The Teacher and Student of Travel
Teluk Bahang (Pulau Penang), Malaysia
I was sitting at a table in an obscure guesthouse in the middle of a durian orchard, a teenage boy on my left, and an aged man on my right. The boy had been traveling for a month. The man, since 1985.
Sometimes Failing is Winning
I had absolutely no desire to stay in Georgetown and wait for the package containing my replacement PDA keyboard to cross the Pacific. I needed to find a location where I didn't have to dodge cars or listen atrocious motorbikes all day. Someplace where I see and swim in clearer water, without the dead fish and floating garbage. Someplace remote, but close enough that I could get there in a day.
I looked at a map and saw a prospect: A coastal town called Pantai Acheh, at the end of the road on the opposite side of the island.
Daniel, the young Aussie traveler that I met in Kuala Lumpur (and rejoined Faiza and me in Georgetown) was intrigued with my agenda. After some thought I decided to get the kid off the tourist trail and invite him to come along.
I was trying a bit of an experiment with Daniel, though. This would actually be my first "Adopt a Tourist" program, whereby I'd spend a few days with a young traveler, exposing him or her to some of the important gear in my pack, unconventional means of transport and accommodation hunting, negotiating, and other solid backpacking insight. I'd simply slip little nuggets of experience into conversation, or expose ourselves to environments and situations where unusual decisions had to be made. I'd go about things as normal, and hopefully they'd ultimately leave my company having absorbed some practical knowledge.
Pantai Acheh was a good learning experience, as it turned out to be a total flop. After several hours of busing we arrived by van in a tiny village, population nothing. Instead of blue waters and sand we found swampland and a foul smelling pig farm. What looked coastal on the map was, in actuality, still several kilometers from the ocean, with no connecting road.
It was early afternoon by the time we reached the village, and it didn't take too long for me to decide to pull the plug on the place. But leaving town was a bit of a predicament—there's no longer any regular transport; we had paid a premium to be dropped off where the cars and buses don't go. The nearest town was five-kilometer walk, which we bought some water for and started making our way back.
We couldn't have been more than a quarter of the way along when a passing motorbike cut across the road and braked to a stop next to us—he was offering a lift. There wasn't room for three plus backpacks so I quickly jumped on and promised Daniel I'd arrange for someone to sweep him up from the next town.
The man on the motorbike spoke no English, but it didn't take too much effort for him to understand what I was asking of him (after he'd deposited me in town). He promptly returned with a wide-eyed Daniel, shaken up a bit from a wild ride. I thanked the man wholeheartedly, and gave him the large unopened bottles of water I'd bought. Smiles, a handshake, and he was off.
Now the really silly thing about Penang is that there is absolutely zero public transport between Sungai Pinang and the town that turned into our Plan B, Teluk Bahang. This meant that we had to either pay an outrageous amount to taxi the distance by motorbike, or bus all the way back around the island in a counterclockwise arch, just to get to a place only a dozen or so kilometers away. And since there was limited bus service in Sungai Pinang, we ended up getting back to a primary town (Balik Pulau) by hitching a ride in a passing banana-truck.
This was one helluva little adventure that I guarantee no other traveler Daniel meets will have experienced. Knowledge was gained and unique memories were made—a success in my book.
Miss Loh's Guest House
The sun was dancing with the horizon by the time we hit Teluk Bahang. We met an outgoing, eldarly local who eventually walked us way out to Miss Loh's Guest House, after I passed on options in town. We were greeted by a friendly, old Aussie on the porch, and a watched from afar by an old, Chinese woman (Jeppo).
Jeppo, Miss Loh's cleaning lady for the past 20 years, has the kind of personality that makes you want to cover her head with a plastic bag. The small, unassuming dragon never returns a friendly greeting, never smiles, and never misses an opportunity to pester you in limited English in the tone you'd use towards a misbehaving child, or stray dog.
The Aussie knows Jeppo well, as he's been dropping by and staying at Miss Loh's since I was in primary school. This 70-year-old man, with his lengthy, off-white beard, is the longest perpetual traveler I've ever met (without any three month rule violations).
This morning I told him that Daniel and I were going to take a trail through the Penang National Park to Teluk Duyung (Monkey Beach), in search of enjoyable sand and water, when he cautioned that it might be crowded with resort people shuttled there by boat.
"Not only is it the last weekend of a school holiday," he said, "but you're getting all the vacationing Saudi's around this time of year."
I asked him why they'd select Penang, of all the places in the world their money could take them, to which he replied, "Because they get shit poured on them if they go to Europe, so they come over here to their Muslim brothers."
A small cloud of rain passed as we chatted about the tourism of Malaysia, and how this country publicly set the goal of attracting 20-million tourists for 2007 (as it celebrated 50-years of independence). But we both scoffed at the notion, as Thailand receives 12-million tourists per year, which Malaysia can only dream about surpassing (with its comparatively meager 3–4 million annual visitors).
"Muslim Malaysia," the experienced Aussie said, "it's a dirty word… It's just not going to happen."