August 28, 2008
Boxes and Behavior
Most people live their lives within a small box, seeking safety and comfort in the familiar.
But that’s another instance of the “attribution error.” Safety and comfort do not derive from familiarity, but rather more from things like having one’s wits about them, observing what’s going on around you, developing your instincts and confidence, and having a respectful, benevolent and friendly demeanor. The more I travel and explore, the more I believe that one can be safe and comfortable in strange places and situations. No adventure is without risk, however, but neither is staying put. It all comes down to doing whatever feeds one’s soul.
Discovering the “Straits States”
When I was a boy I had many hobbies. These included chemistry, model building, radio and electronics, and various things mechanical. That clearly put me in the nerd category. I spent hours alone building model airplanes from sticks of balsa wood and tissue paper, or putting together my own radio sets based on plans ordered from Popular Mechanics, or making various “products” from my collection of chemicals (including fireworks, of course). Another of my hobbies was stamp collecting. In those days it was almost conceivable, though still not practical, that one might possibly put together something approaching a complete set. The number of different stamps that have been issued since then must by now number in the millions.
I remember that amongst the stamps that I ordered “on approval” from ads in Popular Mechanics (you see a pattern here?) there were many that bore the name of “Straits Settlements.” I had no idea at the time what these “Straits Settlements” might be or where in the world they might be located. It turns out that they were some of the Malay states or “settlements,” then under British rule, that lie to the east and north of the Straits of Malacca. These included Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The independent country of Malaysia was formed In 1957 by uniting various states of the Malaysian peninsula with Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. You might recognize some of the names of the peninsular states which include Johor, Selangor, Perak, Melaka and several others.
Hanging out here in Georgetown, the seat of the former British colony of Penang, now part of Malaysia, provides an interesting perspective on history. Fort Cornwallis, just around the corner from my guest house, was built by Sir Francis Light around the time of the American Revolution as part of the British strategy to control the Malay straits and the resources of Southeast Asia. Penang is diverse both ethnically and religiously. Unlike most other Malaysian states, it has a Chinese majority that is mostly Buddhist, but there are also Taoists and Christians (there is a strong Christian influence remaining from the colonial period). Penang also has a significant Indian population, which is mostly Hindu but many are Muslim. I suspect that it may be that long period of British control that is largely responsible for enabling Penang’s diversity.
Worlds in Contrast
A couple days ago I boarded a city bus, having no particular destination but with the expectation that it would take me somewhere I had not been before. I was wrong. While I may never have been at those particular geographical coordinates, the place where I ended up, called the Queensbay Mall a little way outside of Georgetown, was indistinguishable from so many other modern malls I’ve seen. It might just as easily have been in Tucson, Kansas City, Minneapolis, or London. It had the same stores selling the same brands at what amazingly appeared to be the same excessive (dollar equivalent) prices. Perhaps that’s why the place was relatively empty of shoppers. The Häagen-Dazs stand, for example, was offering two scoops of ice cream for something just over 15 Ringgit. THAT’S FIVE DOLLARS FOR PITY SAKE! That in a country where a good hearty meal can be had for as little as one dollar for breakfast, or two dollars for dinner. That’s exactly what I paid last night at a good restaurant in the “Little India” section of Georgetown. My two German friends, Bernie and Diane, and I each had a plate of Tandoori chicken with dal, mint chutney, a garnish of sliced cucumber and onion, with naan (Indian flat bread), plus a cup of milk tea. Total bill, 19 and a half Ringgit. That’s two dollars each.
I find the entire mall experience depressing. As lively, diverse, and interesting as the old city is, the malls to me are sterile and dead. I could hardly wait to get back to Georgetown. I rode the bus all the way back to Weld Quay (where the ferry boats depart for the mainland and Langkawi Island). There are numerous food carts and stalls in that area, so feeling a bit of a thirst I decided to sit down and order a drink. “What’ll it be?” There are, of course, all sorts of western carbonated, sugary soft drinks on offer, but fortunately, in these parts, one has other options.
“Would you please open up that cocoanut for me and hand me a straw and a spoon?”
The cocoanut was so big and full of juice I could barely finish it. The cocoanut meat was a bonus that provided enough of a snack to hold me until dinner time.
Living Free and Living Well
Once you sort out your real needs from your conditioned and fear-based ones, it takes surprisingly little money to live well. You can get a family room in a guesthouse with A/C for around 10 to 15 US dollars per day. I’m alone so my expenses can be a bit lower but I have opted for the more deluxe accommodations: double room with A/C, shared bath for RM 35 (a shade above ten dollars US). This place is VERY clean, provides free internet access for guests on two computers, plus Wi-Fi if you have your own; free drinking water, coffee, tea. There’s an abundance of other similar places nearby but the SD Guesthouse is the best one I’ve found.
One correspondent from England wrote me recently expressing envy at my ability to travel and live as I do. He has a wife and two young children which does impose some additional constraints. Taking care of preschoolers is a mighty challenge, but in a couple years he should be able to take them around the world to everyone’s benefit. Just last evening, as I stopped in front of a side street puppet show, which a few minutes later attracted a family of four who told me they are on a 14 month world holiday. They are English and their two kids look to be about 5 and 8. What better school for them than the world? They are staying at another guesthouse just around the corner, for which they pay about the same as I do for mine.
Getting Beneath the Surface
Georgetown does not reveal itself easily. It takes some time and effort to get beneath the surface to see what’s going on here. That’s why I’ve chosen to stay on (I’ve already been here ten days and am considering making Penang my base in Asia). While many tourists visit Penang, and the official literature highlights the usual assortment of temples, museums and landmarks, Penang has a life of its own that does not depend on tourism. Unlike places like Bali, where so many ceremonies and celebrations are staged for the benefit of the tourists, Georgetown residents do it for themselves. I’m fortunate to be here during the Hungry Ghost festival which happens during the seventh month of the lunar Chinese calendar, and to have the guidance of Mr. Sun, a Chinese native of Penang, who is the day clerk at my guesthouse. While I noticed one of the outdoor stages that was set up for the celebration, and watched some of the performances there, I would never have known about another venue and the amazing events there if Mr. Sun had not told me about it. Last weekend I went there in the company of two French women who were also staying here. Except for a German couple, ours were the only western faces to be seen amongst the estimated crowd of tow t three hundred people. I felt as if we were crashing someone’s party, which we probably were, but we were shortly invited to join a table of Chinese who kept us well supplied with beer and food.
The Hungry Ghost festival can be loosely compared to our Halloween, but the elaborate rituals and activities designed to placate lost souls make ours look pale in comparison. I’m too lazy to write about it in detail, but you can see some pictures on my photo gallery: http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg. Imagine performance stages set up all over town, each providing entertainment for several nights running -singers and sexy dancers. Imagine elaborate decorations and a climaxing bonfire in which all are consumed, then everyone joining a parade to a nearby street at which each person receives multiple gifts. I ended up with 17 little packets, each containing a coin or two, which added up to about four Ringgit.
I could go on but I prefer to not burden either my readers or myself with lengthy descriptions. Sometimes a sketch is more appreciated than a portrait.
Here’s a slide show you can watch.