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Day 29 – Funicular! (Stumbled on in Penang)

April 1, 2010

Dateline: Penang, Malaysia – Thursday, April 1, 2010

Everywhere I go, I wander. Usually it’s searing heat and buckets of sweat. For example, when I first got to Penang I spent one hour lugging my pack from guesthouse to guesthouse searching for a good room at a low price. By the time I settled on the dorm in Old Penang Guesthouse, I was sheeting liquid from every pore.

Usually I wander either because the place I’m headed is an abstraction and requires search (destination: cheap guest house) or I only have a spotty idea of where I’m headed (destination: a waterfall located somewhere on that hill).

The romantic in me likes to think I wander because it’s the best way to experience a place. You see things tourists don’t get to see. You understand a place from the ground up in a way that you can’t from map. It’s also a cheap thrill to not know where you are, then find your way out.

The realist in me recognizes that I wander in large part because I am a cavalier planner. This trip, I have no itinerary. I have not booked anything before hand. The only reason I have a ticket out of Taipei is because it was cheaper than buying two one-ways at separate times. I ended up in Railay on a whim and here in Penang because someone said it’d be fun. For me, a plan is knowing how to get in and how to get out. The stuff in the middle tends to work itself out.

Today I did a ton of wandering. Lucky for me, I had a motorbike, which means instead of taking 45 minutes to circle a block three times trying to find a restaurant, it takes 3 minutes and the whole time I have a nice breeze.  The faster I go, the cooler I feel.  Literally.

My destinations today: Penang Adventist Hospital and Penang Hill. I’m going to the hospital because a friend of mine’s ancestors founded the clinic that became the hospital. I’m going to Penang Hill because I want o ride a funicular.

First, Penang Adventist Hospital. I used Google maps to plot a course from the guesthouse to the target. There were only 4 turns. All turns pointed me in a westerly direction. The hospital was on a main road. How hard could it be?

It’s an hour and a half hard. That despite the hospital being only 7 km or so from my start point. Penang is a maze of two-way streets that suddenly become one-ways. One minute you’re chugging along to your destination and the next minute you’re heading 45 degrees to your left because all the traffic headed the way you were, on the road that you were on, has been diverted to another street. It’s what I imagine hell is like for neglectful husbands. They’ll be forced to ride around Penang looking for a restaurant with their wives in the backseat asking, “Why didn’t you make a left there? Can’t you see that it’s right there on the other side of the divider? Didn’t we just see that gas station two minutes ago? Aren’t you supposed to be driving on the left side of the road?”

It doesn’t help that all the street names here sound the same. They’re written in English (helpful) but use names that all seem similar. Didn’t the British used to own this place? What happened to Crumpet Street and Empire Way?

“Was I supposed to look out for Jenang Penak or Jenang Palakamakawekamochachino? I think I’ll take a left. . .now!”

This goes on for a while after which I start employing search and rescue techniques. I pick a direction then, using the terrain to my advantage, take a series of one-way streets in an ever widening circular pattern. This does not work. That and I keep passing the same people at the same bus stop every 2 minutes. Since I look kind of like a local, I’m sure it seems like I’m either an incompetent stalker or just plain incompetent. I love public humiliation.

I then decide to search for signs of Adventist architecture. Does that building look like it was built in the 1950’s? Do the buildings appear to have been designed on a budget so that there is one item of architectural flair while the rest of the building is block concrete? Do the buildings smell of E.G. White tracts and canned veggie meat?

Just when I’m about to cry uncle, I stumble across the place. I park the motorbike and walk in the front door. Then, I realize I have no idea what I’m doing here. That makes me want to sit down, which I do.

This being a hospital, me sitting down and doing nothing fits right in. Everyone’s doing it. If I were walking around with a purpose dressed as casually as I am, I might actually arouse suspicion. So I sit and I think.

I came here because Earl and Laura’s ancestors founded the place. I’ve been instructed to name drop, but I have no idea who I’d name drop to.

