Rostrum: Homeward Bound Edition
Tomorrow we head back to Melbourne. I’ve been coming to Penang now once or twice a year for almost twenty years. It’s a fascinating place. A unique blend of cultures where the native Malays mix live in relative harmony with Indian and Chinese immigrants, despite cultural, religious and political differences.
The landscape here is what can best be described as “pedestrian hostile.” The “pavements,” where they do exist, are cracked and ruptured, as if there’s been a recent earthquake and no one thought about making any repairs. Huge gaps in the pavement make way to gaping drains, and if they don’t get you the traffic will. Traffic signals and other customary road rules are generally ignored here which makes crossing the road a task not for the faint hearted.
It can be frustrating at times. So-called “trades people” like builders, electricians and plumbers are on the whole unskilled and ill-prepared to carry out any sort of satisfactory level of workmanship. As a result, we’ve contended with a number of problems with our apartment. During our last trip we discovered that whoever installed the air conditioning thought it would be a good idea to dispose of any left over cement by tipping it down the air conditioning pipes, a plan which ultimately caused our waste water to over-flow into the apartment downstairs. To rectify this, we had to get contractors to break through the brick walls with a jackhammer and install new pipes. Apparently this is a common problem throughout the building.
During this trip we discovered that there’s water leaking into our apartment from upstairs. The ceiling in the bedroom is stained and the paint is peeling, which one imbecile from the management office attempted to explain away as being the result of us using “poor quality paint.”
But I guess it all makes it an experience.
One thing I find interesting is the way in which some things we take for granted in Australia are hard to find here, while other things we find difficult to source are freely available.
Take the hardware shop across the road for instance. For all intents and purposes it resembles any ordinary hardware shop and sells tools, paint and step ladders etc. Yet when I enquired about the availability of some self-tapping screws they had no idea what I was talking about. However should you find yourself in need of a do-it-yourself dentistry kit, you’ll find one here next to the pliers and spanners for a mere $3.
It’s almost impossible to buy a decent bottle of wine anywhere in Penang after 9:00pm, but should you find yourself in need of some semi-lethal pepper spray (mace) you’ll also find several sizes and brands conveniently located next to the check-out counter at the hardware shop across the road. When I enquired about tasers, they told me that they had none in stock, but they had just received a batch of telescopic police-grade batons if I was interested. “For crowd control” the sales guy explained, while making a striking motion with the baton. “Impressive” I said, nodding in agreement.
Smoking here is a national pass time, and at $3 a pack who can blame them. I almost felt like taking it up again. Drinking alcohol, especially to excess, which here amounts to anything more than three standard drinks, is generally frowned upon.
The other day I decided to take the ferry to the mainland just to see what it was like, and realised I was the only non-Asian person onboard. Not that this bothers me, but it does make you feel a bit “conspicuous.” From the jetty I took a bus to what’s called “The Megamall” which is more like a hawkers’ market housed within a run-down concrete block. Here you will find your fake Oakley sunglasses for $5 and a conglomeration of shops and pop-up stalls selling Hello Kitty vinyl bags and an assortment of “bling.”
After wandering around for half an hour or so, I decided to take a taxi back to the jetty.
You have to bargain with the taxi drivers here, particularly if you’re a westerner and so I negotiated a fee of 12 ringit (about $4) for the short trip to the jetty.
The driver was an Indian guy in his mid-forties. He had slicked backed hair and brilliant white teeth that seemed like porcelain against his black skin.
We started for the jetty, and glancing in the rearview mirror he asked me what my name was and if I was here on holiday.
After exchanging a few pleasantries about the weather and how hot it is, he asked “How come you are here on your own, are you not married?”
“No, I’m not married” I replied.
“Why not, why not married, sir?”
“I guess I’ve never been all that interested.”
“Are you married?” I asked, trying to change the focus of the conversation away from myself.
“Yes, I am married sir. I have two childrens” said the driver.
“That’s nice,” I said.
I sat back in my seat hoping that would be the end of the conversation, and stared out the window with envy at people dying in the blistering heat.
I could tell that the driver was still puzzled and it wasn’t long until he piped up again.
As the traffic slowed, he turned and tapped the back of his seat to get my attention “Sir, sir, excuse me sir….how come you not interested in married, is it you do not like the pussy…. You like the dick, yes?”
“Something like that” I replied, uncomfortably.
However he didn’t seem satisfied with the answer.
“So tell me sir, you like the girls, or you like the guys…?”
“Look I prefer guys, okay….” I replied.
“Oh, then that is the problem,” he said, nodding thoughtfully. Like he had just received some bad news, not like “your mother is dying” but more like “she’ll live.”
I thought about explaining how it’s not really a problem if I’ve never really been all that interested in getting married, but decided that it’s probably best to leave the conversation at that.
Arriving at the jetty, I gave him a three dollar tip and caught the ferry back to the island for the princely sum of 70 cents.
At the apartment where we stay, there is a team of cleaners, gardeners and security guards . Most of them are Malay, and I thought it would be nice to learn how to say “good morning” as I pass them on the way to the pool area during my morning walk..
My “good morning” is generally greeted with a nod and a smile, and often a “good morning” in return.
“Your Malay is very good sir,” said one of the guards, and, drunk with praise, I thought I’d add to it with what thought I was “How are you?”
He kind of winced and shot me a blank look in return, and I figured that maybe you’re not meant to get too friendly with the guards.
Later, I tried it again with the gardener, who nodded and smiled and then returned to whatever it was he was doing before I interrupted him, the way I do when it’s easier to simply ignore someone than to try to understand them.
I tried again with the guy who cleans the lifts and another guy who was polishing the floor in the foyer. He smiled and reached for a small brown paper which he unwrapped. I leaned forward to get a closer look and he presented what appeared to be a dead fish. Actually it looked more like it was paralyzed than dead, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was meant to respond. Was he offering me the fish as a gift, or was I meant to compliment him on his hunting skills? Either way it was an awkward moment and I decided it was easier to just smile and nod, and make my way back to the apartment.
It’s easy to get simple things confused. Especially sayings that sound familiar.
Later I discovered that instead of walking up to people and saying “Apa Kabar” (How are you?) I had in fact been saying “Good morning, god is great…”
It’s just as well we’re heading home tomorrow.
Have a lovely weekend.