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

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.