For reasons I won’t disclose here, our car is in the shop for some minor repairs, and so we have been relying on public transportation the past few days.
Our little car, a Viva model from Perodua, a local auto manufacturer in Malaysia, has served as our main means of getting around Penang. We’ve taken it around the entire island, all the way up to Cameron Highlands, and shuttled it to and from the airport, somehow squeezing into it visiting friends and entire families into what feels like the local equivalent of a Mini Cooper (or so I’d like to think).
But currently, it is out of commission, and so we’ve returned to life being car-less, as it was for us when we first moved to Penang over half a year ago.
It goes without saying, how much of a hassle it can be without a way of getting around on your own. This is true, and nothing brings home this truth more than having the oppressive heat of these rain-less days weigh upon you while you wait for a bus that’s sure to be overflowing with passengers.
The only solace is the (at times, unbearably) frigid air-con to cool you off inside the bus, and the relief of not having to navigate the traffic at rush hour.
But I’ve discovered something else during our car-less escapades.
Finding new things, by bus or on foot, makes the process feel fun again.
Being utterly dependent on a shaky transportation system and having to meander about the maze that is Georgetown without the guidance of a GPS has made our little excursions around town actually feel like we’re visiting Penang, for the first time. As if, we didn’t actually live here, ourselves.
There is a freshness to the experience that I had forgotten, having gotten used to feeling so sheltered in my little car, weaving in and around one-way streets I’d never imagine traversing on foot.
Even the streets we had been meaning to pass through were likely missed many, many times, whizzing by in our car, determined to beat the jam and get home.
When walking, the adventure can’t help but last a lot longer. And you don’t really know where you might end up, or what you’ll run into.
Today, for example. I wasn’t counting on having what might very well be the best Char Kuey Teow you can find on the island. But being on foot led us down Lorong Selamat, and eventually, to the lady in the red, mushroom-looking hat – a very visible, trademark look for the woman responsible for producing one of the best, staple dishes Penang has to offer.
We took streets we had never taken before – little inroads connecting the major thoroughfares we usually drive up and down upon by car. I stumbled upon a unique view of one of the tallest buildings in town – KOMTAR, walking down Lorong Madras. I see this building all the time, but not in this angle, and not framed so symmetrically as I had seen it, today.
Eventually, we ended up on Burma Road, which we usually take when driving back from town towards home. But it had been so long since we were actually walking down this road, on foot, stopping at little shops we had forgotten were there – like Ming Xiang Tai, makers of our favorite salted pastry, the Tamun biscuit.
We were so comfortable taking our time that we even made an impromptu trip to the nearby Starbucks – which is something we never do, together. (I doubt we’d ever actually drive to one, unless I needed to get work done)
Yes, there were, of course, inconveniences.
We picked the wrong day to finally visit Bangkok Lane in Pulau Tikus. We got off the bus, only to find all the shops closed on Sunday. Then, we paid nearly a full fare for a bus ride that lasted all of 5 minutes. And, it goes without saying, that riding a packed bus, sticky from your own sweat, doesn’t make for the most comfortable coziness.
Still, these were not problems capable of spoiling what had otherwise been a fine afternoon. We have had far, far worse experiences waiting for the bus (for hours!) in the past.
We couldn’t have picked a better time of day to set out for the city – that pocket of time between the end of lunch and the beginning of dinner. The pulse of the city that beats at its peak at midday and again, at dusk, can, at times, be an overwhelming sort of energy (for us introverted types anyway).
Catching Penang at rest, with the sun laying low readying for its own escape into the horizon is like experiencing a quieter, subtler sort of magic. It is the time of day when dilapidated buildings look even more historic, and easy-going cart pushers trudge along more slowly. Motorcycle riders appear less aggressive, as if they, too, are still waking from their afternoon slumber.
The more I’m on foot, discovering this enchanting city, the more I realize how impossible it is to appreciate Penang as fully, and as slowly, when I’m driving.
In my car, the town becomes a stressful, anxiety-inducing, pollution-emanating maze of one-way streets, crowded with obnoxious jaywalkers.
It’s no wonder pedestrians look far more at ease than the drivers do. They’re in on a secret I won’t soon forget, now that I remembered what it’s like to be on foot. And there’s really no point in saying more, now that I’ve come to know it – it’s just best you find out for yourself.