"Why won't you let me make money to earn a LIVING?!?" is what the cab driver screamed at me after ignoring his many "Taxi" and "Yes?" cries. "Yes? Yes?" he kept saying. "Um, I didn't say anything to you," I replied. His plea to help him earn a LIVING was actually answered by an animated Spanish guy from our bus who explained to him that "Europe is in a recession right now and we can't afford to take a taxi." The cabbies stared at each other as we stalked off towards the bus terminal. The bus arrived while we were getting to know the couple from southern Spain, and introductions and stories continued throughout the journey to Chinatown, the main backpacker area in Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia.
Five minutes after getting off the bus an American retiree spied us with our big bags and sweat already pouring down our faces and kindly directed us to a cheap guest house ("I don't know what your budget is..." he started saying, to which we replied, practically in unison with the other couple, "Cheap. As cheap as possible.") that he could vouch for. At Pin Seng Hotel we asked if they had any double rooms. "No. Only single rooms." Disappointed, we turned to leave. "You want see them?" Well, no, we tried to explain. They are of no use to two couples. Five minutes of confused looks and explanations continued before he produced the keys for two double rooms. Maybe he thought we meant a suite, like a room with two bedrooms. But anyone walking into a $7 a night hole-in-the-wall hotel in Chinatown asking for a suite needs to re-evaluate their travel plans. As the Spaniards filled in the guestbook, we looked around reception and noticed some photos displayed beneath the glass top on the desk. The most prominent photo was of the hotelier sitting behind the desk wearing a white tanktop. Glancing up at the hotelier sitting behind the desk wearing a white tanktop checking us in, I guessed that he must be a content man. Most people adorn their workspaces with photos of their favourite holidays or far off destinations they long to go, this guy decorates his workspace with pictures of himself at his workspace (wearing the same tanktop as always). The desk was almost bare except the presence of an abacus. No calendar, no computer, no calculator. An abacus. Fascinated, we asked him to work out our room bill using the foreign instrument. He quickly moved some tiles around (like the kiddie game they have at every doctor's office waiting room where you have to follow the different track with different shaped tiles and blocks attached to each track. Anyone? Anyone?) and explained the denomination delegated to each tile. While animated and enthusiastic, the lesson was futile. We walked away with absolutely no further knowledge of how to use an abacus.
After checking in (we signed the guestbook with a thumbprint after seeing this was accepted as a signature), we went exploring. Penang is supposed to be one of the best places to eat in all of Southeast Asia and we were ready to put it to the challenge! We found an Indian restaurant and had some delicious vegetarian dishes with mouth-watering naan. (I was very disappointed when they just shrugged and said they were out of paneer when I tried to order it, so we settled on mystery vegetarian dishes, but I still very much missed that salty Indian cheese!) We walked around Georgetown, past the very colonial buildings of Town Hall and City Hall--competing for importance right next to each other. We couldn't figure out which one was ranked higher because we thought it would be City Hall, but the Town Hall building was more grand. The most impressive thing in that area, however, was what looked like a flag troupe practice where the routine involved the coach kicking a huge flag attached to a gigantic pole and planting it squarely on top of one of the kid's heads. They practiced this a few times and on the last time the kid nailed it and caught and balanced the flag-pole on his forehead for about 10 seconds before it came crashing down. I don't know how they think up these routines, but we could just imagine the moment when the coach dreamed it up: "OK, I'm going to kick this 10 meter long mast high up into the air, and then you're going to come up and catch it on your head!" And the blank stares that ensued. We strolled around the esplanade on the water while the sun was going down.
Two things come out in Georgetown when the sun goes down: wildly blinking toys and giant rats. We watched as children chased down the former and we were chased down by the latter and made haste away from the gutters. We walked the famous 'party street' where all the bars and clubs are located but were amazed at how quiet it was, apart from the touts outside screaming that they all had happy hour specials all night long. Then we glanced at our watches and the penny dropped. Perhaps 8:30 is too early to be looking for a party? Not wanting to be those guys who are first at the bar, we skulked home knowing we wouldn't be able to stay awake for when the party actually started. On the way home we spotted a transvestite in a ridiculously revealing outfit and sky-high heels. I had been worried the whole time we'd been here because we were told that one needed to dress conservatively to avoid unwanted attention as it is a very conservative society. We figured that maybe she wanted to be hassled because there was no room for conservative in her tiny, shiny lycra playsuit.
