Idling in Good Company
George Town (Pulau Penang), Malaysia
I saw no reason to stay in town—I was done with Kuala Lumpur. I needed to break out of the city and pick a spot on the coast where I could wait for package from the States. The island of Penang would be that place.
I may have left KL defeated, and without a keyboard, but I didn't it leave alone. Exceedingly rare is it that I ask another traveler to join me (it's happened maybe only twice before), but after two or so days of stimulating conversation and company, I asked a French-Algerian by the name of Faiza if she wanted to bail on the city. Headed in that direction in a few days anyway, she cut her time in KL short and relocated north with me.
Leaving town was a bit of an exercise. Malaysia is in the middle of a two-week long school holiday, making spontaneous travel challenging. Buses and trains are sold to capacity several days in advance, and while finding space for one can be done, getting a pair of seats for twosome travel makes things interesting.
Transport that Saturday morning was said to be full getting out of KL until late that night, or the next morning, but I wasn't about to accept that—or the outrageously overpriced tickets an Indian man (working for an unknown bus company) tried to vend us. Someone had the excellent idea of scraping together some off-schedule buses to fill with people who couldn't get tickets, and were making out like bandits. We had no recourse, and I gave Faiza a pep-talk, telling her to flirt the price of our tickets down to a more reasonable rate.
"I don't know how to flirt," she remarked, "and I think the prices are what they are."
"No way," I said. "That guy took one look at me and pulled a number out of his head. Everything is negotiable. And yes, of course you know how to flirt, you're a girl. Just smile, lightly grab the top of his shoulder, and tell him that you can't afford the ticket at that price."
I didn't have to ask if she was successful when she returned, the smile on her face was enough. She'd quickly knocked 25% off each ticket; although they were still almost 30% higher than they should have been we'd booked in advance.
Faiza also got to experience first hand how picky I can be about accommodations when there are many options available, and how I'll bounce from establishment to establishment looking for something acceptable (daylight and weather permitting).
A walk from the ferry, a half-dozen hotels, and a friendly room price negotiation later, we were settled into a nice room at Oriental Guest House (81, Lebuh Muntri). Room 12 was not at all like the others we'd seen during the hunt, and was what I'd imagined we should have when I saw the building types in the area: On the second story, with a tall ceiling well over three times my height; wide windows on adjoining walls for fresh air and sunlight; and door that I could use my own padlock on. This was a far cry from the windowless cubicle-like rooms constructed in many of the backpacker hotels nearby, and a deal for RM$20/night.
Food, Friends, and Films
The last week (since leaving KL) has simply blurred past me. Late morning rises, coupled with too much food, and equally extreme late nights of conversation have scrambled my perception of time. Having spent two semesters in Singapore, Faiza is educated on many things Malaysian, Indian, and Muslim—with a special emphasis on their cuisine.
I typically eat twice a day, at best, and never before in SE Asia have I eaten with the frequency as I have with this athletic girl. Her knowledge of the language, familiarity with the food dishes, and desire to see me try her favorite this or that has left me perpetually full. Her metabolism must be twice mine.
When the rainy-season weather permitted we'd venture on long walks around Georgetown (often premeditated by the hunt for food), or venture to the beach. Oh, the beaches of Penang, what a complete and utter disappointment. It seems that no distance traveled by bus can take you away from the foul water and shore that constitutes the once desirable shore. The water is a murky, grey-green, and rife with dead fish, trash, and jellyfish.
The coast is completely overdeveloped, and I was so wildly disappointed by the time we bused an hour and a half to find waters no better than those found in the heart of Georgetown, that I proposed we sneak into one of the beach-side resorts to treat ourselves to their facilities. This was, after all, one of the small pleasures I love to indulge in while traveling on a shoestring.
Faiza's camera is a nifty Olympus shock/water-resistant number, and we played with it in the pool whilst frolicking and quietly laughing at the games the resort was encouraging guests to participate in—truly an excellent way to salvage an afternoon.
Not long after arriving I was introduced to Jae Sern and his friend Sophie, natives of Penang. Having met at the University in Singapore, Jae Sern and Faiza are close friends, with Sophie playing the slightly older, almost aunty-type role between us four. The pair hosted us, drove us around, and effortlessly appeased our sense of taste with wildly new dishes (for me), like stingray—quite yummy.
Penang was hosting its annual French Film Festival, and Sophie was charged with organizing much of the event—both Sophie and Jae Sern can speak French quite well, including several other languages. We three were given three VIP passes to attend the opening remarks by the organizers and the premiere film of the festival, shown the evening before the festival officially commenced.
The film title translates from French into By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and is apparently an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. It was a moderately entertaining flick, and I left thinking that could never have a wife like the one portrayed in the film. Yeesh—take it down a notch, girl.
Yesterday, Daniel, the young Aussie that Faiza and I were casually hanging out with in Kuala Lumpur, joined our posse. Heading north, he e-mailed and wanted to meet up again, before jumping into Thailand. Today, we added Jen, a British backpacker (and friend Singapore university friend of Jae Sern's) we ran into in Penang, here on a visa-run from Indonesia.
It's a large group, to say the least, but short-lived. Jae Sern and Jen are leaving soon, and Faiza left the island this evening, returning to KL to meet her adventurous mother at the airport, who will travel with her by land back to France (crossing through China and Russia in the process). It sounds like an interesting journey.
Too Much Penang
If I'd known how long I'd be waiting on this island for the package containing my keyboard, I would have probably opted for a slightly different travel route. I'd written my dad for assistance before leaving Kuala Lumpur, and figured I'd have just a few days wait. I could get some sun on the beach and enjoy Faiza's company before focusing on catching up with the travelogue.
Dad broke the news that he'd be unable to assist, up to his ears in work and prep before a vacation a few days away. I wrote to my friend Babak, who I thought could pick up the important task, but it took about three days before I received word from him that "I couldn't have picked a busier person to ask."
Having lost at least a half a week of time with correspondence, I frantically mass-e-mailed anyone that I thought competent enough to mail a package overseas. My good friend John put out the effort in Phoenix, but we couldn't find any stores that sold the product locally. Finally, Paula, my friend Tristan's mom, was a real peach and mailed the 'lil guy out yesterday from Oregon.
Today is Thursday, and the weekend is nearly upon me. And even with express mail the way it is today, I won't be able to get my hands on the package, and off this island, until Monday, the 11th.
I've got to get out of audible anarchy that is Georgetown for a few days, and off to someplace on the island where I can get a little peace away from vehicles. I'm thinking about taking Daniel with me—he could use an off the tourist trail experience.