Sunday, October 31, 2010

Postcard from Penang

The hills behind my building are where the storms roll in and as clouds begin to crawl down their slopes, I begin to think of hillstations and Somerset Maugham and gin on the veranda and malaria. They are green-covered; they look uninhabited and very, very nearby, so today I went off to see how close I could get to what appeared to be a place that could harbor tigers and the bones of Jim Thompson.

What I found was mint-chocolate ice cream that pretended to be gelato and suburbia that wouldn’t disgrace any residential community of Dade County. One-story cement houses with low-pitched roofs behind hurricane fences with paved yards had me ready to cut my throat within five minutes. They boded ill for what would be found on the hillsides, and I remembered the slopes of slightly grander suburban domiciles that I was shown when searching for a home in my first week. As I turned back and trudged down the empty sidewalk toward my home in Symphony Park, I realized how grateful I would have been in Bangkok for that amenity and tried not to wish for the community that would have clogged it solid on Chokchai Ruammit.

In my neighborhood on the edge of Georgetown, there is very little garbage. The food vendors probably thrive on gossip but they are discreet in their observations. They share a public dignity that isn’t unfriendly but is definitely unobtrusive. Thailand’s slapdash entrepreneurship seems a universe away.

And I do not miss it, but I miss people—the coffee guy with his baby, Nim and her Burmese assistant, the songtao driver who looks like Carabao, Victor, Don, and Jerry Hopkins, wonderful Nana, Khun Anusorn at the Villa Bookazine—and of course the damned cat.

Kinokuniya and grilled chicken I would import in a heartbeat given the chance. And the riverboats. Definitely motorcycle taxis. Cute shoes and handbags, but I can bring those back here, given the chance.

I don’t miss the selfish, greedy, cruel politicians who are ruining the country, or songtaos. Or the pervasive grey of dirty concrete, or the condos that are taking over the neighborhood in my corner of that city.

I will make a life here in Georgetown, at least for a year. But at the moment, I do not think I will find a home.

I know if I went out right now and got on a bus and went to the Indian section, I would immediately feel happy. But I don’t want to use that panacea up too fast because I need it to buoy me for eleven more months in this place.

And then? Beijing? Mukdahan? Who knows? Three months ago I had never been to Penang and now it’s my address—a long way from Anchor Point, Alaska.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sympathy for Pandora

I am addicted to natural light. I chalk this up to my years in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is 100 miles from the Arctic Circle and is pitch-black by mid-afternoon in winter, with the sun rising at around ten the next day. Put me in a dark room and after a week, I will tell you everything, including any lies you may want to hear, so I can feel light on my skin once more.

When I looked on the internet for a room in Penang that I could call home while I searched for a more lasting one, a window was my biggest requisite, followed closely by an en suite bathroom. My friend Judy had found both at a place called the Broadway Budget Hotel, in the Indian section of the city, and since that was an area that I loved, I booked a room there for a week.

My third-floor room turned out to be clean and had a huge bank of windows overlooking the street. During my first hours in it, I had a stunning view of a Hindu funeral procession and at twilight I watched the minaret of one of Georgetown’s largest mosques change from a stabbing white to a a pearlescent softness, washed in the pale blues and pinks and yellows of sunset.

The hotel is on the street that is the division between the Chinese and Indian parts of the city. Strings of green lights were being festooned from one side to the other for Deepavali and every evening a new strand of green illuminated the darkness. Chinese storefront cafes faced Indian tea stalls across the way and a woman at the Jolly Café introduced me to the restorative bite of nutmeg juice, showing me the fruit that it is made from. After years of loving the smell and taste of nutmeg, I had to come to a Chinese café after I turned 60 to learn that the spice comes from a small, golden orb that resembles an apricot and I became even more besotted with Penang.

One night I had trouble falling asleep, feeling as though little whispers of touch were roaming over my body. Using my mobile phone as a flashlight, I focused its dim beam on my arm—something on it was moving. I turned on the light and not only was there a flourishing colony of bugs on the bed with me, there was clear evidence under the fitted sheet and below my pillow that my restless turning during the past hour had killed many others of their tribe. Small brown spots dotted the cotton bedding I’d brought with me and had used to replace the hotel’s polyester sheet and pillowcases and scratchy terrycloth blanket.

