My hips twisted to balance as I focused on keeping my feet planted, surfing with the movement of the train on the tracks. I was too intrigued to sit during the ride from Kuala Lumpur to Penang. I tried not to fumble my camera lenses as I switched them then held my camera up. I felt the tea harvesters pull me in. I gave myself over to the train, letting it have it’s way with me as I fought to stay upright. Giving myself over to the journey felt symbolic. Two Asian water buffalo wallowed in a hole. They chewed as they watched the train hurtle by. The jungle looked lime in the sunlight. Carsts rose as quickly as they fell, jetting skyward. Water dripped down them causing the rocks to turn an exotic black. Gold domes of mosques glinted in the distance, marking villages. This was why I had ventured half a world away, to be struck by the new. As quickly as it all appeared it disappeared from sight.
Travel As It Challenges You
My trip through Malaysia had a common thread that weaved through it’s fabric. Yes I had been on the hunt for beautiful gold and silver threaded batik scarves, but that wasn’t it. For as much as I was enjoying myself, Malaysia challenged me. I was consistently introduced to how women were treated in its culture. There were stark contrasts. One advertisement would show a teenage girl skateboarding, rocking it, with a message promoting feminine strength. I liked that. Two days later I found myself lowering my eyes respectfully as I observed the family dynamics of a wife with her husband and their special needs son. Her green eyes contrasted with her pink tudung that covered her hair. She had a beautiful and kind face. The mother was scolded for smiling at us and made to move seats. Her son vied for the attention of his father during the four hour train ride but dad looked out of the window at the carts and jungle. The Malaysian ticket checker came by, also wearing her tudung. I thought about what it might be like to live in a culture where a father or a husband’s word could carry so much weight.
Sixty one percent of Malaysians identify as being Muslim. Marriage arrangements and the blessing to work are typically determined by male figures in the family. Some families even engage in Bride Prices.
My first introduction to George Town protruded out like fingers into the Straight of Malacca. The bright sky and boardwalks lined with wooden houses sat as a backdrop as a boatman navigated his traditional skinny vessel. Riding by I had a feeling that has come harder and harder to come by as I’ve become more difficult to impress, “I want to go there”, I pointed to the leaning boardwalks. We rode the ferry into town.
Getting back to those jetties was an anomaly.We passed through hawker stands and restaurants that dated back many generations. Grandpas sat in their wheelchairs out on the street, observing the evening passersby. The entrance was guarded with a red shrine and smoke snaking it’s way through the air. Their ancestors sat on a shelf.
Stepping out onto the boardwalk my knees locked and quivered as I stared at the two, sometimes three inch gaps between the boards into the mud and water below. The boards groaned, especially when large crowds maneuvered around each-other carefully, as not to push the others into the water. Fresh sewage went back into the water below. A man wearing rubber boots slopped through the mud doing construction. Homes were converted into shops, selling trinkets to tourists. Their front doors were left open, their lives left on public display. Families sat on couches under the alters that honored the generations before them.
It baffled me why people chose to continue living this way, on an island with so many modern convinces. Then it struck me –heritage ran deep within these Jetty people. Why break up a clan that had lived together, survived together, argued together, for one hundred years?
Originally Chinese clans used scrap lumber that was piled in the slough to build houses. They were considered to be squatters by the government so they initially did not have access to amenities like power and running water. There were originally seven clans, each with their own boardwalk, but one has since fallen back into the water from which it came due to fire.
I thought about how circumstances change from generation to generation. The jetties are now a World Heritage UNESCO site and families are able to profit off of selling their wares to tourists.
And Then There’s The Real Reason We Went To Penang:
It’s no secret that one of the great world explorers of the modern time recently committed suicide. Earlier this year when I heard the news that my favorite travel hero had taken his own life. I took it hard. There was a void within me knowing that he was no longer somewhere out there in the universe; someone who I had never personally known, but felt so connected to through his art, his books, and his public thoughts.
Who else would introduce me to places that I had never thought of before?
One episode in particular resonated: George Town, Penang, Malaysia. We researched the hawker stands that Bourdain conversed at, tasting exotic dishes, seeming so happy.
And that’s why we went.
I looked around the food courts that he had been at years earlier, CF Hawker Centre, and Red Garden Food Paradise. I went from stall to stall trying to decide what my stomach had room for.
I had everything, Curry Mee, Laksa, various Saitai grilled meats, Fried Mushroom dumplings while sitting next to a man hand rolling them, snails, Dry Chili Frog (which pregnant Malaysian women apparently CRAVE), Claypot Chicken & Rice, Tiger Beer & all of the traditional Indian that I could devour . . .
I liked the Curry Mee, Laksa, and Claypot Chicken. Anything Indian is always at the top of my list, we eat it very frequently at home. But my FAVORITE find was Roti. Puffy magical dough, quickly cooked on a griddle, and served for breakfast with curry. Roti was one of those types of food that you wish was widely available when back at home. It’s one of the downsides to traveling, you can’t get some of the foods you find, and there’s NO WAY to make them as well.
But then I draw the line at octopus. I’ve never had anything as godawful as any kind of octopus. I’ve tried it all over, every way. You can’t disguise that taste.
But everything else I put into my mouth was insane, beautiful, perfect, making Penang one of, if not THE food capital of the world.
The lights reflected off of the white plastic table tops. I wondered if Bourdain’s Southeast Asian hawker experiences inspired him to bring the idea back to New York, influencing his colossally failed idea of opening a New York Market, Pier 57. He wanted to bring the world to the doorstep of his fellow people. His audience would go to New York. But they probably wouldn’t follow him to Malaysia. Part of him wanted them to, because they should. And then the other part of him wanted them, us, to stay home and leave places like Penang to be, unspoiled . . . no TShirt shops and no McDonalds.
We spent the entire time navigating from street food stand to stand, being the fat, white, spoiled Americans, hated by many, including the late Bourdain, and also myself. But to our credit, we wern’t walking around in our island print vacation shirts looking for Starbucks.
The rest of these pictures, as beautiful as they may be, are just a string of what we saw from place to place on our food journey around Penang. And a life chapter closes on a time of influence in my life by Bourdain, and we’re left to fend for ourselves, to discover for ourselves, on this life journey of devouring the unfamiliar.