“Excuse me Mr. Security Guard, but do you know who founded this place? I do. Actually, I know the founder’s descendants, a plus since they’re actually alive which makes them better conversationalists. Please, get up. No need to kneel before me. I am a benevolent master.”

That doesn’t even play right in my head. So I sit. And I read. And I enjoy the air conditioning. If it’s possible, I’m wandering around while sitting in one place.

I finally notice a map on a wall and over the course of the next 30 minutes, hop from chair to chair till I’m right in front of it.

I decide to look for the cafeteria. I haven’t eaten breakfast and even the worst cafeterias serve food.

Loath as I am to admit it, I get lost in the map. I reread it five times wondering how the hell the cartographer failed to label the most important place on campus. Via the map, I wander through the dental clinic, the psychotherapy wing, and the surgical ward. Finally, I’m reminded that I’m me, the loser of things that are right in front of my face, and see that it’s in the nursing school. It’s a building right behind the one that I’m in (presumably the hospital).

After a more purposeful wandering session, I find the cafeteria entrance. The place is filled with nurses who, since this is Asia, still wear the Florence Nightingale nurse caps. The Malay cafeteria workers greet me with looks that are two parts annoyed and one part dismissive. It’s nice to know every culture has some things in common. I point to the meatless meatballs (made of soy products and nuts), rice, and boiled and garlicked vegetables. It all tastes like I’m in the Loma Linda University Medical Center but with a touch less salt. I even have to bus my own tray and plate.

I head back to the bike, strap in to my helmet, and head off in search of Penang Hill. If I can’t be treated like royalty for my tenuous relationship with the hospital’s founder, at least I can have my first funicular ride ever.

Finding Penang Hill should be easy. There’s only one hill on the island that overlooks the city. If I can just stick to the roads near the base of the hill, I should find the funicular or a sign to it.

Cue the one-way streets.

Since I first started out, it’s gotten hot. That of course means I get hopelessly turned around. Here are some things that I find that are not Penang Hill:

*The Penang Botanical Gardens. I’ve heard these are nice to walk around. It’s bloody hot, so I opt to stay on the bike and keep hunting.

*A friendly security guard at a private gated community. He tells me that it’s a long way to Penang Hill, but if I just head over yon hill, I’ll find someone who can help me find a shorter route.

*The Penang Botanical Gardens. Turns out the security guard did technically point me towards Penang Hill, just not the side that I want to be on. It also turns out that Penang Hill abuts Penang Botanical Gardens.

*Monkeys. Aggressive monkeys. Crime abetting monkeys. I say that because if you do as the monkeys say and give them food, you will have committed a finable offense. I know this because the signs say so.

*A graveyard. I stumble on this because I’m trying to stay close to the base of the hill. I follow a local on a motorbike into a temple looking area, past signs that say in English “Do Not Enter,” and through what look to be checkpoints with no guards. At first I think I’m just in a graveyard. I stop and take pictures of the place, which on one side is overlooked by two large block apartment buildings. You can see laundry hanging from every balcony. It looks like the projects, even though I know they are just everyday residences.

The cemetery is fascinating. Some graves are marked with a rock. Some are marked by marble engraved in gold. All graves are littered with stale food for the ancestors buried beneath. There’s trash everywhere. Plastic bags of trash. Except for the headstones, the grounds are completely neglected. No grass. No flower bed. No garbage pick up. Just dirt, weeds, and piles of refuse. This despite the fact that there are groups of people visiting graves to offer food, plant little flags, and clean their ancestors’ gravesites. Fascinating.

*A shortcut out of the graveyard. I discover the shortcut after I motor around the cemetery for a while snapping pics. I notice local riders zipping in and out of a small gap in the surrounding wall. I follow one and end up at the base of the tenements that rise above the cemetery. There are actually two pairs of buildings facing each other. At the base are small outdoor markets, restaurants, and shops that service the residents. The pairs of buildings are quite close to each other, perhaps 50 feet or so. That means when you drive between them, it feels like you’re in a canyon of humanity. There are people sitting around talking and eating and doing chores and labor. I desperately want to take pictures, but I can’t figure out how without feeling and looking like a rich ass American who’s come to stare at the unfortunates on his “exotic” holiday in Asia. It’s one thing to admit that I’m this in my head. It’s another to live it out in front of actual people. I refrain.