The living insects retreated when the bedroom light was on and I switched on both the fan and air conditioner, hoping they would dislike the chilled rush of air. Unfortunately they seemed not to care. Soon there were even more of them, all different sizes, some of them reddish-brown and swollen with blood which I knew couldn’t be mine, because there were no bites anywhere on my body.

There were too many to kill, although I tried. I flushed some down the toilet and trapped a few under a glass turned upside down in an ashtray. I went downstairs to the reception desk, hoping that I could change rooms but there was nobody there. The office was dark and an open doorway allowed anyone who wanted shelter to come up the staircase and into the “secure” hotel. I went back to my room and locked my door. I put on street clothes and lay on top of the king-size sheet I used as a blanket. I zipped my open bags shut and prayed the bugs hadn’t found refuge within them yet. I tried to sleep with the light on and the air conditioner at full-blast. Shortly after the first call to prayer floated from the mosques and the night faded into grey, the bugs retreated and I dozed for a couple of hours, jerking awake at intervals to be sure I was alone.

I gave the maid my bedding and every scrap of clothing that had been lying around the room to wash and iron and the management put me on another floor that they swore was free of vermin. I checked the mattress for little dots of blood, found none, and tried to relax. That night something bit me and my arms and legs were soon covered with tidy lines of swollen skin that itched unmercifully. I turned on the light, saw nothing, and was sure it was some form of gnat. I put on a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of slacks and slathered every exposed skin cell with lavender oil, but still new portions of my body continued to flare into wild itching and new welts appeared under my clothes.

The next day I googled bed bugs.

As I already knew, those were the insects in my former room and photos on the internet confirmed that. What was even more horrible was that my body was covered with their bites, which are retroactive. There are people who have no reaction to bed bug bites and there are those who react strongly to them. With 93 bites that I could see and more under my shoulder blades and on my buttocks, I quite obviously fell in the camp of strong reactors. The bites, I learned, could linger as long as a week, as did the power of the itch, which could, Google told me, be eased by antihistamines.

At this point I was honestly terrified. I had found an apartment and the thought of carrying bed bugs into it made me want to vomit. I inspected everything I owned and found no trace of insects. After the first night when my bites erupted, no new ones came to join them and there was no trace of bugs at night. Once again, I tried not to feel crazed.

When I left the hotel to move to my apartment, I handed my suitcases to a taxi driver and glanced down as he took them. There, moving across the smaller bag, was a bed bug. I reached out instinctively and crushed it with my thumbnail. The driver put the bags in the trunk of his taxi and I sat in sheer misery as we drove to my new home.

My suitcases never left the hallway of my building. I put everything within them in the small entryway before I unlocked the door to my apartment. Everything that could be laundered I put in a drawstring bag and tied it tightly. All of my other possessions went into a bathroom where the white tile would clearly reveal any bugs that might crawl over it. I closed the door, took my clothing to a laundry right outside the apartment building that had a dryer big enough for me to sleep in. Then I threw away every bag I owned, including the ones that had held my netbook and camera—and my wonderful green handbag that I had bought in Bangkok and loved.

There are wooden dining chairs in my apartment and metal ones on the balcony. This is where I sat for the first week of my occupancy. The two cushy leather sofas were off limits to me; I inspected them every evening, praying that the night I met my landlord and sat on one of them hadn’t led to an infestation. I peered at the tiles of my bathroom religiously and have never in my life before been quite so happy to see little red ants. I leaped upon every little speck of dirt and moving particle of lint in all six rooms of my apartment—in fact I still do—and it was a week before I slept on one of the beds.

Everything that I painfully carried in heavy suitcases on the train to Penang is still imprisoned in clear, snap-topped, plastic boxes. I have opened one of them once, a week ago, out on the balcony with the sliding door firmly shut. I removed camera cords, looked them over with the piercing gaze of an electronic microscope, used them, and then snapped them back into smaller plastic containers.

