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Day 28 – A Cue to Wander (Penang Island by Motorbike)

March 31, 2010

Dateline: Penang, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I’m bored. Bored out of my gourd. More bored than an anorexic at a smorgasbord.

Penang has made me bored. Penang has made me hot. Penang has made me wish this is someplace where I’m not.

Okay. Enough with the rhymes. And the exaggerated lines. The point is I’m hot and bored and I need to do something. I spent the morning replying to e-mails, writing, and chatting online. I walked to the waterfront, then up and down street bordering the water looking for the ferry terminal so I could buy a train ticket back to Bangkok so I can have dinner Saturday night with Becca. I got lost four times. I passed the terminal twice before I found it the third time. I ate more of the same stuff I had last night except at a different place, this time with chicken instead of fish. (I later learn this dish is called nasi kandar and is a Penang original. You order a curry you like, the vendor puts it on rice, then adds different sauces on top.) It’s not as good as last night, but it’s still delicious.

I was so exhausted after cooking myself on different portions of Penang’s concrete that, when I got back to the Old Penang Guesthouse, I ended up crashing in the 12 person dorm for a two hour afternoon siesta. Now I’m awake and I’m hot and I’m bored.

I walk outside and I realize that getting anywhere interesting is going to make me more hot, which will turn my boredom into exhaustion and sticky crankiness. I decide it’s time to rent a motorbike. The guy who rents me the bike gives me a stern warning about traffic and the fact that I’ll have to pay for any damage to the bike because I don’t have an international driver’s license. I practically shove the 2000 baht deposit in his face I’m so ready to get out of the cramped streets of old George Town. I don the helmet, familiarize myself with the motorbike, and pull into traffic. Note to self, be sure you drive on the left side.

I ride and ride, taking whatever turn suits me. I’m just happy to have a breeze. The traffic thins as I ride out of town. I’m not sure which direction I’m headed. I have a feeling it’s south. I end up on winding hill roads dodging trucks that hurtle into my lane to pass. I realize that this is an activity of which my mother would not approve.

I contemplate my mortality. How easily it could end if the motorbike’s thin tires were to find a rut or an oncoming truck were to linger too long in my lane. I stop pondering when I realize I that will experience my mortality if I don’t start contemplating the road.

I ride and I ride and remember just how awesome it is to be on a bike, even a crappy motorbike like this. One of my fondest travel memories is of careening around Ko Samui on a manual motorbike. I got lost. I got unlost. I ended up circling the island. I did that multiple times. Sometimes alone, sometimes with Ash, sometimes with Ash and others.

Now I’m at it again. This time on an automatic since I don’t feel like shifting gears in slippers and because I figure it’ll make it easier to focus on traffic. I mildly regret my decision. It would be more fun if I had to negotiate gears instead of just rolling the power on and off and braking.

No matter. I make it to the end of the road and find a pier with boats docked to it. A sign advertises sport fishing tours. It’s quiet. It’s cooler. I’m no longer trapped in hot and stuffy George Town. I am at peace.

I head back the direction that I came, this time on smaller roads. I eventually hit the main road again and see a sign that says I’m 20 km from where I started. I ride back and stumble across Hard Rock Cafe Penang. It’s weird. Even though I feel like I’m in a more remote spot, I guess I’m in a tourist area.

I also see a sign for “Arabic and Italian Food.” While this is noteworthy, it’s not as surprising as it might have been a month ago. Since starting this trip, I’ve seen Italian food paired with nearly every other food throughout Southeast Asia. Places proclaiming they have Chinese and Italian. Malay and Italian. Thai and Italian. What is it with Italian food? Is it that Italians travel more than any other race? Is Italian food loved by people of all cultures? Is Italian food something that all Europeans can eat so Asian restaurant owners serve it the way American owners serve burgers or macaroni to satisfy the kids? Is it that Italian food is the least offensive of the “White people” foods? Are all restaurant owners part Italian? Does the mob control the restaurant business in SE Asia? Is Italian the easiest word for Asians to spell?