I do stumble across Penang Hill, eventually. I’m crushed when I see the site is under renovation. My attempt to recreate a funicular moment from The Amazing Race goes down in flames. Instead I take a picture of the “Closed for Repairs” sign and the empty funicular station.

It’s starting to rain and I’m hungry, so I head back to town to search for Komptar and a bite to eat. Komptar is the tallest building in Georgetown which means I have a hard time finding it. When I park, I lose it when I’m forced into a mall that has no windows, no skylights, and no discernible pattern to its construction. Like Penang Hill I find the base of Komptar, but I fail to find the entrance. That means I can’t go to the top and look down on people. I feel like there are cosmic forces working against me.

For lunch I have what amounts to the Starbucks version of two dishes I’ve been searching for: candul a dessert made of shaved ice, red bean, and green starchy noodle and assam laksa, a spicy hot and sour fish soup. Both have potential, but both seem to be watered down versions of what I might get on the street. I’ve gotten tired of wandering and decided to just eat. I do not regret this decision.

I wander back to the Botanical Gardens and go for a walk. I go back to the graveyard and take a few more pics, this time in the softer light of the afternoon.

I head back into town for a nap. Then I have dinner at the same place as last night. This time I order roti lanta and roti bawang. I assume one is seafood per my experience with Fried Ko Lanta and the other will be a meat of some kind that will help fill me up. I am wandering gastrically.

Wrong on both counts. One is plain roti with onions on the inside. The other is sweet, presumably made with the essence of some kind of fruit. There’s a syrup used that has crisped on the warm grill. It’s delicious. I want more, but opt not to perpetuate a fat American stereotype, if only to myself. Besides, I have no idea which roti is bawang and which is lanta. I’d have to order both.

I do order a lychee drink, which is just as good as coconut milk, but a bit sweeter. I try to order it subtly so that the guy at the table next to me who first ordered doesn’t think I’m a copycat, even though I am. The drink comes with two large, skinned lychees at the bottom. Again, I swish my straw in the ice, trying to make the flavor last.

On way back to the guesthouse I nearly blow past a cop at a police checkpoint because I misunderstand his flashlight wave. This causes him to waive me over. I play dumb tourist and say “huh?” to all his questions. He asks for my license. I tell him it’s with the guy that rented me the bike. He says, “Tourist?” and I say, “Yeah” in as John Wayne All-American English as possible. He lets me go.

I go straight back to the guesthouse and retire for the night. If I wander anymore, let it be me to sleep.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Funiculars are the most awesome mode of transportation ever. Magical even. If you get the chance ride one, you should.

Not So Stupid Tip: The Botanical Gardens are free, but they’re nothing to write home about. It is amusing to see plants totally out of place in the middle of what would otherwise be jungle. I can imagine the pine trees waking up one day, stretching out their leaves and thinking, “Where’s the snow?” or “cactuses sweating and thinking, “Is it just me or does it feel like I’m carrying all this water weight for nothing.” It’s a nice walk, but nothing that you can’t get at home.

If you come to Penang, come to eat the food. It’s different from most Asian food I’ve tried. A lot more Indian influence than I expected. One of the coolest things I’ve seen on this trip is the guys making drinks and roti at the stands. I sat there and ate and watched for an hour or so. I learned how to fold roti so that the meat permeates the bread instead of just filling it. I learned that when you pour hot tea you must pull the glass as far away from the pitcher as possible, perhaps to warm the tea or to aerate it. I discovered that hot drinks are made by adding boiling water to concentrations of tea, coffee, or whatever. Okay, I lied. I spent more than an hour watching. It was fun.

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