her mother put her in and become an "independent", taking one step up on the social ladder. Some manage to work their way out of the situation, starting a business, or even marrying a farang (foreigner).

Because they never see any part of Chiang Mai but the tourist area, the men never realize that there are no respectable Thai women hanging out in the bars alone. They swallow the stories they are told. This is important, as it allows the girl to save face. Or maybe they don't. Face means a lot in Thailand, so maybe they just let them have their little stories about being a beautician. That's a euphemism. "Beautician in Bangkok" or "Secretary in Pattaya" are common expressions.

One sad thing is that legitimate relationships are tainted with the bar girl brush. As are legitimate jobs. I pity the girl who really is a secretary in Pattaya.

Chiang Mai: Noodles

This post is for Raoul, who has fond memories of the noodle stalls in Thailand. Actually, as I remember, he has fond memories of the ramen stalls in Japan. And those in Korea. And I seem to remember something about noodles in China. And Malaysia. And at the hawker stalls in Singapore.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Phuket: A Change of Scene

Well, Phuket certainly looks better than Chiang Mai, and the air is better, too. But then, so was Bangkok's. I found myself saying something that sounded like an oxymoron: "I'm so glad to be in Bangkok, where the air is cleaner." Apparently the weather was supposed to change enough to clean some of the smoke out of Chiang Mai. I haven't checked, though.

I chose Phuket because I thought I'd stay in town, take a bus to a different beach each day, and act more like a tourist. Instead, I went to Kata Beach, got up every morning and put on my bathing suit, hung out at the beach all day, then went to sleep early. Repeated as needed, which was every day.

The beach was busier than the kind I'm used to in SE Asia. There were two long lines of lounges and umbrellas. I, of course, spent my time on a cloth spread on the sand in the shade of a tree. No way I would pay 100 baht for a place to lie down.

The umbrellas actually added something to the atmosphere, though. When I was out in the water, and turned to look back at the beach, the umbrellas made a nice mauve and navy blue line along the base of the trees, as if an artist had drawn them there for effect. This impression was aided by my being blind as a bat without my glasses.

The water was a dark blue-green, clear, with waves and swells big enough to jump around in, which was what I did most of the time.

One interesting thing was that there was a beach restaurant that was cheaper than any of the away-from-the-beach places. I found it late in the afternoon of my last day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chiang Mai: Where did I get all this stuff?

Well, I finally left Chiang Mai. With sore eyes and a raw throat, I took a bus to Bangkok. It was really weird to leave. I learned that when you have been somewhere a long time, packing is hell. You accumulate things. Having six books to read is fine when you are in one place. It is not appropriate for the road. A new blouse here, a skirt on sale there ($7), and you have too many clothes. That big bottle of shampoo that was so much cheaper suddenly seems like a very bad idea.

I did get rid of some stuff though, some of it inadvertently. I was considering dumping my Tevas because daily wear for five months had not been kind to them. And my flip flops looked like they were about to go, too. Then I decided to keep them. And then I left them behind.