I’ve been in my new home for three weeks with no appearance of bed bugs. At night I can be awakened by the ceiling fan in my bedroom when it blows a thread from the comforter against my skin or when a hair falls from my head onto my neck. As I write this, my skin literally crawls and I check for small moving objects.

Every day I yearn for my dictionary and the wonderful guide to Penang’s architecture and the Teach Yourself Malay study guide I bought soon after my arrival at the Broadway Budget Bedbug Bonanza. The things I carried from Bangkok are without any value and are all treasures—a small carved box my children gave me for Mother’s Day a lifetime ago, a chess set from my youngest son, a small wooden figure from Africa that my oldest son bought when he worked at Pier One, photographs…all snapped away in quarantine.

For almost a month I’ve stared, with a mixture of longing and dread, at boxes that hold traces of a history that I cherish. The myth of Pandora is the only thing that keeps me from opening them, along with the memory of things crawling through the darkness, feasting on my skin.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where Air Means Water

“Every few months there will be a water bill,” my landlord explained. “and if it isn’t paid, they will shut off the water to the apartment.”

I had been in my lovely new apartment for a week when a clump of mail came addressed to my landlord. One of the missives was a postcard with red letters, obviously a bill, but for a trifling amount of what amounted to six US dollars. The postcard was in Bahasa Malaysian and was from some company that obviously dealt in air conditioners, since Air was a prominent part of their name. I put the mail in a safe place and got ready for my first house guest.

The day before my friend Lee arrived, a notice went up that on the first day of his visit, water service to my floor would be suspended while repairs were done. Being an Alaskan homesteader by upbringing, I filled two large buckets with water for hygienic purposes, bought a gallon of drinking water, and Lee and I both made sure to get up early for showers on the morning of the appointed day.

As far as we could tell, there was no interruption in our supply and the next morning I foolishly dumped one bucket of my improvised reservoir. Soon after I did this, I had no running water in my apartment.

When it was still in abeyance the next day, I began to feel vexed. Lee had wisely departed by that time and I used the last of my reserved water for a very unsatisfying shower. With a sink full of dirty coffee cups, I went down to see when the building would restore my water.

It wasn’t my building—it was the red postcard saying that if the bill weren’t paid, I would lose all rights to cleanliness. Air in Bahasa means water, and if I live to be 110, I will still have that piece of linguistic competence implanted firmly in my memory.

After I had traveled downtown to pay the bill, made many, many phone calls, and hurled myself upon the kindness of the building management staff, this morning a man wearing an official water department vest appeared at my door to remove the clamp on my water meter. “Do you have a pipe wrench?” he asked with a very sweet smile, and finding that I didn’t, began what sounded like an impotent round of tapping on the restraining apparatus that deprived me of water.

“Turn on your tap and see what happens,” he told me, and I became grateful I didn’t have a pipe wrench because I just might have used it to hit him. But in seconds he became world peace, a cure for cancer, and Santa Claus all rolled into one body, as water gushed from my bathroom sink and for the first time in almost 48 hours, I could flush my toilet.

Air=water, cleanliness=sanity, and the Penang Water Department=I have no words. All I know is for a matter of six dollars aided by my linguistic idiocy, they quite efficiently showed me what life would be like without a functioning water supply, and believe me, it isn’t pretty. I've always had an affinity for water, but now I worship it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thank Heaven You're Not French, Ethel--Have Another Bag of Them Freedom Fries

If a male journalist led off a feature article explaining the news that as part of their post-natal care, French women are offered “a state-paid extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer,” readers might assume a certain degree of prurient interest on his part. When a woman begins a front-page International Herald Tribune article with this fact, and then follows it up with “French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job, and often, a figure to die for,” it’s forgivable to think there’s a tiny bit of guillotine-sharpening going on.

“What they do not have is equality,” the article trumpets, pointing out that in a recent gender equality report, France lags behind the U.S., Japan, Jamaica, and Kazakhstan. French men occupy 82% of their country’s parliamentary seats and earn 26% more than their female counterparts. French women spend twice as much time on domestic duties than men do, while popping out more babies and popping in more antidepressants than women in any other European country. (“More babies,” as the article admits later, means an average of 2 children, rather than the 1.5 in the rest of the EU—which erases the brood mare image that the reporter offers in her opening paragraphs.) “They worry about being feminine, not feminist, and men often display a form of gallantry predating the 1789 revolution.”