Somehow, this has led to the marriage of Arabia and Italy. Here in Asia, it seems that Italian cuisine has conquered all. Caesar’s empire lives on, though its borders are not on the land but in the stomachs of its subjects. To me, this seems like a greater achievement.

On the way back I actually get lost. Not lost in the Amazon with no food lost. Just oh crap I may accidentally end up on mainland Malaysia in the rain lost. I almost get on the bridge to Butterworth (I think). I pass a Methodist boys school and end up on a pretty, tree-lined road somewhere on Earth.

I see signs for something called Kampor. I recognize it from a map that I left in the dorm room and head towards that. Later, I see a sign for the ferry terminal and decide that’s an even better option. I know where the ferry terminal is and, because of the morning’s wanderings, at least four places where it isn’t.

Storm clouds gather, lightning crashes and thunder chases the wind. Live is referenced for the first time in 10 years. The rain starts coming down. Since I have no face shield, it’s like I’m getting hit in the face by little rocks. The faster I go to outrun the storm and find shelter, the more I’m punished for leaving the good maps in the dorm room.

I end up back in the guesthouse before it starts to pour. There, I regroup and plan the rest of my evening. Using a brochure called the “Penang Food Trail” I decide to find a roti canai place called Sup Hameed. It’s supposed to be next door to a place that serves cendol, a dessert made with red bean, green starchy noodle, pandan, coconut milk, palm sugar, and shaved ice. The idea of this makes my stomach and tongue writhe in happiness.

Using the map on the brochure, I find Sup Hameed. The place doesn’t seem to have roti canai. Just tandoori, stuff on a menu that I don’t recognize, and more nasi kandar, which I like but am not in the hunt for. I sit down in the restaurant. I stand up and walk around. I sit down again. I look helpless. The Indian/Pakistani guys look confused. I take this as a cue to wander around the street outside.

That’s when I discover that Sup Hameed isn’t just a storefront. It’s a series of food carts that go down the street for about 60 feet. There are plastic chairs and tables set up behind the stands where you can take your meal. There’s a tandoori cart (which I’d already found), a drink cart, a soup cart, and near the end a roti cania cart. I can tell because everything on the menu has roti in it. Who says I’m not putting my law diploma to good use?

I opt for the roti sardin, which I correctly guess has sardines in it. When the drink guy comes by to ask me what I want, I say “cold tea” to which he replies “cool tea.” From now on, I will ask for cool tea. I get the same tea that I had last night, this time over ice. I wish I could ask for something else, but I’m not standing in front of the cart and I don’t know what else I can order.

The roti is great, especially the sauce. Roti is a flaky flatbread that you typically dip in sauce of some kind. It’s like a pastry naan, but fried, thinner, and more buttery. For the roti sardin, the sardines are fried into the roti. They’re not a filling. The meat is scattered throughout the bread, though somehow not on the surface. To my delight, from the table I can see the roti guy using the same red sardine cans my dad used when he made sardines for me and my brother when we were kids (my mom is vegetarian).

My food and drink are brought to me. I eat slowly, sipping the tea to allow the ice to melt. The tea flavor is rich enough that I know if I let the ice seep in, I can nearly double my tea intake. It’s my taste maximization theory at work.

After I track down someone to take my money for the food, I head off down the street to find the place that supposedly serves cendol. No dice. I see a place with a similar name, but it’s a market not a café which is what the brochure says I’ll find. I get back on the bike and start my hunt for cendol.

The hunt lasts an hour. I get lost again. I find the nasi kandar place from last night three times then get turned around in the one-way streets. George Town here resembles the one in Washington, D.C. in that it’s not a grid. Trying to orient yourself is like riding a three-legged pony while drunk and missing a contact lens. You never quite end up where you think you should.

I end up back where I started. In the market. This time I decide to ask if they have cendol. They do not. I no longer feel bad about my stubbornness in not asking the first time and for the subsequent hour wandering on the motorbike contributing to global warming.