The next day we donned our fashionable ponchos and braved the rain to see the other side of Georgetown. First we re-visted our Indian restaurant because we had spotted cheap pancakes on the menu the day before. Alas, the pancakes fell to the same fate as the paneer the day before when the waiter once again shrugged and said they didn't have any. We asked him what was sweet. He laughed and pointed to something called 'Roti Boom.' We asked again, sweet? "Yes. Yes. Sweet," he said, still smirking. We ordered two. As he walked away we thought that maybe he misunderstood us and was saying, "Yes. Yes. This will make you SWEAT. Very hot." And that our breakfast was about to take an unexpected turn! And the name 'Roti Boom' wasn't doing much to comfort us. The breakfast came and it was a deliciously sweet roti with a side of dahl (lentils). We hurriedly spooned the savory dahl and enjoyed the sinfully sweet roti as dessert/sweet breakfast. After breakfast, we passed the Church of Assumption, but didn't go in as we all know what happens when one assumes. We then went to the Penang Museum, supposedly the most well-presented museum in Malaysia (and it only cost $.30 so we were sold). It featured interesting exhibitions about the people that make up Penang (immigrants from all over the world) and customs that are associated with some of the cultures. There was a very elaborate 'wedding bed' that we are trying to get worked into our Western cultures, but Vern preferred the look of the 'opium bed,' which was an ornately carved, very large wooden bench that was used to smoke opium and subsequently pass out. Interesting concept. Now we can see why all the building work was left up to the colonists instead of the locals.
The next stop was the Clan pier, which are houses built on stilts over the water. Since these houses aren't on land, they are not subject to paying taxes so we went searching for Wesley Snipes. The pier was the most peaceful area in all of Georgetown and the rickety stilts would be my first choice of residence to get away from the busy city. Then we saw some stilts with no house attached to them and realized the drawbacks to the location. After the clan pier we visited the clan house of Khoo Kongsi, a building that is used partly as a temple and partly as a meeting hall for Chinese people with the surname Khoo. This kongsi dates back to 1906 and is decorated with a colorful mix of dragons, statues, paintings, lamps, colored tiles and carvings. All the successful Khoo's were listed in a separate room with their names and which universities they attended. I'm not sure if they were big donors to the house or if the Khoo's wanted people to know they were all very big and important. There was a catering company setting up for an event as well as people bringing in mattress after mattress for the stage. We thought maybe we would see the flag-to-head group again if we stayed, and we wondered how the routine would do in all the rain! The flagpole to eye ratio seemed a little high for our liking, so we prudently left before it started. On the way home we popped by the Kapitan Keling mosque, which was appreciated from the sidewalk. It was built by Penang's first Indian-Muslim settlers in a very impressive Indian-influenced Islamic style. We stopped by a food court for dinner where Vern had Laksa Penang, which was a very fishy soup, and I had Char Kway Teow, which were delicious fried noodles made with egg, vegetables and shrimp. I am still not sick of fried noodles! Then we had Rojak for dessert--the fruit in peanut sauce that we first tried in Singapore. This version featured fish sauce and more potatoes than fruit so it wasn't as good as the first time.
We got back to the hotel and noticed for the first time a sign that advertised "Rent New Bikes." The sign was stenciled neatly on a piece of paper that might once have possibly been white, but was now sepia-toned. Then, your eye lingered over to the 'new' bikes that were covered in rust and cobwebs in equal amounts. We figured our 30-year-old legs were newer than the 'new' bikes and we had done fine to avoid them. While we were looking at the bikes the night manager, Charlie Chaplin as he introduced himself, wondered if we were interested in renting one. No, thank you. But, Vern asked for a sheet to cover us in bed because the fan was very strong and there was no sheet or blanket on top. He rolled his eyes and handed him a single sheet for a double bed. Then I came down 5 minutes later to ask for a towel that they apparently were giving out, but we never got. The manager screamed at me, "First your friend asks for a sheet and now you want a towel?!?" I didn't really see how the two were related. "Um, yes. They are for two different purposes. I need to take a shower now." He handed me a ripped dish towel and rolled his eyes. After drying off for 20 minutes with the tiny towel we chatted to the Spanish guy for a long time about travel plans. He also tried to put us off getting married, convinced that all marriages end in divorce or just unhappiness. Um, thanks for the advice but we're getting married in about a year. "Don't do it," he pleaded to Vern. Much to my chagrin, this conversation went on for about an hour. Then, we had to say our goodbyes because an old Englishman came out of his bedroom in only a pair of old grey whitie tighties cursing us out for talking at a normal volume and saying he needed sleep. We had to catch a bus at 5:00 am so we couldn't argue. We went to bed and I'm happy to report that Vern didn't sneak out in the middle of the night after our new friend planted the seed of doubt in his mind.