The editor in chief of Elle complains “We have the right to do anything as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner, and look immaculate. We have to be superwomen.”

Let’s stop and sob for our poor oppressed French sisters—women whose government guarantees four months of paid maternity leave, the right to take time off or reduce hours at work until the baby turns three—and don’t forget those bouts of “perineal therapy.” French families receive “a generous family allowance” that kicks in after the second child, plus tax deductions—and France provides free all-day nursery school with childcare from 8:30 am until 6:30 at night for “toddlers as young as 2.” Oh the horror, the horror. To top off this grisly picture, every day “French women spend on average 5 hours and 1 minute on child care and domestic tasks, while men spend 2 hours and 7 minutes.” And in France there is a Baccarat crystal ceiling, or as one Frenchwoman puts it, “a patriarchal corporate culture.”

I come from a country that has yet to pass a constitutional amendment that would guarantee American women equal rights, and where the Roe versus Wade decision teeters on the brink of extinction with every Supreme Court justice chosen by a Republican president. I never totaled up the amount of time I spent after work on “childcare and domestic tasks,” but I’m quite sure it was hovering around that average of 5 hours and 1 minute, and equality of pay in my workplace fell under the category of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At that time of my life, I remembered reading long ago about the oppressed women in Communist Russia who worked all day and then went home and worked some more. As a small girl in the 50s, I thought that was horrible. As a wife and mother in the 80s, I found that was my life.

American women continue what seems to be a losing battle for subsidized—if not free—childcare, for paid maternity leave, for pediatric health care that won’t beggar their bank accounts. The last time I checked, the House and Senate were male-dominated and corporations headed by women were still a back-patting anomaly. Many American women have figures that are potentially deadly, rather than “to die for,” because the food they can afford to put on their tables is highly processed, flavorless, and fattening. Macaroni and cheese, anyone? Or how about a nice tuna casserole for that “delicious dinner…”

We Americans might outrank French women in equality to men, but they have advantages we can only dream of. Healthy vaginal muscles may be one benefit of being French and female, but that is far outweighed by—oh free childcare, perhaps. It would be interesting to see a similar profile of American working mothers in the IHT. One thing is certain, if such a story were published, it wouldn’t lead off with the state of our vaginas. Because we have superior gender equality, n’est-ce pas?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Settling In

I came to Penang with the romantic idea of living in one of its candy-colored buildings at the edges of Georgetown’s historic area. I had been sure I wanted to make my home in the upper reaches of a shophouse there until I visited one that my friend Elizabeth had rented in Thonburi. Except for on the front of the building, the house had no windows. It was sandwiched tightly between two similar residences and it felt dark and stuffy. As I watched her wrestle with the gate that secured the place, I knew I was made of far weaker stuff than she. I need light and air or I shrivel up into a torpid lump of depression.

In Bangkok, renting an apartment is as easy as getting a room in a hotel. In Penang I would probably still be homeless if not for my pal Victor, who introduced me to a friend of his who grew up in this city. He gave me the name of a friend who is a Penang resident, born and bred, and that is the only reason I have a place to live today.

It didn’t surprise me that there were no rental listings in the daily paper, since the internet has killed that form of advertising all over the world. What did surprise me was the lack of apartment listings online for the area that I wanted, and the neighborhoods that did have vacancies could have been on the dark side of the moon for all I knew. Photographs yielded images of gargantuan apartment blocks and my optimism wavered. “I’ll give it a week,” I told myself, but the property agent I contacted by email was elusive and the one that I was introduced to by friendly waiters in an Indian restaurant seemed more eager to take me to dinner than anything else.

But there was Lynn, the friend of a friend. If I didn’t think, mistakenly as it turned out, that she herself was a rental agent, I would never have imposed upon her. By the time I found out that I was wrong, I already knew that she was a someone I liked and wanted as a friend. As was her oldest sister, whom we went to visit and who lived in an apartment that I yearned for.

