Back On Foot

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.

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Hitting the Streets

Day 20, 500 words, 31 days.

I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s been a long, exhausting day.

We arrived in Kolkata just after midnight. Given that we didn’t have any luggage with us, we assumed we could quickly file a claim for “lost and found” as was instructed to us by the Air Asia attendant in Kuala Lumpur, and then head straight for the hotel.

The Air Asia representative in Kolkata explained to us that we had to wait until all the baggage was claimed before we could file the report – even though we already knew that our luggage didn’t even make it on the plane. It was a policy they weren’t willing to compromise for us as we desperately tried to assert our Western-ness and explain how we needed to expedite things as much as possible to rest before our conference the day after.

Rules are rules.

We were at the airport for another hour longer than we had taken into account. By the time we booked a pre-paid cab to send us to the hotel, I didn’t even have the energy to feel the least bit frustrated. It was, what it was. I just needed to find a bed to plop upon, fast.

Two things I found surprising right as we stepped outside the airport: first, it was actually chilly. All the taxi men hanging around outside the airport for potential customers possessed scarves bundled around their necks, noses, and mouths. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. Granted, it was definitely a bearable kind of cold, the sort that you experience on an average evening in the Bay Area. But I was mightily surprised at the need for warmth in a place like India. I simply never imagined India to have a use for sweaters.

The second thing I noticed were the cabs.

These “Ambassador” model cabs had the look and feel of bumper cars belonging to to a bygone era. The short story I was told was that these British-manufactured vehicles were being churned out as such even after the Brits themselves had already left India. For whatever reason, India didn’t decide to upgrade these models and have continued to manufacture “Ambassadors” ever since. They are now an iconic staple to the gritty urban scene Kolkata’s streets have to offer.

It was well past midnight and hardly any cars on the road, which felt like another surprise. Our cab driver must have felt an absurd amount of freedom to maneuver his way around the maze of streets like a madman. He turned the steering wheel with such exaggerated movements, it was like watching a child  sail a boat, blindfolded. I was both wildly amused and genuinely frightened for our lives, alternatively. By God’s grace, after taking a route I wouldn’t be able to re-trace even if you handed me a satellite to navigate with, we made it to Chrome hotel.

I could barely sleep. I wasn’t sure whether it was the pre-workshop jitters, pulsing adrenaline, or the constant, cacophonous honking of horns I could hear outside the window – likely a combination of all three, and I figured I was in for a long night.

I managed about four hours of intermittent sleep, abruptly interrupted on numerous occasions throughout the night by noises out from the hallway or next door. Then, as insult to injury, I woke up about 15 minutes ahead of the time my alarm was supposed to ring, and I wasn’t getting back that time I had to spare.

Without getting into it here, by some miracle of heaven I got through my workshop. Equally surprising, and encouraging, was how generally engaged our participants were. We threw at them a lot of tips and terminology throughout the course of the day, and I commend them for their patience, and eagerness to learn. I was just glad I didn’t conk out halfway into it, myself.

We had just enough energy to venture out into town to find the nearest mall and pick up a few pieces of clothing to hold us over while we wait for our luggage, should it ever come. Getting around on foot and avoiding the whirlwind mix of cabs, buses, bikes, and rickshaws zooming in and out of traffic was, to say the least, a high-blood pressure inducing adventure. I can’t remember how many times I jaywalked tonight while cars rushed right at me, headlights flashing violently, as if to signal my demise. The horns, of course, were absolutely, non-stop, as if they were the only language that made sense on these streets. They hardly made any sense to me, and disorienting as it all was, I did my best to do as the locals did – I committed, crossed, and conquered.

There’s an authentic energy to this place that I only began to feel in full effect, after stepping out on its streets on foot. It is at once, both unapologetically intimidating, and inexplicably thrilling, walking these open streets, knowing full well how I really don’t belong on them, unattended. Perhaps it’s that strange and delicate balance struck when fear and excitement collide, and you have not the time or the energy to fully brace yourself for it, that make adventure exactly what it is – the purest sort of rush you can ever find.