I end up ordering ais kacang, which I repeatedly pronounce “ice kan-kong” to the confusion of the guy who’s trying to serve me. Ais (or Ice) kacang is shaved ice topped with red bean, sweet corn, grass jelly, and palm fruit. It’s sometimes topped with ice cream. It’s drizzled in evaporated milk and seems to have a thicker sugar syrup mixed in. It reminds me of Filipino halo halo, but with less fruit. It’s not cendol, but it works in a pinch.

America, our food culture sucks. Here in Asia, it’s 11 p.m. and I’m sitting at an outdoor market eating dessert. I’m surrounded by locals who are ordering noodle soup, hokkien mee (prawn noodles), fried koay teow (flat rice noodles fried with minced garlic and prawns) and all manner of food including Japanese and Filipino dishes. People of all ages are eating and chatting. It is a work night. The smells from all the stands are mixing in with the smell of humidity. It smells like Heaven’s sauna should.

I can’t think of an American equivalent. Oh, I know. You can find vibrant late night food in NYC or San Fran or L.A., but the scene I’m witnessing is being played out all over Asia, not just in big cities. I’m talking small towns and villages. Here in Penang, while searching for cendol I stumbled across pockets of restaurants and bakeries that were still serving hordes of people. The idea that a place would open up at 10 p.m. to serve food just isn’t that strange now that I’ve wandered around town.

Compared to this, food in the U.S. seems so sterile. So contrived and lifeless. Constrained by a culture of individualism, it’s hard to imagine a communal place like this in America. Even if it could exist, the nanny state would stamp out these food stands for health violations. For me, I’d take these food stalls any day over health inspectors in a backroom kitchen. Let me look my food’s maker in the eye as he cooks my meal. I’ll hold him accountable if it gives me the runs.

I love Asia’s food culture. You’d love it. It’s a part of Asian food that’s not in the ingredients. It creates a context for the cuisine. It gives it flavor. And not in some metaphorical way, either. In an actual, tangible, on the tongue way. It makes the spice spicier, the milk sweeter, and the ice colder and crunchier. The colors are different when you eat your food at night under the lights. The sounds of people laughing and talking pair perfectly with what your eyes and palate experience. It’s a part of Asian food that I just can’t bring home with me.

I hop back on the motorbike. The helmet’s made me feel like I’m 12 again, head two times too big for my body. This time, I know where I’m going.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Maps can be useful when you travel.

Not So Stupid Tip: Ordering food at these Indian/Pakistani places can be a bit confusing. Here’s what I’ve learned. You order at the stand from which you want the food. Then you sit down and your food is brought to you. Someone will ask if you want a drink. You can tell them. If you want more choices than just teh halia or ”cool tea” (the two drinks I know) then you’ll have to go to the drink stand and order there. This is what I will do next time. After you’re done eating, you’ll need to waive over one of the guys to settle your bill. Or, you can make a motion to leave without paying. That seems to get their attention.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 8:41 pm

    It’s considerably cooler at the top of Penang Hill, and the cog railway is great fun, as well.

    In the old days, all the Brit colonialists had their “summer cottages” up there, and walking the trails is amazing — “cottages”? Incredible places. Many of the wealthier government functionaries and rubber planters (while rubber was still profitable) actually lived up there and commuted to town on the railway.

    • April 3, 2010 4:47 am

      Yeah. Unfortunately the funicular was shut down when I wen to Penang Hill. Admittedly, I read in the guide book that I could have walked a 3 mile trail to the top. Yeah. . . I’m on vacation and have no desire to recreate even a suburban version of the Bataan Death March.

  2. April 1, 2010 9:31 pm

    I hope you are getting fat. Love, J.

  3. Ash permalink
    April 2, 2010 10:52 am

    I can’t believe you opted for an automatic bike! That increases your chance of survival by at least 80%. That and not having a 175lb “and others” clinging to your back screaming “we’re going to die!”

    Love the blog. Am insanely jealous. Don’t forget to loose some of your money to a 6 year old playing Connect Four.

    • April 3, 2010 4:50 am

      Yeah, the auto bike ended up being key. Traffic got pretty intense on some days. Right hand turns were more thrilling than skydiving; felt so unnatural, like I was driving around with one eye covered and my legs tied together.

      F*** the six year-old. I’ma take his shit. You can’t stop me!

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