It was in one of the characterless blocks, about three miles from the historic part of Georgetown, but it was full of light with a view from the balcony and cross-ventilation in addition to large ceiling fans in every room. And it had three bedrooms and two baths and a functioning kitchen—all for the price of a Bangkok studio. The neighborhood was thick with food vendors and when we went out to explore, I found that this area brimmed with the same life I had loved when I first came to Bangkok. There wasn’t a Starbucks or a MacDonald’s in sight, although an Old Town White Coffee, a local chain, had wifi and air-conditioning right across the road.

Lynn’s sister Jessie is the neighborhood’s unofficial goodwill ambassador who knows everyone in the area and she stretched out her antenna to find a place for me in her building. I was in Georgetown for exactly a week before I saw the apartment that is now my home.

It is fully furnished, right down to the towels and flatware, has a washing machine and two large televisions and a view from the 21st floor. The “characterless” building is clean and friendly and has a covered patio area with free wifi and a pool. Food is only steps away from the entrance and there’s great bus service to downtown. A small variety store sells me garbage bags and dish towels and other necessities—the lady who runs it is quite chatty and she speaks serviceable English.

After making an excursion to the area I had intended to live in, where I had a late lunch at an area of food stalls that adjoined the sea wall, I stopped in at her little shop in search of small glass bowls to use as soap dishes.

“Where did you go today?” she asked me and I immediately translated that to the Thai question “Bpai nai ma?” The world shrunk a tiny bit and my nomadic heart sprouted a tentative but hopeful tendril of a root.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Do You Take Sugar and Margarine in Your Coffee?

Supermarkets as my friend Katia has already pointed out on her blog, Scribbly Katia at, are emotional minefields for the unwary expatriate. A friend once suggested that the title of my autobiography could be The Woman Who Cried in Supermarkets, and she had a very good point. When I first moved to Bangkok, the sight of Oreos reminded me of packing lunch boxes for my sons and I would mist over. When I returned to the states, the same thing happened when I saw Thai orchids at a checkout stand. I learned to carry sunglasses along with my shopping lists to hide any surprise attacks of tears.

Yesterday I went to a supermarket near my new neighborhood to find coffee--if not beans that could be ground on the spot (since I have yet to buy my own coffee grinder), at least instant coffee that had no sugar or powdered creamer in the mix and that wasn't made by Nestle. This seemed achievable because I had drunk many cups of what Georgetown calls "local coffee", a powdered coffee that comes black and strong in the cup, with flavor and a real caffeine kick.

No beans, no grinder, but bags upon bags heaped in middle of the aisle displays--finally I found one that said "No sugar." I hurled it into my cart and then felt suspicious for some unknown reason. I looked at the list of ingredients, which were mercifully in English. "Coffee," it announced, "sugar, margarine..." and there was something else that followed but at that point my brain froze. Butter tea I had heard of, and it did indeed make me queasy at the thought, but margarine in my coffee?

I gulped hard. My defenses fell. Suddenly I remembered the coffee bean corners at Tops and Villa supermarkets in Bangkok and I was prey to mist and a weird sort of longing for that particular aspect of the city I couldn't wait to leave.

I carried on. I found the aisle where there was powdered coffee in jars and some of it was coffee unaccompanied by any sweetener or milk impersonator. I chose a jar that said Indochine and prayed hard that it would be drinkable. Then I carefully avoided any aisle that might carry memory, finished my shopping, and faced the challenge of finding my way back to the escalators, always a test in a new shopping mall.

Georgetown is proud of its White Coffee--a mixture like 3-in-1 but more caffeinated. It's a city with coffee stalls and shops on every square inch of space and it is to its credit that Starbucks is only in a few places that cater to the expat community and upscale travelers. Far be it from me to denigrate local specialties but when I go back out today in search of coffee I can drink with pleasure, I hope I can accomplish this without tears.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Eating in Penang

Yesterday I found a cafe with coffee ground from beans and many different variations of hot buttered toast. Only someone who has spent time wrestling with ice cold butter and thin white bread that has been essentially warmed-- not toasted-- will understand the pure joy of having thick slices of bread that have been toasted and then spread with butter and the topping before being brought to the table. I went back today for the coffee and the bright cleanliness of Trois Canon Cafe--and oh all right for the toast--augmented with butter and kaya (coconut milk and sugar cooked down to a spreadable consistency.)

Yes, I like "authentic" as much as any backpacker--but who says authentic has to be grimy and uncomfortable all the time? For my first week in George Town I had coffee at a Chinese open-air place across the street and that was fun, but it's equally pleasant to read the paper over cups of decent coffee and a plate of comfort food as I ease into my day.

Last evening as the day cooled, I roamed around taking snapshots of doors and windows and old tilework and was drawn to a house painted a glowing shade of pale green. It was a place that served three dishes--and one of them was rojak. This is a splendid salad made with chunks of mango and perhaps pineapple and vegetables and thin slivers of something that tasted like anchovies. I can't be more precise than that because everything was obscured with a dark brown dressing with the consistency of molasses and which was salty and chili-hot and sweet and tangy. I can't wait to go back and have the laksa--Malaysia's signature soup--and the cendol which is a dessert made with chunks of ice and other lovely things.

My new friend Jessie, who is so valiantly trying to help me find an apartment, took me to an outdoor food hawker center in what I hope will soon be my new neighborhood. The mussel pancake/omelette that is called hoi taud in Thailand is called fried oysters here and is served with a lovely chili sauce rather than the sweet syrupy one that accompanies the Thai version. Heaven on a plate.

Everybody who comes to Penang probably eats at The End of the World (after I did, I discovered it's in Lonely Planet.) It's at the end of a 20 km bus ride from George Town, a gorgeous route along a twisty road that hugs the coast, and its food is worth the trip. A seaweed soup held fish balls that were lighter than any I've ever had before, and the kailan with garlic tasted as though it had been steamed in saltwater.

And to top it all off, what with mango lassis and fresh fruit juices and iced nutmeg juice, I haven't had a beer since my night on the train with the Cosmopolitan Dutchman. Maybe I'll eventually rediscover my lost waistline, but with all the food there is to try on this island, I truly doubt it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Penang Funeral

Start from the bottom photo and work your way up.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Give Me a Hot-Pink Coffin and Pelt It with Rose Petals

It had been a long haul on the train from Bangkok to Butterworth. I had only two suitcases but just one of them fit under my seat. The other jutted into most of the aisle until a railway attendant put it on a shelf in the back of the car. "For us to use but for you okay," he told me.

I had barely managed to get the bags onto the train. The small one was full of books, which was stupid but will surprise nobody who knows me, and it was crushingly heavy, while the larger one was light but bulky as all hell. A man had carried one to my seat when I put my belongings in the car, and then helped me when I reached the immigration checkpoint on the border.Two jovial Australians each took one as we went to the ferry to Penang, but even after these many kindnesses from strangers, my back and shoulders ached. I had slept fitfully on the trip down and once I reached my hotel room, all I wanted was a shower and a nap.

The shower was great, the pillows felt as though someone had recently chiseled them from a quarry, and the bedding was all polyester. I squirmed and tossed and felt deep sympathy for the Princess who was kept awake by a pea. I had just lapsed into a form of relaxation when I heard something that sounded like gunfire. "Impossible, this isn't Bangkok," I muttered but then there it was again, repeatedly--a barrage of small explosions.

I got up, went to the window and saw a van, covered with flowers, closely followed by another and a trio of drummers. It's a wedding, I thought and grabbed my camera. But the next thing I saw was a brilliantly pink box tied to a sturdy pole and carried by a large number of men. It was quite obviously a coffin but the mood was so festive it was hard for me to believe I was witnessing a funeral procession.

People scattered flowers in front of the coffin-bearers and a long red rectangle was carefully placed some distance ahead of it and ignited, setting off a jubilant round of firecrackers. Then the coffin was untied from the pole, the men backed away, and a group of men and women repeatedly circumnavigated the coffin, throwing rose petals and bathing it with water from an earthenware jug. They halted, the jug was dashed to the pavement, the coffin was pushed into the back of one of the vans, the people got into cars, and everything moved off down the street. All that was left was pieces of the broken jug, flower petals and remnants of firecrackers.

And that was my first hour in Penang.